With a distinctive blend of acerbic critique, absurdist humor, and indefatigable energy, Lex Brown probes the underside of popular culture. In her videos and performances, Brown and her collaborators take on a multifarious array of television personalities, social media influencers, and advertising clichés—their identities in perpetual, shape-shifting motion. For these works, she draws from the linguistic tropes, iconography, and mannerisms that proliferate in the attention economy, echoing and recapitulating this syntactic logic through clowning and improvisation techniques. With raucous satire and ample hyperbole, Brown illuminates the many contradictions and traumas that haunt the subconscious of American society.
Her imagined sci-fi worlds and fantastical storylines become vehicles for searing subversion that simultaneously elicit hilarity and disquiet.
Brown’s one-woman operetta Focacciatown (2017) and its sequel Focacciatown: Reloaded (2019) tackle such pertinent subjects as racial profiling, artificial intelligence, media bias, and the distortion of truth. For this work, Brown single-handedly performs a motley cast of characters including husband-and-wife business partners Antoine Antwon Anton Jenkins and Arial Black, their daughter and social media influencer Brioche (pronounced bree-AH-shee), an “unidentified black man with a bag of chips,” and a newscaster named Melanie. The narrative follows the family as they plan to organize a party for their investors, when the “unidentified man” arrives on the scene. Perceiving him to be an “armed assailant,” Jenkins shoots and murders him, yet Brioche later discovers him to be her long-lost brother. Melanie reports on the story, which evokes accounts of recent U.S. shootings, notably that of 17-year-old high school student Trayvon Martin, as well as nightclub bouncer Alejandro Nieto, who was shot by police while eating a burrito and tortilla chips.
In Foccaciatown, Brown fluently, and with abundant stamina, switches between her characters, adapting voice patterns and mannerisms to suit each persona and so that the audience stays with the plot. In performing all characters, Brown illuminates the possibility of identifying with each and all of the players involved. In past video works, such as Lip Gloss Alurt (2017), the artist similarly plays an array of individuals—from an embodied artificially intelligent voice assistant, to a home shopping network host named Mananda pitching her latest line of pink Realtree robes called “Klan Koture,” and a creature reminiscent of the Snapchat dog filter who speaks by humming with its tongue out and clumsily stacks foam cinderblocks. All of these individuals seem in one way or another stuck. At one point the AI voice assistant announces: “You can say things to me like ‘help’ or ‘I am lost’” at the same time as the dog character realizes that its arm is stuck in a cinderblock and flicks off the concrete wall behind it.
Brown’s work has often been compared to that of Ryan Trecartin, for her quick-paced dialogue, dizzying narratives, and overwhelming visual effects symptomatic of the post-information age. Yet she also has affinities with Kalup Linzy’s early melodramatic sagas and artists such as Alex Bag and Cheryl Donegan whose work addresses the omnivorous media experience of television. However, Brown finds her greatest influences outside of the art circuit, such as Tracey Ullman’s sketch comedy show Tracey Takes On… (1996-99) in which Ullman performs a rotating cast of characters as riotous social commentary, or Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman shows, which use text from interviews to reconstruct performative portraits of American life.
Even when she is not performing, Brown implicates the response of the viewer in her work. When opening the page for her YouTube channel, for example, a video pops up titled Artist Discovers the Internet +PLUS+ Special Giveaway!!, in which Brown addresses viewers directly, declaring “It occurred to me: in eight years of posting videos I’ve never actually talked to you…we’ve never had this connection happening.” Or in her exhibition Animal Static at the Kitchen in New York (2019), all works were activated by motion sensors, so that viewers’ proximity signaled her videos to play and the lights to illuminate her drawings.
In her recent show at Recess in Brooklyn, The Inside Room (2019), Brown further blurred the distinctions between performer and audience, inviting the public to collaborate with her on the creation of a television show. The final episode, which was aired in a “binge party” on the last day of the exhibition, echoes the spry pace and surreal storylines of previous works by Brown, yet expands on her improvisational style by working with strangers in collaborative play to draft scripts, act, and film. Her “actors” are typically cast against types: two teenage boys are prospective buyers of a self-driving car; a very young kid plays a judge in a case where employees are accused of spending their nonprofit’s money on hot stone massages. To add to the complexity, the players’ roles keep shifting so that individuals share the identities of multiple characters.
Focacciatown Reloaded, 2019 (live performance with Molly Joyce and Liz Faure), The Kitchen, New York Photo: Alejandro Guzman
Remind Me Later, 2019 Courtesy: the artist and Deli Gallery
Wave Sandwichll, 2019 Courtesy: the artist and Deli Gallery
In contrast to Brown’s videos, her drawings evoke a slower pace, and are rendered in dense applications of colored pencil. As with her videos and performances, these drawings hone in on overlooked behaviors and infrastructures that permeate the everyday. Many of them contain her writing (Brown is also a published author) in kaleidoscopic and richly-textured compositions. A series of drawings comprising her show at Kate Werble Gallery in New York, They Flew to Planet Nova (2020), depict suburban architectures such as McMansions and data centers in the Washington D.C. suburbs where Brown grew up. While seemingly banal, these edifices are steeped in political power dynamics such as the troubling U.S. housing bubble and the looming presence of data and national security companies. Like much of her work, her drawings address blatant social issues and sobering truths, yet do so with an intrepid honesty that reminds us of those fundamental idiosyncrasies we all share, and which keep us human. One of the statements in a text-based drawing from Brown’s exhibition at The Kitchen has stayed with me since, as it embodies the humor, sincerity, and razor-sharp critique that her work propagates:
“SLAVERY; IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE. NOW OR LATER OR ANYTIME COMES A FEEBLE ATTEMPT AT MANUAL OVERRIDE OF THE SYSTEM. ALL OF THE PLANETS ARE MOVING YET NONE OF THEM ARE ALIVE AND TREES ARE ALWAYS GROWNING ALL OF THE TIME.”
LEX BROWN is an artist, vocalist, and writer whose work plays with the scale of emotional experience in relation to large systems of social and economic organization. She has exhibited at the New Museum, the High Line, the International Center of Photography, the Munchmuseet and The Kitchen. Consciousness, a survey of Brown’s work spanning the past eight years, is newly available from GenderFail. MARGOT NORTON is Curator at the New Museum, New York. With Jamillah James, she is curating the 2021 New Museum Triennial, and recently curated exhibitions with Sarah Lucas, Mika Rottenberg, Diedrick Brackens, and Carmen Argote at the New Museum; the group exhibition The Same River Twice at the Benaki Museum in Athens, Greece; and the Georgian Pavilion with artist Anna K.E. at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
CREDITS: Video: Focacciatown: Reloaded , 2019, performed at The Kitchen, 41:00 mins
Meriem Bennani has been developing a shape-shifting practice of films, installations and immersive environments, interlacing references to globalized popular culture with the vernacular and traditional representation of her native Moroccan culture and visual aesthetics that she captures with her iPhone. Text by Martha Kirszenbaum