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Roger Brown


Chain Reaction: when you hear this sound you will be dead

Oil on canvas
72.25 x 96 in. (183.515 x 243.84 cm)
Gift of the Kathryn C. Wanlass Foundation

Throughout his career Roger Brown addressed all manner of adversities in late-twentieth-century life, from the exploding buildings of his Disasters series of 1972 to the horrors of HIV/AIDS—which took his life—and a wide range of other issues. The concerns he expressed in the twenty-nine paintings he made in 1978 included weather events both bene cent and dire, vertiginous skyscrapers, sex in the city, calamities (from a car crash to an assassination), and a commanding, bird’s-eye view of Washington, DC. Political, social, and current events were never far from his thoughts.

Chain Reaction reflects the general sense of angst that permeates much of Brown’s work. A stylized nuclear blast dominates an undulating landscape, with the infrastructure of life arrayed around it: a small city at the epicenter, and houses, barns, trucks, and buses further afield. A haze, presumably radiation, rains down on the landscape behind the blast and drifts into menacing red clouds in the distance. Tiny figures flee, but the enormity of the mushroom cloud signals little chance for their survival.

Brown teases the viewer, however, wrapping the details of the nuclear explosion in a quiltlike composition, with its associations of comfort and warmth. Through its satirical title the painting contains a Strangelovian strain of irony, underscored by the chilling beauty (when viewed from the safe distance of a painting, photograph, or film) of a nuclear explosion. There’s also a suggestion of the phallic/ejaculatory motif that Brown often inserted into his compositions. It’s hard to say whether Chain Reaction is one of Brown’s many prescient intuitions (the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred the following year) or a deadpan reflection on the hard fact of Cold War–era thermonuclear anxiety.

Lisa Stone

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