I feel a slight discomfort when writing about the work of Stanley Brouwn, who passed away in May at the age of 81. For while Brouwn’s artistic legacy continues to inform contemporary reflections on relational and scaled perspectives in an increasingly regulated world, he objected to his work being described or documented (hence the lack of images accompanying this review). Many obituaries described Brouwn as an elusive artist whose practice was distinctly marked by his own absence. But he remains present, even in his dematerialized, disembodied works, which while minimal and emblematic, are always rooted in reality. With his own body as the central reference, Brouwn uses personal mappings and recordings to methodically document the experience of his body as it moves through space.
Staged at Jan Mot, the first exhibition of Brouwn’s work since his death conforms to the austere formalism that was the artist’s lifework. A careful selection of nine works on paper, made between 1962 and 2003, occupy the four walls of the gallery. Adhering to the artist’s insistence on the work’s ability to speak for itself, the exhibition remains untitled, unmediated and undocumented.
Upon entry, following the walls in a clockwise direction, one encounters the most recent work in the exhibition: 1 x 1 Ell Divided in 8 Triangles (2003). In this abstract geometric drawing, each of the square’s sides is based on the length of Brouwn’s forearm from fingertips to elbow. In lieu of standardized measurements (metres, feet) the artist often puts his own body forward, using different limbs as references of size (sb-foot, sb-step, sb-ell). Even in a work such as this, which appears to be conceptually detached from reality, he suggests the possibility of a space – seemingly abstract but structured by a human body – inside which one can amble or get lost; a mirroring of the way Brouwn freely approached space in the real world.
On the other side of the room are two works from the seminal early 1960s series ‘This Way Brouwn’. It is made up of doodles drawn by pedestrians who Brouwn asked for directions, and whose simple maps he later appropriated by stamping them with the title of the series, adding an administrative touch. At Jan Mot, one sheet is left blank by a passer-by who didn’t know the itinerary. The sheets, either marked or untouched, not only highlight the social dimension of walking, but also point to the subjective experience of distance and geography as opposed to the standardized conventions of cartography and topography. In One Step (747 mm) (1981), Brouwn foregrounds the importance of the foot in direct contact with the earth. With a strong devotion to precision, the drawing represents each millimetre of a metre, from one to 1000. Only the number 747 is underlined in red, representing a single physical step; a private unit with which to re-read space.
The works presented at Jan Mot coldly undermine the possibility of immediate experience, suggesting that real life events occur outside of institutionalized frameworks and in relation to them. Yet despite (or because of) the dry aesthetic, I catch myself chuckling at Brouwn’s 1 mm 1:1/379 (1977), a single ‘millimetre’ rescaled. A sly sense of humour permeates the artist’s appropriation of bureaucratic language, which he manipulated toward his own ends. Though Brouwn may have slipped away for good, his work continues to reinforce the importance of lived space in an increasingly shrinking world; a time-space compression wherein the standardization of experience ushers a loss of meaning. Most importantly, however, the works in this exhibition astutely remind us of the scalability of relations, the idea that all things are read in relation to one another, rather than according to absolute models.
First published in Issue 191