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Jonathan Brown and the New Movement in Mosaics

Jonathan Brown, "Jungle Playground" (detail) (2008), imported glass tile and custom grout, 5 ft. by 8 ft.
(Photo: Craig Byron) 

By JEFFREY GRUNTHANER, September 2019

The works of Houston-based mosaic artist Jonathan Brown are often found in hospitals. Just recently, at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford in Palo Alto, California, a new work was installed titled Balancing Act (2019). The colorful, sizable work shows a group of children (one of whom is in a wheelchair) on the right side of the painting confronting an elephant to the left. In line with hospital policy, the children in the image are all racially diverse. What seems to scream from this work is an attitude of curiosity and confrontation with the unknown. This takes on an ambitious connotation in a hospital setting. The image is both narrative and tactile, kid-friendly and metaphysical. It literalizes the phrase “an elephant in a dark room” but it turns on a lightswitch. In the jungles of the unconscious, sometimes an elephant is just an elephant (but not always).

Jonathan Brown, "Balancing Act" (2019), glass tile and custom-mixed colored sand, 6 ft. by 4 ft.
(Photo: Mark Leet / Courtesy of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford)

The question of site specificity looms large in Brown's work. Not only because his murals are designed to appeal to a certain social context, but because his works are manufactured piece by piece, then tessellate the walls of an interior or sometimes an exterior. What threads through the manufacture-on-demand type quality of Brown’s work is visionary clarity. Brown regularly creates pictures where figure and ground meld seamlessly together. What viewers are left with is the tessellated surface of a work, a sort of pointillism that allows viewers to perceptually enter into it, mimicking the free-association of ideas.

This creates a literal balancing act between Brown’s expressive use of multi-colored hues, and the landscapes his mosaics articulate, which often enough revive the interior of an otherwise sterile or drab space. Fragmentation is key. Brown’s works revel in surreal distortions in scale, and often portray vulnerable-looking figures against a colorful backdrop—a diminishing perspective receding into a seeming infinitude of parts. Viewers feel as though they were looking through a window onto the denouement of a dream. This nod towards the whimsical, where an image can suggest some lightsome event without portraying anything overtly facile, is a hallmark of Brown's style, which provokes thought viscerally by drawing from images floating luminously before the mind's eye, using bold colors and, on occasion, the connotation of childlike themes, as a vehicle for healing catharsis.

"Chikako's Coy Pond" (2005), mosaic tiles, grout and colored pebbles, 39 ft. x 7 ft.
(Photo: Craig Bryon)

One of Brown's most expansive and seminal works was commissioned by Hermann Hospital for the Roger and Debbie Clemens Children's Wing in the Houston Medical Center, 2008. Kids are often witnessed actively participating in this tesselated scene. Sort of like Mother Nature meets Dr. Seuss, it's composed of 5 panels sequentially arranged in the atrium of this special floor.

"Jungle Playground" (Lion detail) (2008), glass and colored grout, 5 panels each 5 ft. x 8 ft.
(Photo courtesy of the artist) 

On a different floor of the same hospital, a total 3-D playground named "Trees of Fondren Park" recreates faux trees made of hydrocal, acrylics, resin, pulp paper and porcelain mosaics,, plus real benches and play areas providing a forum for kids and parents’ both relaxing and cavorting. The leaves of the trees sway in the breeze when the A/C is on.

"Trees of Fondren Park" (installation shot) (2005), hydrocal, acrylic, resin, pulp paper and porcelain mosaic.
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

Another Jonathan Brown original installed at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford reflects an overview of Silicon Valley roadways and terrain with permanently attached miniature cars, boats, and service vehicles which can be touched and fondled by passersby to add a fifth dimension to the piece. It is called “Traffic Chopper,” and brings Brown's perspective of the natural world into focus while integrating the influence of industry and transportation using a Google Earth-like topography.

"Traffic Chopper" (2019), glass tile, custom-mixed color sand, miniature vehicles glued and bolted.
(Photo: Mark Leet / 
Courtesy of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford)

According to one of Brown’s recent curators, Antonia Dapena-Tretter: “Attention is paid to how these artworks will make a patient feel and what might promote a holistic approach to healing. Museum collections are typically not meant to be touched, but we embrace the tactile experience as an expectation. As a result, we must also consider infection control for anything we acquire. This is a benefit with mosaics; they are fairly easy to clean, maintain, and are a delight to touch. Arts and healing seems to be taking off at the moment. I was talking to a colleague at Aesthetics, and we agreed that it might even be considered a movement!”

The healing capacity of art is as novel as traveling through Central America, which Brown did as a teenager. “Breaking glass, tile and stone is sometimes difficult,” he says. "One gets cut, splinters fly up into hands and face, etc. There’s debris everywhere. Then when it comes to grouting, I have to run my bare hands across the surfaces which are rarely smooth, so there's a greater likelihood of cuts and abrasions. Sitting on the floor stationary for hours, crawling on my hands and knees across the rough glass surfaces, hand-mixing and applying custom grout colors is messy and extremely time-consuming. I have come to love it. I match the grout colors to the tiles surrounding the grout, which is unique in the industry.”

"Jungle Playground" (detail) (2008), imported glass tile and custom grout 5 ft. by 8 ft.
(Photo: Craig Byron)

What distinguishes Brown’s works from other contemporary mosaic artists is his ability to emulate the incidents, crags, and valleys of natural life as it struggles to unfold. In the process of this development he sees nothing less than a microcosm of the universe itself. Simultaneously, there’s a sense of social realism implied by his drawings. His works depicting the expansive growth of the natural world occasionally suggest a latent criticism of contemporary society. Utilizing grout colors that match the tiles surrounding it, the complementarity between, say, the lines delineating a tree (as Brown renders it), and the colored background against which it develops, formally eschew the necessity of creating arbitrary hierarchies. Brown's mosaics sidestep artificial divisions where the disparate elements of a society might interfere with the development and gestalt of life as a whole. 

Because architecture generally functions as the substrate in relation to which Brown's renderings of the human figure are placed, the nuances of spatial relationships can often be both descriptive and dramatic. The luminous, mosaic colorations Brown works into his art derive from using the finest of glass tiles and paying attention to ambient and built-in lighting, creating a single visual moment while emphasizing the dichotomies within.

Jonathan Brown in 2015.
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

To date, Brown's largest and most celebrated piece is called “Electric Waterfall (Technology in Motion)”. It combines hundreds of LED lights and painted pulp panels into a color-changing, ever-flowing waterfall in the center of downtown Madison, Wisconsin. It is the central façade of a repurposed utility building which one can gaze at for hours as light travels down the side of the building, down the awning and out into the street. The building owners can control the colors and speed of the illusion.

"Electric Waterfall" (2016), acrylic, compressed cement board, programmable LED technology, 123 ft. by 15 ft.
(Photo courtesy of the artist)

Ultimately, the focal point of Brown’s work is aesthetic. What’s at issue is the absorption of an image into its material and social context, and how this absorption works to create a sense of linearity that feels both significant, like a mark of calligraphy, and formal, like the architecture of a building. Among his most compelling inspirations are Mother Nature and natural life, technology, dancing lights, flowing water and the constancy of friends and family. WM 

Jeffrey Grunthaner

Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer & artist currently based in Berlin. Essays, articles, poems & reviews have appeared via BOMB, artnet News, The Brooklyn RailHyperallergic, Louffa Press, Drag City Books, & other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading & discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street (NY).  

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