By MEGAN REED March, 2019
If you’ve ever been to New York City, you probably have vivid sensory flashbacks of the experience of it: crowds packing the sidewalks, a constant symphony of honking car horns, and dense, awe-inspiring architecture at every turn. For non-fans, New York gets a bad rap: rude, dirty, fast-paced, devoid of basic civility. For those who love it, New York is a magical utopia of sorts (yes, utopia), packed to the gills with the diverse range of humanity, all co-existing in largely harmonious terms. If any artist can be said to embody and celebrate the spirit of NYC in all its utopic forms, the painter Margaret Zox Brown is it.
Zox Brown is a native New Yorker, born and raised (with only a brief stint elsewhere, in Boston, to see what other cities were like; she quickly returned to NYC as the place she feels inextricably linked to), and to hear her speak, literally has the pulse of New York City running through her veins. The people, the energy, the colors, “the best and the worst all at the same time,” as she describes it, have made Zox Brown the artist she is. Even just a cursory glance at her vivid, large-scaled paintings reveals a potent energy not unlike that experienced during a quick jaunt down Canal Street or Fifth Avenue. Vibrant chromatic palettes of reds, yellows, pinks and blues, layered in energetic strokes immediately record in visual terms the striking contrasts of the city itself, while framing a cast of characters that form the subjects of the works--a kind of painterly yearbook of New York’s many citizens. They are vivid snapshots of what manifests the magnetic and potent energy of the city: its people.
To hear Zox Brown describe how she chooses her subjects is to accompany her along her own joyful, daily routine on the streets of New York. She describes herself as an extrovert, often walking or riding a Citi bike around Manhattan, someone with a lot of friends and it shows: the range of people recorded in her works (from a hot dog street vendor, to the lady she buys her coffee from daily, to her Ukrainian-American doorman of over 26 years, to her children), are vast and varied, providing insight into someone who clearly adores meeting people and learning their stories. These stories form the fabric of New York; and in Zox Brown’s renderings, we see them woven together into stunning narratives of its diversity, its humanity, and in its utter magnitude as the pivotal symbol of America as melting-pot.
It’s not insignificant that Zox Brown paints these portraits on an almost larger than life scale. As a small woman herself, the act of making large work is both a physical act and a heroic gesture: elevating these subjects to the level of official portraiture or the grand tradition of history paintings. Filled with everyday people, the scale of Zox Brown’s paintings encourage a closer look at the heroism and humanity that surround us, beyond the scope of traditional power structures and hierarchies. Even more, capturing these portraits as a woman has important political implications. Given that women painters have been historically overlooked and underrepresented in museums until relatively recently, challenging the hierarchy of the male gaze capturing and recording images, Zox Brown asserts her female voice as one of authority, with a rightful place in the art canon. Though an impressive and accomplished draftsperson, colorist and painter in and of itself, Zox Brown subtly reveals in our conversation a potent and deeper purpose: it’s clear a large part of what drives her in the studio is to be a painterly voice for the magnificence that is New York. And in that she leaves a stunning and infectious legacy for the rest of us to marvel at. WM
You can check out more of her work at https://www.margaretzoxbrown.com
Megan Reed is a writer and fine artist based in Los Angeles, California.