Deborah Brown’s SHADOW PAINTINGS derive from daily walks with her dog Trout during the year of the pandemic. The subject matter is drawn from the East Williamsburg Industrial Zone in Brooklyn, where the artist’s studio is located. The area is dominated by one-story warehouses covered with colourful street art, murals, and graffiti. Although the neighborhood is only a few miles from Manhattan, the absence of tall structures allows for uninterrupted vistas down multiple blocks, often in several directions at once. These are some of the elements that attracted the artist to painting these images.

The SHADOW PAINTINGS are structured around absence. The human protagonist is represented by her shadow. A leash connects her to her canine companion, who is often the only animate creature in the painting. The low angle of the sunlight extends the shadows far into the distance, creating odd distortions and evocative patterns. In constructing the images, Brown catalogues the multifaceted structures in an urban space—stop signs, telephone poles, light stanchions, fences, grates, sidewalk paving, and spray-painted symbols. Commonplace artifacts that we take for granted in a human-infused environment are paired with the graffiti that covers the low-rise structures. The result is a play of painted signs and symbols that move our eye around the space of the painting, creating new relationships between the elements and forcing the viewer to decode and reinterpret familiar markers.
You have done several public artworks in the US. In what respect is your approach to a public artwork different from your paintings on canvas?
The audience for a public artwork is different from that of the average art gallery viewer. Because of this, I have made some adjustments when I have done artwork for the public domain. I use imagery consistent with my practice as an artist, but I tweak it to appeal to a wider range of people whose attention may be fleeting. For example, in the 90s, I did a series of murals for a New York City subway station in Lower Manhattan – Houston Street on the #1 line – for MTA Arts for Transit. At the time, I was doing large paintings of underwater creatures and divers, work that I had exhibited at Tibor de Nagy Gallery. For the subway commission, I imagined the station had flooded and that undersea creatures were swimming side-by-side with commuters. This interaction emphasized the humorous aspects of the situation. The paintings were fabricated into glass mosaics. The style is graphic and clear in order that people passing by can immediately grasp the images, the juxtapositions, and the themes. They are light-hearted but thought-provoking. People love them.

Does literature inform your work?
I am a reader of literature, history, and contemporary fiction. I am sure it influences my work. At different times, I have worked with mythological themes in my paintings, updating the images from a feminist point of view. In the Shadow Paintings and the body of work that preceded them, I thought a lot about Heidegger’s philosophy of da sein, or being in the world. His work gained a new urgency for me during the pandemic, when our circumstances were reduced to our immediate surroundings and what was at hand.

How has your artistic practice changed during the pandemic?
My work became increasingly personal and based on my own experience. I began a series of paintings based on daily walks with my dog Trout around my neighborhood, an industrial zone in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where my studio is located. It was winter, and the low angle of the sun cast long shadows ahead of me. The street murals on the industrial buildings and the artifacts of urban architecture—street signs, telephone poles, fences, roll-down grates—contrast with the sinister street graffiti. The work depicts a figure in an empty landscape, alone with her canine companion. The paintings capture a somber, uncertain mood that reflects the emptying out of the city during the pandemic and the existential crisis felt by each of us who experienced it.

What is the most important lesson you have learned during you career as an artist?
You have to persevere. Show up every day in the studio and work. Results come from belief in yourself and your practice, and through insight gained through repeated application of effort.

Is there an artwork you would like to own?
Anything by Édouard Manet, Lovis Corinth or Max Beckmann.


Deborah Brown will be part of MISA VAN HAM KUNST_HALLE, the fifth edition of MISA taking place near Cologne from 16-21 November for the first time. In partnership with VAN HAM over 30 emerging and established positions will be presented together offline and online with digital art at the same time as Art Cologne.

Please click HERE for more information about MISA VAN HAM_KUNSTHALLE. 


Deborah Brown (b. 1955) lives in New York and works in Bushwick/East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood she helped pioneer as an artist and where she started STOREFRONT, one of the first artist-run galleries in the neighborhood. Brown has a BA from Yale University and an MFA from Indiana University. Recent solo and group exhibitions include: GAVLAK Palm Beach, FL; Burning in Water, New York; Danese/Corey, New York;  The Lodge, Los Angeles; Nancy Littlejohn Fine Art, Houston, TX; Union Hall, Denver, CO; The Bundy Modern, Waitsfield, VT; Freight + Volume, New York; Underdonk, Brooklyn; GEARY Contemporary, New York; Lesley Heller Gallery, New York; Mike Weiss Gallery, New York; BravinLee programs, New York; Galleri Christoffer Egelund, Copenhagen; and Angell Gallery, Toronto. Deborah Brown is a 5th generation Californian who grew up in Pasadena.