Paper Takes on a Whole New Dimension in Cooley Gallery exhibition

By Amy J. Barry

Joan R. Brownstein describes her most recent artwork as “painting with paper,” even though she creates meticulous mixed media works with cut paper, colored pencil and graphite on mat board. And no paint.

And, American folk art painting in particular is the inspiration behind her exhibition of more than 30 small works at Old Lyme’s Cooley Gallery. All line the gallery walls in uniform 15- by 13-inch frames, yet each is a one-of-a-kind visual treat in which lines interplay with layered colors, patterns and geometric shapes in surprisingly different ways.

Brownstein’s role as a well-known specialist in 18th- and 19th-century American folk art portraiture, and a highly sought after dealer and expert in her field, has influenced her artistic creations. The artist sees how her two careers — as art dealer/historian and fine artist — have informed each other.

“My interest in American landscape painting underpins my own abstract work, and it has been through abstraction that I have come to understand and appreciate American folk art,” Brownstein says.

Sharply defined forms, neatly organized, symmetrical compositions, an overall flatness and linearity, and absence of expressive brushwork are among the characteristics of folk art portraits as described by Carrie Rebora Barratt, associate director for collections and administration at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art — all of which can be said about Brownstein’s recent work.

Art-driven life A resident of Newbury, Massachusetts, Brownstein received a BFA in painting in 1970 from Cornell University, College of Architecture, Art and Planning. She taught college studio art and art history, worked in museum education, administered a publicly funded arts organization and has written extensively on the arts. Her own paintings are in many corporate, public and private collections.

In 1980 she started her antiques business, exhibiting at major antiques shows throughout the Northeast and operating a gallery in Newbury with her husband, Peter Eaton, an American furniture dealer.

But today all Brownstein really wants to do is create her own art, for as many hours as possible in a day. A diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease is one of the reasons. And one would never guess that the petite, animated, fully engaged woman, who has created — and continues to create — an abundance of precisely structured works of art is coping with such a serious health issue.

“I work about eight or 10 hours every day,” Brownstein says. “I have meals with Peter, but he’s taken over a lot of chores so I have more time to (work) and I love it. I wanted to go back to my own work. I’ve always wanted to. It’s somehow for me very real. A lot of other things are obstructions, but they’re not real.

“It’s hard to look at some of the visible medical issues and say in 10 years I’m not going to be doing any of this — or in three years — and I want to work now,” she stresses.

Brownstein says she doesn’t even think about her illness when she’s working and marvels that when she’s engrossed in her art, she has almost no hand tremors, which often occur when she lifts her arm.

“They’re mostly on the right and I’m left-handed, which is good,” she points out.

Brownstein says she likes working on either very small or very large canvases and nothing in between.

“If I did these any other size, they’d be smaller,” she says. “I like the intimacy. At something small, you look more carefully, and at something large, you walk through and may come back to what interests you most. But small you tend to look for the differences because all there is, is the differences.”

Her cut paper works on exhibit are divided into various series that she finds emerge organically.

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“Portrait of the Artist” by Joan R. Brownstein (Courtesy Cooley Gallery)

“They just sort of mutate into something else,” she says. “I’m always experimenting. One group lasts a week and something else will interest me and I move on. It’s the same form; it’s just used differently.”

For example, she creates different takes on the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian and Richard Diebenkorn.

Since installing the show at the Cooley Gallery, Brownstein says that she’s returned to work she was doing prior to her recent mixed media art — creating abstract acrylic poured paintings.

“I don’t want to say I’m quitting doing this, but everything (about) the way I work is changeable. I don’t know why.”

What she does know is “It’s a lot of fun to be doing something like this.”