Vinyl records and eight-track tapes are stacked everywhere in Thomas Browne’s house. While he’s got the stereo equipment to play them, most won’t make a sound. They have been transformed from audio storage into visual spectacle with stencils, spray-paint and Browne’s irreverent attitude toward art, production and good old-fashioned work.
While Browne is a painter, he disdains blank canvas. Instead, he uses what others discard, mostly vinyl records or eight-track cartridges salvaged from flea markets and thrift stores. The spray-paint is as unpretentious as the medium. “It’s cheap,” says Browne. “Cheaper than canvas and cheaper than acrylic.” Since Browne typically paints 20 or 30 items in a single session, using stencils to shape the paint as he applies it, keeping costs under control is essential.
Between the low-cost inputs, the massive volume of output and the reusable implements, Browne’s method borrows more from Henry Ford than from Andy Warhol. And the methodical tribute to industry is a nifty juxtaposition to the finished products, most of which invoke the smiling, pipe-clenching jaw and benevolent gaze of Reverend Bob Dobbs, icon of the Church of the SubGenius. Browne calls his art Dobbist, inspired by Dobbs and the Church of which Dobbs is the titular, if fictional, figurehead. The Church, which gained notoriety in the 1980s, is real enough, though wholly sacrilegious, using the vocabulary and intonation of religion to extol an ethic antithetical to work and occupational conformity, amenable instead to bacchanalian revelry and shiftless indolence.
Browne invokes a SubGenius’ sardonic sensibilities in his art, as exemplified by his excitement about a piece he will exhibit for the first time at his January show. The print, pulled from a dumpster, is meant to represent a high mountain landscape complete with a looming craggy peak, an impossibly sudden waterfall and improbably located trees, including one that emerges from the middle of the waterfall. Browne found the painting, complete with a painted blue frame made from what looks like window trim, and thought, “It’s like the worst painting I have ever seen, like Bob Ross gone wrong…I was like, this can’t be in the dumpster. I can fix this.”
Fix it he did, placing a dozen sexless white stick figures with square heads in the landscape, some poised atop or headed up the mountain, others swimming in the lake or hiding behind trees, and still others looking up at the waterfall over which they have just plunged. The figures have no faces, only vertical black stripes resembling bar codes.
The reworked painting represents something of a new direction for Browne, who mostly paints records and eight-tracks, and at a clip industrious enough to belie his allegiance to Bob Dobbs’ cult of slack and justify the “production” label Browne proudly applies to his work. “I’ve called [my art] mass production for a while because it is really is. I’m like, well, I only have 128 pieces for this show so I gotta bust out another 50. I’ve only got a week, and I can do it. That’s mass production.”
Not surprisingly, finished work fills Browne’s home. “I’ve got stacks of them upstairs and boxes of them in the basement,” Browne says. “I try to give them away just to get rid of them…I used to leave them in every Independent box I walked by.”
With so much art on hand, not every piece that Browne produces is precious to him. In fact, Browne has a penchant for leaving his art lying around. He mentions one spray-painted eight-track that has been residing uninvited in the Missoula Art Museum since the building reopened. Bar-coded figures, like the ones Browne inserted into his salvaged dumpster painting, get stapled to telephone poles and other surfaces.
True to Bob Dobbs’ evangelical ardor, Browne is at work spreading his production ethic to a younger generation. Skyler Seals, a 10-year-old from Frenchtown who has been Browne’s Little Brother for the last eight months, will join Browne in showing work at January’s exhibition. The two artists say they have shared a sensibility since meeting and have traded techniques in an effort to enrich each others’ work—Seals picking up some elements of figure drawing from Browne and Browne being introduced by Seals to origami, which, as an art form conducive to mass production from found materials, is a perfect fit for Browne’s artistic inclinations.
Of course, more production means making space for more art. And that means more distribution, preferably impromptu and with the effortlessness of SubGenius slack. It’s no surprise, then, that as I leave the artist’s house, Browne stops me with a shout: “Wait! Take an eight-track!”
The Not So Art Show, featuring Thomas Browne and Skyler Seals, is on display at Betty’s Divine from 5 to 8 PM on Friday, Jan. 5. Helmet Tag performs.