Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Artist Profile: Howard Brough and the Comically Grotesque

For years, Howard Brough helped artists hang their work at the Salt Lake City Library. Measuring twice before nailing, righting a frame with a level, carefully adjusting lighting . . . scores of local artists can attest that Brough’s work was meticulous. But by his own admission it was not always wholehearted. “It was great to be around this interesting work,” he says of his years as gallery director, “but you say to yourself, ‘I’m not producing, I’m too busy working to pursue my own work,’ and you can’t help but feel some resentment that someone else is able to.”

Now, two years into retirement, Brough returns to the Gallery at Library Square with an exhibition of his own — dozens of works in graphite, ink and paint on clayboard, gessoboard and canvas, all executed in a style that makes them appear like the comically grotesque spawn of Sophocles and Daffy Duck. In a sense it is a retrospective, even if all the works are new: the output comes from a lifetime of art that was never set free. It is a chance for an artist whose career was put on hold for decades to consider his earliest as well as his current interests, to intertwine their accrued and overlapping meanings into visual metaphors that in Brough’s case are full of charm and surprise.

“It’s sort of a central fact of my life and maybe a central fact of the work: it was really difficult being born a gay person in early ’50s Provo,” Brough says rather matter-of-factly. “I always felt a sense of otherness there.” Moving to the Salt Lake suburbs in the early seventies, when Brough studied art at the University of Utah, didn’t change things much.

San Francisco promised something better. Early trips there opened Brough’s eyes to new possibilities, so when he was accepted into an MFA program in the Bay Area he jumped at the chance. “It felt like it was going to be Nirvana,” he recalls. “It wasn’t.” San Francisco in the hedonistic ’70s was so far on the other side of the pendulum it gave him a sense of vertigo. “Almost everyone you met was from somewhere else and they had gone there to escape . . . It was like being on the Mayflower and instead of landing on Plymouth rock, landing on the Barbary Coast. I felt a different kind of otherness.”

When Bough learned of the impending closure of the small liberal arts college he was attending, this discomfort made the decision to leave easier (besides, “who wants a degree from a school that doesn’t exist anymore?”). In Tuscon, where he began studying at the University of Arizona in 1977, Brough felt more at home, and found something closer to Nirvana: shortly after arriving he met the man who would become his lifelong partner.

When school was completed, the couple made a surprising decision — to move to Salt Lake City. “After we graduated we were looking for a place with better job prospects. My partner actually really likes Salt Lake, and my family was urging me to come back.”

Because in San Francisco he had worked at the city library, Brough applied for a job at Salt Lake’s Main Library when he returned. “I thought I would work part-time, enough to pay the bills, and do art work. But they hired me full-time and then I got promoted. Then the artwork got minimal.”

Brough remained at the Library for thirty years. His art wasn’t completely abandoned, but with only a handful of solo shows and a dozen or so group shows to his credit during that time, he certainly wasn’t producing or exhibiting as much as he would have liked. The job, however, had its advantages. “I got to see a lot of interesting work, and with all the books coming in it was like being in the best bookstore every day.”

Now, two years into retirement, things have changed for Brough. “It’s been so different working solely on the artwork and getting up in the morning and having what used to be the job time be the time to make art; instead of coming home and being kind of brain-fried and trying to get up the energy and just not being able to.”

The change is evident in the work. During a 2012 residency at the Lab at the Leo, Brough exhibited his first new body of work, a series of zoomorphic drawings full of overlapping planes of organic lines filled in with a patchwork of textures and designs. It is a body of work that is both playful and serious. At the time, he wrote, “Over the past year I lost three elderly companion animals (two dogs and a bird) to age and cancer. It was an emotional and devastating loss for me and my household. Beyond the grief, it triggered a heightened personal examination of the complex emotional, psychological, and magical association we have with members of the animal kingdom.

Animals continue to influence Brough’s work. The waterfowl he sees on his daily walks through Salt Lake’s Liberty Park inspired the series of “Sirens” currently on exhibit. Two large canvases and a score of smaller pieces line the gallery’s south wall, all in that same flowing line and patchwork design, now in full and vibrant color. The charm of these and Brough’s other works are their multivalent formal and thematic aspects. This row of “Sirens” look like collectible cards from a saccharine-saturated cereal box, but also call to mind Renaissance portraiture and medieval icons; his “Miss Leda and the Fowl” paintings suggest illuminated manuscripts; “The Judgment of Mr. P.” triptych, Egyptian papryri.

These varied art historical references may come naturally to someone who for years was surrounded by and dealt in books and art. But they are also a purposeful strategy to play with what Brough refers to as the “comic grotesque.” Grotesque references both the arabesque quality of the work (the word originally comes from the caves or “grotto” in Rome where remnants of Nero’s palace were found decorated in the style), and, as Brough says, “a place where incongruent things are bumping up next to each other.”

Brough says these new works are both a continuation and an amplification of what has come before. “There’s always been a theatricality and an absurd quality to the work. Certainly always a narrative quality to it — I’ve never been a formalist or abstract artist; but the nod to mythologies and religious aspects is new to this body of work.”

His interest in mythology goes back to childhood, when stories of Gods and Heroes served as an escape from day-to-day reality. “When I was young I was very interested in Greek mythology; as far as a system of deities it sort of made sense to me because they’re such a flawed group of creatures and ideas.”

You wouldn’t know it from the playful lines, bright colors and Arcimboldo bulges, but Brough’s works reference stories of horrible consequence: Leda and the Swan is an episode of rape; the Judgment of Paris leads to a ten-year war and the genocide of the Trojans; and the story of Orestes contains just about every type of interfamilial murder you can think of. But at the Main Library all this blood and tears is wrapped up in a sinuous line full of bathos that encases cartoon ducks and cows.

The choice of animals is deliberate, and personal. Brough says he’s always been interested in wings, which is why so many of the avatars of his stories resemble fowl, and also explains his “Gentleman Angel” series. The other recurrent animals are cows, sacred cows, if you will. “We as a species mythologize animals, give animals a place of respect; but at same time we sacrifice them and abuse them. It’s a strange, two-sided type of thing.”

Brough is serious about these larger cultural issues, about the mythologies and ideologies that are woven through are lives; but never so much so that he can’t have some fun with it. For his “Prophets of Baal,” (famous, though not always successful, sacrificers of cattle) he used figures from the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) as references. “Theirs is a performance, built on the extreme,” he explains.

In another work, inside a centrally located vitrine, between screaming pink furies above and four-fingered cartoon hands in front, Brough has placed five portraits. “They’re all meant to be Orestes,” Brough says, “but I wanted five because I wanted it to be like a boy band. I wanted the whole set up to be somewhere between an altar and a Busby Berkeley musical stage setting.” This is how Brough represents the story of a matricide.

There is tension in the works, but it is not particularly violent. If Brough is interested in taking on sacred cows, he is aiming his jabs not at specific groups or ideologies; rather he means to poke at a sense of inflated piety. His comedy seems fueled not by affronted anger or hollow hipster irony, but by mature acceptance and maybe even delight in the incongruities of life. “I think its what my life feels like; or that’s what reality is for me; that juxtaposition or that incongruent bumping up of things; somewhere in that is where the reality of things is.”

Brough’s current reality is a pretty good one. “I don’t need to make a living off of the art,” he says. “Which is good, because it isn’t going to happen. Now I just want to make some works I can be proud of and maybe someone else will say ‘Wow, that’s got some real validity to it.’” And he’s found a home in Salt Lake City, a place he describes as “a strange middle ground.” He says the city itself has a very bohemian quality, a strong underground scene, but at the same time it’s the headquarters of the LDS Church. It’s the perfect sort of place for an artist exploring the comic grotesque.

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