Picture of the Week: Tall by Betty Brownlee

September 24, 2023

Tall, Betty Brownlee, 2020, oil on primed paper, 51 x 36 in.

Betty Brownlee is a skilled artist and educator. She earned her BFA and MFA with a focus in Painting from Wayne State University. Brownlee has taught art courses at several different institutions, including Oakland Community College, Macomb Community College, Henry Ford Community College, College for Creative Studies, and Wayne State University. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions throughout Michigan, including museums and galleries such as the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, the Kresge Art Museum in East Lansing, the Willis Gallery in Detroit, and the Annex Gallery in Highland Park. 

Originally a landscape painter, Brownlee transitioned to portraiture in the 1990s. She often focuses on female subjects for her portraits. This is consistent with her 2020 portrait Tall. Brownlee composes an outdoor scene with a woman standing at the door of a yellow building. She’s dressed in a tank top, shorts, flip-flops, and sunglasses, which suggests that she is enjoying a summer day. Summer is perhaps also evident with Brownlee’s inclusion of flowers under the window to the far right of the image. The figure’s sunglasses conceal her emotions, creating a sense of mystery and intrigue. 

Brownlee juxtaposes the more muted shades of yellow and orange of the bricks and window with more saturated shades of black, green, and blue at the entrance of the building, for the figure’s shirt and accessories, and dripping onto the sidewalk in the foreground. Perhaps this juxtaposition is meant to communicate depth, that there is more to explore inside the building. 

In addition to her nuanced use of color, Brownlee accentuates vertical lines in this work. She draws additional attention to the verticality of the composition with the title. The figure raises one arm against the wall, with one foot extending into the foreground. While not a relaxed, natural pose, the figure’s configuration aligns with the theme of tallness and verticality. The extension of the figure’s body in turn highlights the gutter's vertical lines beside her. Verticality within the work may also create a sense of continuity, further emphasized by the dripping of the paint. Perhaps Brownlee is inviting us to imagine the space beyond the picture plane, with a building that can extend as far as our imaginations will take it. 

Tall includes formal elements that are characteristic of many of her paintings. For instance, she creates a pencil grid that spans across the whole composition. The grid may have been part of her process for constructing the composition, however, Brownlee chooses to leave it visible in the final work. Another element in Tall and her other paintings is the dripping paint, as noted previously. In the case of Tall, Brownlee appears to focus the many of the drippings near the center of the work, flowing over the figure’s body and out of the entrance of the building. Perhaps Brownlee’s trademark techniques serve as a reminder of the artwork as artifice; She leaves evidence that this space is an image of her own construction. 

Written by Angela Athnasios

Sources: https://www.linkedin.com/in/betty-brownlee-955b275/

Scott, Ron. "Betty Brownlee @ The Annex Gallery at 333 Midland." Detroit Art Review. 24 March 2022


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