Full Frontal

After a 12 year hiatus from self-portraiture, LA-raised painter Delia Brown reconnects with the female gaze.
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When Delia Brown was growing up in Venice Beach in the Eighties she was surrounded by the surf and skate scene, but hewed closer to the academic track. Her father founded a think tank at UCLA for public health policy and was later on Obama’s titular task force; her mother directed the UCLA Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH). “I grew up going to demonstrations for social justice and environmental causes,” says Brown. “But I was the weirdo artist.”

After studying painting at UC Santa Cruz, she returned to Venice and started working for Betsey Johnson in Santa Monica by day while clubbing around the underground hip-hop scene at night in  trendy spots like The Good Life, King King and Prince’s club Glam Slam. “I saw Nas there when he was like 18 years old,” recalls Brown, who was playing around town with her own two-girl rap group, The Fuzz, at the time.

By the late ‘90s she started painting again and went on to earn an MFA at UCLA studying under art stars like Mary Kelly, Lari Pittman, Barbara Kruger, and John Baldessari. “I was painting all these party scenes, and one day Peter Halley, who was a visiting artist at UCLA, came into my studio and said you shouldn’t paint anyone over 30,” recalls Brown. “He was sorta suggesting I was painting this in-club vibe of youth, but I thought I was more living out my unrealized rap fantasies through painting.”

Brown, now 52, was painting herself into her work throughout her Thirties but stopped doing so in her Forties. That was until her sister confronted her about the images in Brown’s Influencer series (2016-2020), which conjured art historical motifs via the lives of invented, cartoonish Instagram stars. “I was representing women who were living through this very oppressive social media lens and my sister really called me out on it,” says Brown, who survived cancer six years ago and had grown to think that nobody wanted to fix their gaze on her Rubenesque middle-aged body. “When I looked at myself it became this Lacanian encounter with the real,” admits Brown. “It became a 180 in how I see myself because I started feeling bad about how I looked but then there was this shame for feeling bad because deep down I’m a feminist, so I didn’t want to let this capitalistic, patriarchal system define me.”

Delia Brown Vanitas exhibition at Oxford House Projects photographed by Evan Walsh

When Covid hit, Brown was four days into a new apartment in Koreatown, when her mother called and asked her to come live with her in Berkeley. “It was a nightmare, I’d just unpacked and had to repack and move everything into storage, but my mom had an insight into how the pandemic was going to go down and how isolated everyone was going to become,” says Brown, who found herself in this foreign space without any of her own things. The isolation and this notion that she’d been fetishizing youth got her to thinking about a series of boudoir paintings she began making in 2014. While the early works featured female artists in their bedrooms, she decided to return to this unfinished project with her own nude (or scantily clad) body a year ago.

“Because I’m living at my mother’s I don’t have my stuff in it and it doesn’t express who I am aesthetically so I started borrowing other people’s homes who had spaces that I envied,” says Brown. During the pandemic she photographed herself inside the homes of her mother’s neighbors; the Hollywood Hills home of Rufus Wainwright and Jørn Weisbrodt; and her old UCLA classmate, author Jennifer Lehr, who contacted her over DM to offer her home in Los Feliz that she shares with her husband, actor John Lehr. In the wake of that shoot last October, the UCLA alums agreed that this eclectic Mediterranean abode would be the best place to install a show of Brown’s new work, Vanitas, which opened last Saturday to great fanfare from the LA art community as part of Lehr’s Oxford House Projects.  The 18-plus self-portraits feature Brown fully exposed or sporting negligee, and appointed with loads of jewelry, glasses of red wine and champagne, or curling up with a book in homes filled with mid-century furniture gems, bar carts, bear skin rugs, and the kind of cozy, if kitschy, California opulence one might associate with a disco era Playboy Mansion or Jim Morrison’s Love Street house. Her sex positive feminist gaze invites viewers into her fantasies, the way she envisions them, fully of pathos…and parties.

Along with four paintings made in the home, and some earlier works from Brown’s Precious and Guerilla Lounging series, there is a heroic painting of Brown’s late dealer Margo Leavin (The Last Time I Saw Margo, 2022) made from a photo taken in Leavin’s art-drenched LA living room just weeks before her passing. (Leavin understood and indulged Brown’s flair for the theatrical and once brought the entire contents of her living room into her gallery for Brown’s 2012 show and even let the painter stage a subsequent show in the brightly lit, if cramped, crawl space above her gallery.)

Delia Brown Vanitas exhibition at Oxford House Projects photographed by Evan Walsh

“I think about my paintings as if they have feelings, so putting the paintings up there was more comforting to them,” says Brown with a laugh. While the gallery was empty for that high concept show, the collaborative installation at Lehr’s home is about creating community and it’s been full of artists, critics and collectors since it opened a week ago.

“At this moment, I just wanted everyone to feel this yummy, cozy warmness. I wanted everyone to feel they were in this place that was nurturing and welcoming,” says Brown who paints en plein aire on the backyard terrace and makes guests cocktails from the well-stocked bar. “I’m an anxious person and I don’t want to be an anxious person in the world I construct so I’m playing this character who is not worried about Covid or that the world is on its way out. It’s this fantasy of being an adult, living in a caftan and when people come through this amazing home they find me here really relaxed. I like this idea that you’re in a space where your best self is going to come out.”

Vanitas/Delia Brown at Oxford House Projects, 5426 Los Feliz Blvd, noon-3pm weekdays, noon-5pm weekends, oxfordhouseprojects.com

Delia Brown Vanitas exhibition at Oxford House Projects photographed by Evan Walsh
Delia Brown Vanitas exhibition at Oxford House Projects photographed by Evan Walsh