As we recently reported, the late Houston hand surgeon Michael Brown's favorite artist was a Russian woman calling herself Anastasia the Great who specializes in customizing the interiors of luxury cars and was recently arrested for stealing items from Brown's estate. So when we heard that the last in a long series of weekly auctions to dispose of Brown's possessions as part of bankruptcy proceedings, including dozens of artworks, was held yesterday at Webster's Auction Palace—it's not a house, it's a palace—we couldn't help but be curious. What kind of art does a coke-snorting, flight attendant–choking, proverbially "disgraced" former hand doctor collect? Among other things, a 7-foot-high Native American figure, two ivory elephant tusks, Meissen porcelein urns, and a Richard Wagner death mask (Brown must have seen the flamboyant, luxury-loving German composer as a soulmate).
But nothing intrigued us as much as Brown's collection of paintings. Of course, the wealthy have always collected expensive art. The slightly less wealthy, like Brown, have to settle for imitations of expensive art. According to reports, Brown, who died last November, furnished each of his several houses in a different style. We don't know which of his domiciles the following works came from, so we'll have to evaluate them on their own merits—or in this case demerits. Webster's offers identifying information about the works, but inconveniently fails to pair the descriptions with the images, so all we know for sure is that the lot included multiple works each by such esteemed brush-handlers as Ed Heck, the late Howard Behrens (whose work, according to Wikipedia, was sold "in fine art galleries and at auction on cruise ships"), Larry Dyke ("best known for his scenic landscapes and paintings of classic golf holes"), and "cowboy artist and photographer" Peter Robbins.
If style is the man, what do these works tell us about one of the most intriguing characters in recent Houston history? (All images from Webster's Auction Palace—please excuse the screen shot artifacts.)
Many of Brown's paintings ape the golden hues and domestic opulence of Dutch Golden Age art. The oddly-shaped fountain in the background of this painting, which feeds into what looks like an artificial canal, suggests a location in the Netherlands, while the exotic peacock has historically been considered a status symbol adorning the gardens of the wealthy.
Still-life flower painting was a hugely popular Dutch Golden Age genre, with Willem van Aelst and Ambrosius Bosschaert being two of the best-known masters of the art, which could attain incredible detail. Unlike their work, which is known for its almost photographic clarity, this canvas is painted in a fuzzy, pseudo-Impressionist style—it looks as airbrushed as a Playboy centerfold.
You quickly begin to notice how few people inhabit the paintings Brown collected—the mark of a true sociopath. Infamously, Hitler's student paintings also contained few individuals, an accurate reflection of his worldview.
If Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens had lived in the 21st century, dropped acid, and been a fantasy enthusiast, this is the kind of hallucinogenic grotesquerie he might have painted.
We at least give Brown credit for the range of artists whose work he was willing to buy imitations of. This shameless pastiche of American Impressionist Childe Hassam, who became famous for his romanticized depiction of late-19th century New York street life, is clearly the model here.
Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" is a bit less impressive in a small, kitschy gilt frame than on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Well, Brown was a hand surgeon. The man just liked hands.
Unlike many of the previous paintings, we can conclusively identify the painter of this bit of dreck, which looks like a mass-produced nursery-room poster: Ed Heck (see partially obscured signature in lower right corner). According to Heck's official website, the artist's canvases were first exhibited in New York City in 1999 and were "an instant hit. The viewer response was overwhelming. Reactions ranged from surprised appreciation to pure delight."
The paintings, we learn, "lead us into a place uniquely Heck, filled with weird and wonderful characters, odd landscapes and quirky visual point of view quite unlike anything else we've seen before." Suck on that, Warhol!
On Sunday, most if not all of these paintings were purchased by Houstonians whose taste in art is as bad as Brown's, or who just wanted to own a piece of Houston infamy. Either way, the worst collection of art in Houston is gone, dispersed among a credulous public. RIP.