John Brown, 1953 – 2020

John Brown is clearly one of this country’s great painters – a fact now being honoured by the mounting of a large and almost indecently delicious exhibition of his work by Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art.

Gary Michael Dault, Globe and Mail, February 23, 2008.


John BrownThe Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto is saddened to learn of the recent passing of Toronto artist John Brown, an active and well-loved member of the city’s arts community since the 1980s. As an artist, John was renowned for his extraordinary ability to evoke the visceral power of painting.

In 2008 MOCCA presented the very first survey exhibition of Brown’s work in a public institution, accompanied by the first major publication on the artist. In 2003 Brown was also included in the group exhibition Painters 15 organized by MOCCA in North York that also travelled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Shanghai, China.

While Brown exhibited actively in Toronto during the 1980s, including shows with Chromazone, he was not associated with any particular group or movement. Unconcerned with shifting trends, careerist strategies and other pretensions, John quietly evolved an expansive vision for painting on his own terms with rigour and integrity. Over the years he developed a unique, process-driven approach to image-making by combining thick, virtuosic passages of paint with raw, labour-intensive scraping, and he often worked on single panels for weeks, months and even years. From surfaces that bore the scars and traces of their own histories, John forged visceral images that hovered ambiguously in timeless netherworlds between abstraction, figuration and representation. His paintings, literally and metaphorically, embodied and effectively evoked struggle and revelation, the strange and the familiar, the primal and the sophisticated, the intimate and the infinite, abject physicality and transcendent spirit. Through his art, John Brown aspired to grasp the intangible, render the unseen visible and to know the unknowable. His paintings conveyed the anguish and the wonders of life, of living and of death, and the creativity of lived experience.

Foremost, John was a warm and fundamentally decent person who lived with humble dignity, a sharp imagination, a deep passion and knowledge of painting and art history, a boundless curiosity, and he developed the full potential of his creative talent and skill. He was greatly admired by his peers, students and younger generations of Canadian painters, as well as by collectors and fans. Music was also an important influence on John, and he had a huge and eclectic collection of records, c.d.’s and tapes. And he rode high-powered motorcycles really fast.

MOCA Toronto extends sincere condolences to John’s family and friends, the Olga Korper Gallery family, and to the many people that he was close to in the art community in Toronto and well beyond.

David Liss, Curator, MOCA Toronto

Photo by Laura Barless.