Last night, Opera Gallery hosted the opening of Ron English and Chris Brown’s joint art show, “Dum English.” We went. We saw. We tried very hard to judge Chris Brown on his art only.

Let’s not pretend that we don’t write about flawed artists with awe–Schiele (pedophile!), Caravaggio (murderer!), etc.–only an awesome artist Chris Brown isn’t. But save your puns about the exhibition being a hit and a smash.

The seven or so canvases were strung around the teeming gallery–mostly spray-painted cartoon-ish abstractions. What made the work unique was its agressive childlikeness… or was childishness? There was something almost interesting about that. It doesn’t quite come off in the exacting aesthetics of graffiti that Brown was probably going for, but you can see imitated traces of Kenny Scharf in the round-clown-nosed toothy cartoon mugs, a little (very, very little) bit of Basquiat in the more complicated compositions. Not quite. It was definitely communicating something, something frantic and unyielding and not at all self-aware–that is, true to the spirit of the artist, Ron English’s ardent pupil, with some canvases to scream at. These gaping faces and holes, peppered with scribbles like “bullshit is what you make it”–an unfinished mess with lots of color, lots of happy, lots of teeth.

It contrasted sharply with English’s new work in signature English style, especially the centerpiece of a grinning, skeletal-faced sunflower sprouting psychedelic tendrils. When we first talked to English years ago about collaborating with Brown, English wasn’t that aware or concerned about his rep and called him “a kid,” but now it seems as if the collaboration itself isn’t absolving, it’s almost intentionally confrontational, almost performative. Is this… POPaganda?

Brown seemed unattached to his work as he bobbed around through the packed crowd with exuberant enthusiasm and politeness, stopping to talk to the ladies, take pictures with “fans” and shake important hands. His art might have looked like outsider art, but he was not an outsider artist. I showed a picture of him to a petite American Apparel employee next door and she lost her shit, first with “Why? Art? What art?” and then screaming “He is my husband, really, he is my husband, really, he is my husband!!!” That was much more enlightening than staring into Chris Brown’s soul splattered out onto a canvas.

(Photos: Joseph Schulhoff/ANIMALNewYork)