A messy picture
Has Chico painter Francis Brown’s Pollock-inspired style been confused for the real deal?
What a story: Teri Horton, a truck-drivin’ granny with an eighth-grade education, buys a big painting in a thrift store for $5 that turns out to be an original work by famed American absract-expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. She sells it and becomes a millionaire several times over.
That would be a good, if brief, story. But that’s not how it goes. The real story has been playing out much more slowly and still seems far from any happy rags-to-riches ending, with Horton—along with rebellious hotshot art dealer Tod Volpe and a forensic scientist—fighting against the art world over whose expertise should decide whether the painting is authentic.
Oh, and there’s also this guy: a retired Chico artist who doesn’t think the painting is a Pollock. In fact, he says there’s a chance that he is the painter responsible for the piece.
“It could very well be mine,” said Francis “Frankie” Brown. “It’s certainly more likely mine than his.”
He’s in the living room of longtime friends, prominent Chico artist couple Pat Collentine and Susan Larsen. Three of Brown’s large “splatter-dash” paintings (Brown’s term for the drip style that Pollock made famous) hang on the wall.
“I started all this because I liked Pollock’s stuff,” Brown explained. “I’ve been doing splatter-dash since 1978.”
An artist since 1970, Brown bounced around California painting and teaching. In 1980 he ended up in Chico and has been splitting his time between here and Palm Springs ever since. San Bernardino—the city where Horton’s painting was found—is in the same east-of-L.A. vicinity as Brown’s summertime home.
"[There were] a hundred paintings that I released around the neighborhood,” Brown said.
It was Brown’s compatriots, Collentine and Larsen, who first brought Horton’s find to his attention when they saw her story in People magazine several years ago. “I say, ‘Yeah, it looks like mine,’ “ Brown recalled.
The matter got revisited, again thanks to Collentine and Larsen, when a recent feature in the New York Times announced the debut New York screening of Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?—a documentary film about Horton’s quest, produced and directed by 60 Minutes big shots Don Hewitt, Steven Hewitt and Harry Moses.
“We all kind of forgot about it, until we saw that they were doing a film about it,” said Larsen.
Collentine contacted the film company, Picturehouse, about the chance that Brown might be creator of the painting. Other than a brief call for restraint from the Florida investment group interested in buying the painting, and a dismissive message by Horton on the film company’s online bulletin board, no attempts at addressing Brown’s possible connection to the painting have been made. (E-mails from CN&R to Picturehouse and art dealer Volpe were not returned by press time.)
“I would like to see the piece,” Brown said. “If I could see the piece close-up, then I could see if I did it.”
In the film, defending Horton’s claim to authenticity is Montreal forensic expert Peter Paul Biro, whose case is anchored by a single fingerprint collected from Horton’s find that has been matched to fingerprints found in Pollock’s preserved studio and on several confirmed works by the artist. On the other side, major connoisseurs such as Thomas Hoving, former director of the New York Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, and Pollock expert Ben Heller don’t believe the work is a true Pollock.
For his part, Brown agrees with Hoving and Heller.
“When I started in art, business and art had absolutely nothing in common. I still believe that. The whole big money art world—it’s just a bunch of crap.”
An interesting side note to both Brown’s and Horton’s stories is that both of them are lifelong thrift store junkies. Brown has helped supplement his income by amassing and selling themed book collections ("I have the best collection of ‘60s social and political issues books—over 7,000 volumes"), and like Horton, he’s even come across a piece of familiar art from time to time.
“I found one of my own paintings at a thrift store,” Brown admitted, adding, “I won’t tell you how much I paid for it.”