For Bill Brown, the act of making a painting is at heart a process of discovery, oriented by one point of departure after another. Brown’s pursuit of an authentic mark and receptiveness to the evolving language of the particular work at hand prevails over any cerebral concerns with depicting a particular subject. Thus, the painting endeavour involves immersing oneself, with a high degree of trust, in a prolonged process of experimentation and transformation. In his own words: “the poet’s duty is to have loyalty to the vision unfolding in the poem, not the subject of inspiration.” It is an ethos he has conveyed eloquently to countless art students over the years.
After graduating from the National Art School, Sydney in 1967, Brown immediately began exhibiting with Rudy Komon Gallery in Woollahra. The horse race paintings (1968), inspired by his experiences at the track, were among his earliest exhibited works. Their dynamism arises from a synergy of flat planes, geometry, gestural brushwork and the freely drawn line. Critic James Gleeson interpreted them as quintessential pop, an apt characterisation given Brown’s experience handling the pictorial imperatives of commercial design: “Sharp-edged circles often cut across the field like a pair of sweeping binoculars, flags fly against a blue sky, and the paint spatters and drips like turf kicked up by galloping hoofs. He has caught the flurry and excitement of the racetrack…”
Brown’s experiences in the next few years would lead to a prolonged crisis of confidence and intense bouts of depression. Pressing on in an experimental mode, in the early 1970s Brown pursued absolute abstraction, creating exuberant works in which he explored the expressive qualities of paint when variably applied and layered in washes. These works were not so well received in other quarters, including by critics and some peers who gleefully proposed that he was ‘finished’.
At the same time, the frontier of contemporary Australian art had embraced conceptualism. The privileging of idea over form was irreconcilable with the kind of romantic inclinations of painters such as Brown, and his facility for drawing had diluted currency in an art world in which draughtsmanship was no longer viewed as essential. Brown took these developments to heart, and found himself unable to withstand the self-doubt that enveloped him.
Having made the decision that he would live to paint, what kind of relationship could he have with painting if ‘painting was dead’ and his career over? Brown ultimately destroyed many of his paintings of this period. This has meant that his work in the studio has been guided by a persistent reflexivity, as he has negotiated indefatigable doubt and maintained a principled stance against a professionalised approach to painting. He knew this would suffocate his drive to experiment and to take risks. He has largely stayed true to his instinctual love of lyrical forms, and has sustained a drawing practice in which he can always become lost in a journey of intuitive discovery.
For the remainder of the 1970s, Brown battled to resurrect and toughen in a less sympathetic environment. He produced several series of collage works that play on the tension between luscious, fluid paint and defined lines. These works exemplify Brown’s enjoyment of juxtaposing soft organic forms with rigid geometry, which we encounter in many later works. Two key works from this period are ‘Stalactites and Stalagmites’ and ‘Dancing After Dark’ (1977). Brown’s attention to geometry at this time was partly a response to his anxiety about the sentimentality of his artistic disposition.
His new, more disciplined approach found potent results in his figure in a field, and scarecrow paintings (1978-80). Here, Brown forced himself to work with the most rudimentary of forms – a rectangle in a field. The austerity of their structure is offset by the luminosity of their primary colours, generating taut paintings in which each rectangle appears like a vessel pushing resolutely through a rough sea. A series of crayon transfer drawings produced in 1979 also played with this structure. In the drawings we find 3 vertical lines bisected by a horizontal line, and surrounded by small markings, some of them rubbings.
Brown’s scarecrow series gave rise to the Levitator Series (1980-81), which were produced with a mixture of acrylic and oil pastel. These paintings radiate an extraordinary energy. Once again they display strategic design principles, while their minimal yet declarative use of colour are indicative of Brown’s consideration of the way in which colour vibrations influence our impressions of pictorial space. Their optical intensity makes them stand out as unique in Brown’s oeuvre and indeed, they seem to have more in common with digitised imagery or the pulsing fluoro and black colour-scheme of a 1980s video-clip, than any other painting.
In another way they are fulsomely organic, reminding one of teeming molecular life, or a mass of tiny creatures. Brown titled a related group of works the Imago Series (1981), alluding to the final phase of an insect’s metamorphosis to maturity.
The overlay of white markings on a black ground recurs in numerous paintings Brown made in the following years, and it was an approach that enabled a gradual return to figuration. A grant from the Visual Arts Board made it possible for Brown to stay in Italy from November 1981 to January 1982, where he created a series of landscape and restaurant scenes, again working with primary colours and a white-on-black field.
Brown’s return to figuration at this time was assisted by his exploration of two subjects that, in subsequent years, have provided him with unlimited possibilities for interpretation: a series of wooden Sepik Carvings that he had acquired in 1975, and the Cactus Garden at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Brown’s hours of recursive study of these forms has generated a corpus of imagery that is now immediately recognisable as being intrinsic to his work. Both the carvings and the cactuses have been the subject of countless ‘form and variation’ sketches in pencil, pastel and pen and ink, which often refer not to the objects themselves, but to earlier depictions of them.
Not only did these objects allow Brown to exercise his love for figurative drawing, they became increasingly important tools for Brown’s emotive and philosophical reflections on the human condition.
In the late 1990s, Brown drew on the collage effect of earlier works in a new way. On large canvases, he created dense and highly animated arrangements of black shapes overlayed with colour. These investigations of pictorial space and energy found a focused trajectory in 2000 when Brown, inspired by a transcription exercise being undertaken at the National Art School, decided to reinterpret Eduard Manet’s radical painting ‘Le déjeuner sur l’herbe’ (1863). The Manet’s Garden series that eventuated is imbued with a remarkably festive quality. Brown has treated the structural and representational elements of Manet’s painting as plastic; in both the sketches and finished works we see these elements being disaggregated, reduced, and given refined expressive purpose. His use of acrylic gouache, a medium chosen to alleviate respiratory problems, ensures the freshness of the paintwork despite the layering of forms.
Brown, in his 60s, describes artistic purpose as being dependent upon self-forgetting and finding a presence of mind in the moment, and surrendering to the imagination. These orientations can be traced to many recent changes in Brown’s life, including having retired from teaching in 2009, which has allowed him far more free and unpressured time to dedicate to his work. He often maintains a contemplative state in the studio for many hours, waiting for his unfinished works to speak to him.
The highs and lows of Brown’s career speak very much of that condition which arises when a person finds themselves immersed in and dependent upon a system which they feel to be corrupt, and which they cannot help but resist to their own detriment.
In many ways, Brown exemplifies the Conradian anti-hero, as his will to assert his independence from the art world that he has found suspect, and thus to resist the strategic imperatives that follow from success, has been self-destructive, both professionally and psychologically.
And while solitude fuelled resentment, anger and anxiety, it also provided respite, and Brown learned that he could always find a fragile peace through drawing. Brown has refused to grow up; he has refused to allow pragmatism to supersede idealism and remains stubbornly invested in his own, not necessarily rational or practical, grasp on reality. His paintings give form to those ethical and imaginative interrogations of self to which we should all commit, if not to the same degree.
This essay is a condensed version of the catalogue essay, Wanderlust.
Call and Response
1 -26 March 2017
Janet Clayton Gallery, Sydney
Bill Brown is represented by Janet Clayton Gallery, Sydney