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Brian Johns talks to Bill Brown
How did the boy from Parramatta land in the famous art school in East Sydney?
I think it?s a consequence of being pointed that way as a child. My early painting efforts were hung around the house and visitors seemed impressed. When I was fifteen at school we were asked to decide on our futures ? going further academically or getting a job. When it came to my turn spontaneously the words spat out, ?I am going to be an artist?.
How did the boy from Parramatta land in the famous art school in East Sydney?
I think it’s a consequence of being pointed that way as a child. My early painting efforts were hung around the house and visitors seemed impressed. When I was fifteen at school we were asked to decide on our futures – going further academically or getting a job. When it came to my turn spontaneously the words spat out, “I am going to be an artist”.
So that was where I started, at fifteen sitting the (National Art School) entrance test and I was accepted into the evening classes. With this, I landed a job at the first place I tried which was J. Walter Thompson – a big advertising agency.
It was an amazing experience - I learned standards by doing things again. Once I made a mistake and the art buyer said, “you don’t really want me to put a ruler on that line do you?”. And I said “no”. And so you go back and do it again. It was a discipline.
I also learned from working with the layout artists. A sheet of words was the basis of the whole campaign - and they would have to visualize it. I watched the way these guys generated images. Start off with a small core - a small idea. It just expands.
The fact is too that it would have been task orientated wouldn’t it? You got a job and you had to complete a job. Did that help your painting?
I would like to say “yes” but I’m not sure. I am stubborn. Now, I see things through. I have learned that.
And it was a great time
Yes it was so exciting. The 60s were about imagination, change and revolution. There were the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Sydney Push, the Vietnam War and its politics and it was a bohemian time.
And it was a very rich time, for the heart. We had the London exhibitions of Australian paintings at the Tate Gallery and the Whitechapel show. People were beginning to notice. We had commercial galleries starting to open up and mushroom. It seemed to me that art, of all cultural activity, was ahead of the game. In terms of the questions we were asking, like Australian identity, art was making it in a way.
So who were your influences at art school?
There were a few familiar Australian models like Nolan, Miller and Fairweather. Also Francis Bacon and De Kooning. These were the painters I identified with.
Godfrey Miller would have been a teacher the National Art School
I studied in his evening classes in 1963/64 and a new world opened up to me. I saved money. Against all the best advice, I quit my job.
Well it was a lure that I couldn’t resist. I can’t explain how a 17 year-old has these feelings for painting. And then makes a decision against all the advice. I would say it was a calling.
You seemed to have had a strong social dimension to your thinking. Was it broadly political or social?
Yes I think it was a mixture of both. What I want to do in my art is to show my humanity. When I left commercial art, I left behind the idea of business. If I had stayed in that business, I would have had success in material terms.
And you never looked back?
Oh no. No regrets. This is my life. What I have done is teach as a way of funding the private side. It’s also my social dimension.
You began showing early
Yes. I showed with Rudy Komon when I was 22. I showed with Bonython. I showed with Macquarie Galleries. I showed with Rex Irwin. I have shown with the best galleries.
It was a time when Fred Williams, John Brack, Arthur Boyd, Colin Lanceley, Jan Senbergs, Robert Klippel were hitting their straps in one gallery or another, mainly Rudy actually.
Is drawing important to you?
Drawing is the key to opening up the picture plane. Almost all my work arrives through the drawing process – putting form on a surface and into spcace.
So are these paintings autobiographical?
They are. They exist primarily for me to build meaning in my life. They trace the rise and fall of emotion. Through touch, I appear in all of them. Sometimes I put myself, an image, next to what is going on
The colours are very vivid. Not having seen your work for a while, is this something of a departure or a development?
I think everything is a departure and a development. It is like the boat - that is also part of it - the arriving and the departing. The Ship of Fools is just a box that I put things from my life in and plonked it on a rough sea. But you can’t be too literal. They are held together by their visuals.
Accepting that, it seems to me that older painters strike out, they suddenly strike out. I’m thinking Lloyd Rees – he suddenly struck out of his pattern. Kevin Connor is another - it seems to me that he is using stronger colour. And I wonder if that comes with maturity or age?
It does. There is a loss of detail in your vision. And you feel confident about it. There comes a point when you are actually ahead of your experience and so you are then forced to make imaginative leaps. And if they don’t work you go back and revisit. So there is always a breakdown of belief, and a breakthrough.
Do you think that these paintings are more interior?
Yes, very much, it is a very interior space now.
Do you think that comes with age?
I am at an age now that I am not embarrassed by it. That’s important.
What do you think we need as people who are interested?
I think it gives a sense of other and more trust in the intuitive response. It gives form to fiction.
Tell me about that.
I made a breakthrough in painting when I understood that it was all an illusion. Then the whole thing became real. That sounds like a paradox. But it’s true. And once it became that real, then I could enter into this world whenever I liked to. When you go to the cinema, you know that you are not just in that theatre. You are in the film. That’s how I am when I am in the pictures. When I am painting, I am in there with them. I am carried away. I talk to them. I question them subjectively and objectively.
So your craft. Are you still learning?
Any craft that I have is gleaned experientially. I’m always watching what I do. I’ve learnt to avoid habit and repetition. I focus on form rather than hand skills. There’s more play in my work now.
It’s interesting that both Godfrey Miller and Fairweather were in a sense outsiders. Was it not only their art that interested you? Was it the way they lived?
Yes I think that’s so. I could never stand attention to, or hold the line with ‘isms’, business, or extrinsic measure.
Is that another way of saying that you were not going to be captive of any school or group?
Yes, I couldn’t hold the line with dogma, or the absolute. I could hear what they were saying, and I have learnt the lessons from it. But I am just too restless. I prefer an existential path. I am told and I believe my work is built from a ‘vision in disbelief’.
Do you think that comes with maturity?
The passing of time has convinced me to look for the intrinsic beauty in all things. I’m showing more gratitude these days.
So are you looking forward to this exhibition?
Yes I am. It will put an end to a time, and something new will begin. They’re complex works. They involve a wrestling with some sort of vision of life. They seem playful but they do have a pessimistic side, there is a leaving as well as an arriving. The Ship of Fools is a metaphor for us all.
Brian Johns has been an art collector for the past 30 years.