Wanderlust by Laura Fisher: March 2014

It is hard to imagine a more appropriate title for this retrospective than Wanderlust. The Romantic heritage of the term speaks strongly to Bill’s sensibilities as an artist: he is intensely idealistic, and his practice has always been characterized by an unrelenting search for truth. Brown acts on the conviction that a work finds its fidelity through the artist’s preparedness to give voice to their inner world. Beyond these Romantic inclinations, Brown's wanderlust has applied just as much to the formal elements and processes of picture making. As he sees it, the act of making a painting is at heart a process of discovery, oriented by one point of departure after another. The pursuit of the authentic mark and a receptiveness to the evolving language of the particular work at hand prevail over any cerebral concerns with depicting a particular subject. Thus for Brown the painting endeavor 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.

Brown was born in Cowra in 1945 but was raised from infancy in Parramatta, western Sydney.  His talent for drawing, and his aspirations to be ‘an artist’, emerged early. In 1961, at the age of 15 he began night classes at the National Art School and, on the strength of having passed the College’s entrance exam, was successful in getting the first job he applied for – working as a trainee lay-out artist at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Inspired by Godfrey Miller  and against the pragmatic advice of others, he quit his job to study art full time. In 1967 he completed a Diploma in Painting and Drawing.

(Early drawings:  Portrait and early life drawing)

Brown’s strengths as a draughtsman were obvious, and he excelled at NAS.  His receipt of the National Art Students’ Club Prize in his final year testifies to his status as a star graduate of the School. He immediately began exhibiting with Rudy Komon gallery in Woollahra. The horse race paintings, inspired by Bill’s experiences at the track, were among his earliest exhibited works. Their dynamism arises from a synergy of flat planes, stencilled geometry, gestural brush work and the freely drawn line. Critic James Gleeson interpreted them as quintessential pop, an apposite characterisation given that Brown’s experience handling the pictorial imperatives of commercial design had been brought to bear to great effect: “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…” Specific reference to ‘Untitled Race Painting’, 1968, AGNSW. Also, ‘Unpainted’, 1968, collection of Kym Bonython, illustrated in ‘Australian Paintings and tapestries of the past 20 years’. 

(Untitled Race Painting,  Something Out of the Box)

It is hard to imagine a more stellar beginning to an artistic career. In the years since graduating he’d received a string of awards and been included in several survey and touring exhibitions. To have been picked up by Komon, who’s stable included Fred Williams, John Brack, Clifton Pugh, John Olsen and Leonard French was high praise indeed, and to have a work in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW at the age of 23 was remarkable. But 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 Bill pursued absolute abstraction, creating exuberant works in which he explored the expressive qualities of paint when variably applied and layered in washes. While a acrylic gouache work of this ilk, “Along the way” was awarded the Georges’ Invitation Purchase Prize in 1973, these works were not so well received in other quarters, including by critics such as Gleeson 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 the idea over form was irreconcilable with the kind of romantic inclinations of painters such as Brown, and his rare facility for drawing had diluted currency in an art world in which draftsmanship was no longer viewed as essential to the process of realising works. Brown took these developments very much to heart, and found himself without the means to withstand the self-doubt that suddenly enveloped him. Having made the decision that he would live to paint, what kind of relationship he could have with painting if ‘painting was dead’ and his career over? Brown ultimately destroyed many of the paintings of this period. Having achieved notoriety at such a young age, his crisis of confidence was played out very publicly, and its effects have reverberated throughout Brown’s career. It 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 the seductions of a professionalised approach to painting which he knew 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. Against the grain of recent art trends, he has always returned to modernist reference points which validate these instincts: Fairweather, Klee, Rothko, De Kooning and Guston.

For the remainder of the 1970s Brown battled to resurrect and toughen his practice in a less sympathetic environment. He produced several series of collage works which play on the tension between luscious, fluid paint and defined edges and straight lines. These works exemplify Brown’s enjoyment of juxtaposing soft organic forms with rigid geometry, something that we encounter in many later works. Two key works from this period are (Stalactites and Stalagmites/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 slim, stencilled (? Bill wonders what this means) 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.

MAYBE REMOVE: A series of crayon transfer drawings produced in 1979 also played with this structure. In these drawings we find 3 vertical lines bisected by a horizontal line, and surrounded by small markings, like little rubbings. Brown explored a range of ways of making drawn marks at this time, including rubbings, stencilling and transfers. Discussed by Alan Krell in his exhibition ‘Drawn Decades’ (Bill Brown, Fred Cress, Allan Mitelman) (Can’t reproduce these images but leave paragraph in)

Brown’s scarecrow series gave rise to the Levitator series (1980-81), which was produced with a mixture of acrylic and oil pastel. In these works, some of which were created on a very large scale, the three signature vertical rectangles in primary colours were turned to the horizontal. Placed on a black ground, they are surrounded by an agitated white field of variable coverage, in which the mark making is at times fluid and at times highly controlled. 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 kind of painting. In another way they are fulsomely organic, reminding one of images of teeming molecular life, or a mass of tiny creatures. Indeed 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 took Brown to Italy in (November to January 1981/2) where he created a series of landscape and restaurant scenes, again working with primary colours and an active white-on-black field. Elwyn Lyn wrote of these works that Brown had ‘now made his strokes of generally white paint an individual triumph…. In Minestrone Grazie, the white linear notations swarm, race and sweep against and around objects like foam in water’. The majority of these are now destroyed. The white-on-black field is explored further in the dramatic Parade  (1983) series, (a version of which, The Three, was acquired by the AGNSW in 1984), and to remarkably sinister effect in its centrepiece: a portrayal of his then wife Julie Brown-Rrap – Big Julie. This work was based on a painted sketch in which Brown, having completed Julie’s head and torso, impulsively filled in the little remaining space at the bottom of the page with the rest of her body. Translated to the large canvas with incisive black linework, this compositional quirk has generated an image in which Julie towers over us, and we feel as if the air is sucked out of the room.

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 the Botanical Gardens in Sydney. 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 have these objects allowed 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 many paintings a Sepik figure appears as a surrogate self, and their idiosyncratic qualities often serve to symbolically portray Brown’s different states, usually with some humour and irony. We find an early depiction of one of the carvings in the left hand image in Parade (1983). The cactuses, in contrast, are often metonyms of sexuality and the muse. As illustrated in the Succulent Garden series (beginning in 1985), the curvature of the cacti takes on a potent sensuality in Brown’s linear distillations. From the mid-1980s onwards, Brown’s reservoir of drawings of the Sepik carvings and the cactuses made it possible to create economical renditions of male and female forms, as well as seemingly androgynous bodies, which are both abstract and figurative. In many works (such as in the later Ship of Fools series) these forms become metaphors for love and lust, the indignity of unrequited love and rejection, the cuckold, and so on, while they also have an ambiguous presence in some works, as in the right hand figure in Sun Tung Fowl Ceremony (1986, Auckland Art Gallery).

In the late 1990s Brown drew again on the stencilling of earlier years in a new way. On large canvases, he created dense and highly-animated arrangements of well-defined 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 has a remarkably festive quality. Brown has treated the structural and representational elements of Manet’s painting as highly plastic: in both the sketches and finished works we see these elements being disaggregated, reduced to simpler shapes and markings, and given refined expressive purpose. Brown’s use of acrylic gouache, a medium chosen to alleviate respiratory problems, ensures the freshness of the paintwork despite the layering of forms. As Robert Gray wrote of the works in the show, ‘this paint not only allows spontaneous removal and reworking of large areas of the picture, it has the strange property of showing up every brushstroke while denying textural thickness’. Brown also experimented with the intersubjective dynamics of Manet’s painting. He set up a male and female model in his studio to emulate the poses of Manet’s figures, which allowed him to move around within the painting and to be part of the picnic as it were, and play with the eroticism of the scene that so scandalised viewers in its day.

In the years since the Manet’s Garden series Brown’s romantic sensibilities have perhaps found their most heightened expression. In the 19th century the Romantics observed the dramatic scientific and technological advances of their era with foreboding, and developed a sense of spirituality for a secular and rationalist age. This spirituality was founded upon a reverence for genuine and intense feeling, the sublime, and truth. Real art was now seen as a somewhat fugitive endeavour. As Brown reached his 60s, perhaps equally troubled by the social transformations he has witnessed in his lifetime, he began to articulate his ideas in kindred terms. Artistic ‘creation’ has taken on a weightier meaning, so that the process of picture making is increasingly interpreted as an act of grace made possible by a meditative preparedness to listen and receive. He 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 more or less recent changes in Brown’s life, including his sobriety since 1996 which required him to establish a new psychological grounding for his art making. Also, having retired from teaching in 2009, he has 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 tell him what they need.

If we return to the theme of Wanderlust, the question arises: does not the Romantic wanderer also get lost? Yes indeed. The Ship of Fools series, which marked the beginning of Brown’s association with Janet Clayton gallery, captures this most powerfully. Here the boat is a strong metaphor for Brown’s existential journeying. We find a man with a loudspeaker, adrift, surrounded by odd cactus and sepik motifs and, sometimes, a muse and a skull. Lost in a world he doesn’t understand, lost within himself, talking to an audience who does not care to listen, talking to himself. A sage among fools or a fool among… it makes no difference. But these are not fatalistic paintings: they are humourous and tender, and we are endeared to the passengers. Most poignantly, they seem to at once capture Brown’s impressions of the follies of the contemporary world, and the impressions the world has of him: that he is a somewhat eccentric, self-absorbed man only tenuously engaged with those around him.

The themes explored in Ship of Fools continued to be explored in Brown’s most recent show, Soliloquy (2010), the title being a testament to the self-referential inclinations behind the imagery. Here a more varied collection of figures is present, and a more carnivalesque atmosphere prevails, with the exception of the liquid and placid Canard. The skull from Ship of Fools appears more frequently, an uncanny prophetic image as he suffered a minor stroke in 2011 and a heart bypass in 2012.  Brown senses the nearness of death. In the years since that last exhibition, Brown has produced a series of compelling self-portraits in wax crayon and compressed graphite in which we find a fractured face. The intense reflexivity of his practice, and the frankness of his self-assessment, continues.

If we reflect on Brown’s biography, we can perceive that he was perhaps lost when he arrived, having been a naïve and sensitive teenager before he entered the bohemian world of the National Art School in the 1960s. The highs and lows of his 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, have been self-destructive, both professionally and psychologically. This is partly why solitude has been an inescapable condition for him. Having committed himself wholeheartedly to painting, where else was Brown to go when he was told that he had ‘lost it’ in his early 30s other than to the studio? 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.

Throughout his life, and at great expense, Brown has pursued a kind of pure liberty of expression, a place where he could be free of doubt without anticipating the judgement of others. What people will hopefully take away from this exhibition is the recognition that Brown lives this struggle that all of us face in one way or another in our lives. 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.