Many years ago, when I was still a baby art critic, I remember Bill Brown at a party bawling drunkenly that he was the best painter in Australia. Having never seen his work I was in no position to argue. Shortly afterwards, Brown had a solo exhibition at the old Macquarie Galleries. If he was not, after all, the greatest painter in Australia, he came across as an artist of undeniable ability – an original, eccentric talent.
Almost 30 years later, Brown (b.1945) has lost his desperate, aggressive, insecure edge. He is sober and monkish in his habits, but remains a gifted artist.
The S.H. Ervin Gallery is hosting a 50-year retrospective of Brown’s work, titled Wanderlust. In a more equitable world this survey would be at the Art Gallery of NSW, but it has been left to the S.H. Ervin to provide a showcase for another notable Sydney artist. The list is growing longer from year to year.
Over the course of a lengthy career Brown has been a victim of his own emotional instabilities. He is a textbook example of the adage that those whom the Gods would destroy they first declare “highly promising”. Brown was attending classes at the National Art School at the age of 15 and had his first solo exhibition at the prestigious Rudy Komon Gallery when he was 23 years old. It was no mean feat for a young painter to be showing in the same company as Fred Williams, John Brack and John Olsen. At the same time he had a work acquired by the AGNSW.
This early success set up expectations that were hard to maintain. Part of the problem was the pressure to stay ahead of the game – to give the impression your work is constantly evolving in tandem with the latest wave. It’s a perennial issue for young artists who may spend a long time experimenting, trying to discover a path that feels right. Think of someone like Guy Maestri, who has already explored extremes of abstraction and figuration in an exhibiting career of only 10 years.
Experimenting with art is like experimenting with sex. To a certain point it seems natural and normal, but as the years add up it’s tacitly expected that one will settle into a stable relationship and lifestyle – even a Bohemian lifestyle.
Brown owed his youthful prominence to a series of Pop Art paintings with vague overtones of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Works such as Untitled Race Painting (1968) are almost textbook examples of that expressive incarnation of Pop. The subject matter is drawn from the world of popular culture (ie. the racetrack), the colour is bright and assertive; but there is a studied insouciance in the looseness of the drawing, the spatters and drips of paint, and the collage-like composition. The picture is a game in which Brown hints at a mastery revealed only in glimpses.
Between Brown’s Pop paintings of 1968 and his pure abstractions of 1972, there is a chasm. In her catalogue essay, Laura Fisher refers to “a prolonged crisis of confidence”. We see an artist who has put aside his figurative impulses and reinvented himself as a lyrical abstractionist. Viewed in isolation a picture such as The First Scarecrow (1973-77) is an attractive, slightly tricksy piece of work, with its contrasting bars of colour carved out by masking tape, and a gestural white overlay. It’s alarming, however, to realise this small work on paper took four years from start to finish. Whatever breakthroughs Brown made with this piece, they were hard won.
To be or not to be? Figuration or abstraction? Brown was not the only painter playing Hamlet in those days. Fred Cress, for example, veered from Pop-style figuration to lyrical abstraction, and back to figuration. But while Cress made these moves with a professional ease, Brown could never feel comfortable. This is one of the reasons the show is called Wanderlust, and the artist portrayed as a Romantic in the catalogue essay.
The Romantic sensibility is synonymous with radical dissatisfaction, idealism and rebellion. Brown’s rebellion took aim at the mechanisms of the artworld, which he found cynical and stultifying, and at himself. As if to chasten his own fluent draughtsmanship he began to employ short, staccato bars of paint. In pictures such as Besozzo Bongiorno (1982), he would paint a surface black, then cover it with a mass of white strokes interrupted by the bare outlines of a landscape in primary red, blue and yellow. These pictures were not strictly figurative nor were they abstract. They used colour in an almost mechanistic fashion.
By the mid-1980s Brown’s pictures were filled with cryptic, personal symbols floating on fields of white. Sun Tung Fowl Ceremony (1985) uses phallic forms that might be a tongue, the stamen of a flower, or a banana half out of its skin. The rooster’s head in this picture recurs obsessively in other works, presumably as a disguised self-portrait.
The paintings grow more wild and expressive, infected with creeping shades of grey. Suddenly there is another chasm, which might be interpreted as a new “crisis”.
Between 1990 and 1996 Brown held no solo exhibitions.
When he re-emerged, with paintings such as Mickey Kicks a Goal (1998), there was a newfound verve, a willingness to get all the parts of a composition working together.
By the time we get to paintings such as Sur l‘Herbe (2001), based on Manet’s notorious ‘luncheon on the grass’ scene, there is an unmistakable sense of joie-de-vivre. There is so much going on in this work one can hardly discern the figures. There are straight and curved lines, a thrusting arm, a black dot for an eye, intrusive bursts of green and cobalt, and even a cavalier swirl of paint drifting away like a cartoon. This luncheon is so energised it’s almost indigestible.
The final part of this stop-start journey brings us to the work of the last six years, starting with Ship of Fools (2008), a bizarre, crudely-painted image of the artist talking through a megaphone while sitting in a boat. The other passengers are a Sepik River carving and the upside-down figure of a woman. Hands reach out from the water, like doomed souls in Dante’s Inferno.
This clumsy, histrionic painting acts as precursor for the works that follow, which are preoccupied with themes of old age and mortality. Double Crossing (2010), for instance, shows Brown’s own head and the grinning skull of death, adrift in a small dinghy.
It sounds maudlin but the effect is quite different. There is a grim humour in these paintings, as if Brown had decided there was no point in lamenting his age and infirmities. The cavalcade of skulls, elephants, naked ladies, and sad, bald-headed men is painted with an expressive freedom missing from much of Brown’s earlier work. An image of skulls growing on trees embraces a form of Gothic melodrama reminiscent of a Tim Burton film.
Where Brown’s early Pop paintings flaunted their sophistication with a knowing wink, these late works look like something found under the lino in Edvard Munch’s attic. The lack of inhibition is unsettling but also exhilarating. It requires chutzpah to be so recklessly theatrical when you have spent much of your career brooding over the direction you are taking, or not taking.
From the audience’s point of view, there is a fascination in a show that doesn’t follow a steady, predictable course in which the artist struggles at first, before growing rich and famous. Scientists talk about “Brownian motion”, which refers to the random movement of suspended particles. It would make an excellent alternative title for this retrospective.
Out of the ruins of a life’s work, in which we catch the glint of diamonds amid the rubble, Brown has found a place where he can turn his melancholy into a kind of happiness. It’s an upbeat ending but the story is not complete. To accompany the S.H. Ervin survey Brown has a show of new work opening today at the Janet Clayton Gallery in Danks St. I’m not foolhardy enough to make any predictions.
Bill Brown: Wanderlust
Retrospective Survey: 50 Years 1964-2014
S.H. Ervin Gallery, until 1 June
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 3 May, 2014