Sunday, 5 July 2009

On John Brack @ NGV

Something curious happened when I saw the compelling and exhaustive John Brack retrospective at the Federation Square branch of the NGV.  I wasn't sure how I felt.  If there is a Brack canon the parts I knew were the big canvasses of urban life, at a time when men still wore hats, that were at once insightful and hymns to geometry.  There were the nudes too, the precise and concrete drawings and lithographs of women on chairs and rugs.  On either side of this body of work (which spans around thirty years) sits a set of early observational portraits that seem to seethe with disapproval and rooms full of vast canvasses of unstill lives, almost allegorical paintings of a world populated only by hyper-realistically rendered pencils and mannequins.  Between these it felt like the middle, my romance with Brack, were being stretched until it snapped.

What makes so much of Brack's work seductive is the immediate recognition we have that it comes from a world we know, even when half a century separates us.  Often he painted what might have been called genre pictures in an earlier age, rendering the domestic and commercial with a fine brush and a non-judgemental eye.  However there is always a highly formal element to Brack, it would be possible to believe he preferred the geometry of a face to the person behind it.  The early pictures are unsettling if you expect nothing more than well observed vignettes of modern life.

Pictures such as 'The Veil' and 'The Jockey and his Wife' smack of a traditional bohemian distaste for the lower-middle classes.  Lack of empathy is betrayed by rictus smiles and it is virtually impossible to imagine that these paintings are even neutral in their regard for their subject.  Perhaps it's typical of a young artist struggling to find a way, the representation of the pleasure of working class women has always been a decent litmus test of the attitude of male writers and artists, the harpy and the harridan are fairly common dramatis personae from this period, with the world on the edge of a consumer revolution.    Even in something quite beautiful, like 'The New House' you can't quite escape the fact that the echo of Van Eyck's 'Arnolfini Portrait' might be a not so sly form of mockery.  All of that said a couple of pictures ought not to destroy our reckoning of a career and the NGV is, at least, honest in letting us see Brack's development.

This, let us be generous and say, 'distance' infects some of Brack's best known works.  'Collins St. 5p.m.' is perhaps the best known painting of Melbourne.  Its two lines of shuffling commuters, on either side of the street remind us of nothing so much as the drones of 'Metropolis'.  Skin, fabric and masonry all assume variations of the same tone as these contemporary types leave for home.  We see into the nostrils of every woman and each man (with one exception) has the same Easter Island profile.  The artist often denies the individuality of the masses, here it's just very close to the surface.  The sense of men and women shaped by their surroundings is still interesting.  The visual puns and rhymes of 'Men's Wear' manage to do this without condemning a whole class to flock-like oblivion.  The folded cloth on the shelves echoes the mannequin's features and perhaps it is the artist who, reflected as a silhouette in the mirror, who thinks twice about stepping in and donning a new face.

Brack's masterful observations of the Australian physiognomy are one of those things that bring us closer to him.  He captures faces and types in ways that aren't always so harsh.  'Three of the Players' from 1953 is both a perfect expression of football card stereotypes and a virtual snapshot of the Aussie bloke.  It's in the sporting milieu that Brack, following Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec, seems to find a balance between caricature and respect.  His racecourse pictures are show jockeys with etched skin like nut kernels and a thousand subtleties in the posture and gesture of their 'connections'.  The figures in these pictures inhabit real space even though they are still strongly graphic.  Each is highly economical, shadow is virtually absent, but the angle between jockey and trainer in 'The Conference' speaks more eloquently than any facial expression might.

It might be that what Brack did best was use the music of angles and lines to underscore stories of the human.  The straight back in 'Nude with Two Chairs' speaks of a disciplined composure whilst his ballroom dancers live in a world of arcs and planes of colour, along which they glide.  This might be the key to Brack's art, his composition and line which initially appear mannered and artificial are simply precise analogues for very human feelings.  This is, of course, no less authentic than the impressionistic slashes and impasto that we accept as visualisation of the internal.  It's just a little less conventional.

If Brack is an artist of the suburban and the domestic then it is the images of his daughters that are most affecting.  'The Girls at School' could not present two more beautifully characterized children, one grimly determined another resignedly serene.  Each almost strangles a posy in their respective fists and seems to burst out of the two grids, one of brick the other of dress fabric, that they are squeezed between.  As with the small drypoint prints of first, second, third and fourth daughter Brack finds something individual in their physical natures that appears to suggest a character type, there's the eager determined one one cleaning her teeth and the sulky brave one refusing to cry.  Never does the stylisation of these drawings make them seem clinical.

Portraiture might see the best of Brack.  In 'Portrait of a Man (Fred Williams)' and 'Portrait of Tam Purves' Brack adopts a more naturalistic and fleshy realism bit never veers away from dramatic and angular composition.  These portraits (and there are many highlights from this part of Brack's work in the show) demonstrate him as absolutely the humane artist.  The way Williams sits, a wrist on one knee a palm on the other captures a restless energy you might not associate with a big man.  This is coupled with a mid-distance stare that looks at once distratcted and brooding.  It is a portrait of turmoil.  Brack may have had a talent for observation on a broad reportage scale but the idea that an artist can identify and render such physical subtlety without a deep empathy for an individual subject is stretching a point past breaking.

I will confess that much of the late work of Brack, after the mid 1980's leaves me cold.  Here he appears to have settled into a series of visual experiments that revolve around postcards, pencils (hundreds of them) and playing cards.  They are executed in exquisite illusionist detail but each carrys with it a a heavy handed symbolism that means they have little to offer other than a visual game.  It is a strange detour for the final work of such a powerful artist, and not necessarily an easy one.  One can't help thinking that these inanimate objects were just less troublesome than people.

John Brack's work is challenging for us on a number of levels.  At times it's clear that given the choice between paint or people Brack would reach for his brush every time.  Yet he is also an incredible observer of Australians, you need only walk down a street or board a bus and you will see his faces around you.  At his best Brack uses his angular forms to reduce the human down to the essential, at his worst he makes real people appear to be caricatures, it is the difference between the inner and outer levels of observation.  There is much to admire here and much more to stimulate, John Brack is a less easy artist to love than I imagined but a far more interesting one.

1 comment:

  1. Hi John

    I wrote up my impressions of this exhibition in and must agree with you. The artist's later work leaves you cold and me disappointed; it almost seems experimental.
    Otherwise it was a super display of post-WW2 Australia.

    Art and Architecture, mainly