Opening speech for 2018 Exhibition.
By JOHN CRUTHERS.
The first painting by David Brook I saw was in a group exhibition in Bondi in 2008. I was impressed and soon after we met and David showed me some of his Life Paintings. They were depictions of the eastern suburbs – streets and houses, parks, corners of the harbour, everyday life. I’ve always liked this kind of work, which has a long history in 20th-century Australian art. Russian émigré Danila Vassilief painted the streets of urban Fitzroy in the 1930s and 40s and influenced a generation of artists including Nolan, Tucker, and Perceval. Or the Swiss Sali Hermann, who was known as the terrace house painter for his depictions of Paddington, at that time a slum. It’s an approach that still appeals to artists like Tom Carment or Noel McKenna, or David.
There’s a kind of honesty and directness in this work. But it’s a genre of art which disguises its art in the cloak of the everyday. Flat depictions of streets or corner shops are not in themselves interesting. It takes a much closer look, a more attuned eye. David talks about this is his notes to accompany this exhibition, which are really worth reading –
I enjoy and look forward to painting from everyday life because it is experiential. The experience is not only the act of painting but the shift to looking at the world from a different perspective…. When you’re just hanging around for the sake of seeing and experiencing this, you get a richer feeling of your reality. You develop a feeling for the place, even if you’re painting your own street, and that feeling of a sense of place can sometimes last for hours.
So it’s about achieving a different vision, of selecting and combining events and visual details into a summary of the experience or view that prompted the painting. The end result is paintings that remake the everyday world, allowing us to see the familiar in a different, richer, more intense way.
Over recent years David has moved away from the straightforward painterly approach of the Life Paintings. While the subject matter may stay the same, he has introduced pattern into his work. This allows him to break up the reality he sees, for example into bands that alternate objects and patterns - linear landscapes that he calls Topographies. David’s use of pattern has given him much more control over the painted surface, which is even more pronounced when he also uses dotting. Patterning and dotting act as a kind of gauze or grid, pushing the figurative elements backward, flattening and geometricizing them, and unifying the composition. They also introduce a distinct visual hum, an optical effect that suggests an almost cosmic energy that starts from the tiniest marks and radiates out.
The newest paintings in the exhibition, made when David and Hanna visited China earlier this year, show how dotting and a low key, tonal palette can create works of unexpected visual and emotional power.
I’d like to finish with a brief comment on the role of people in David’s paintings. You notice pretty quickly that David’s human subjects nearly always have their eyes closed. When I asked about this, he said he was more interested in depicting people looking within that staring out at the viewer. He is interested in inner worlds, but evoked using the outer world as a scaffold on which to build a sense of experience, feeling, and emotion into the painting.
So these paintings of landscapes, cities, and people are also about something entirely different. They are about states of mind, about energy, about the ecstatic experience, about a universe humming and buzzing with life force. They offer something unique, and I urge you to take it up, to do as Robert MacPherson implored at the end of his series Little pictures for the poor: “Enquire within”.
John Cruthers is a Sydney-based art consultant, curator, writer and collector. He is a curator of the Grundy Collection of Australian art and curatorial adviser of the Cruthers Collection of Women's Art at the University of Western Australia.