Mike Brown

<strong>Mike Brown</strong><br/> Born 1938, Sydney – died 1997, Melbourne<br/> Residencies: c.1961-1962 Annandale, Sydney, NSW; c.1965-1997 Melbourne, VIC<br/><br/><i>Delusion II</i> 1981 <br/>Acrylic on canvas, 40.5 x 51.6cm <br/>Charles Darwin University Art Collection – CDU47<br/> Acquired by purchase, 1981<br/> Image © the artist’s estate

Described by his biographer Richard Haese as an “unremitting opponent of censorship, a provocateur, artistic anarchist, archetypal trickster, quixotic crusader and polemicist”, the late Mike Brown was, along with New Zealand artist Ross Crothall and Sydney artist Colin Lanceley, a founder of the subversive and iconoclastic artistic trio known as the Annandale Imitation Realists (1961-62).  Taking a “bowerbird approach to influences and styles” the short-lived collaborative group pioneered anti-formalist sculpture, collage and assemblage, drawing on hitherto relatively unexplored aspects of European Cubism in Australia: the use of found objects and non-traditional art materials, a belief in dissolving the boundaries between painting and sculpture and an irreverent or satirical deployment of “word-play”.

From Surrealism and Dada the group also inherited the avant-garde’s respect for the aesthetic power of non-Western or “primitive” art. Unlike their European predecessors however, whose exposure to Indigenous art was more often experienced at a remote distance from its source, the Annandale Imitation Realists had direct contact with both the art and people of the South Pacific, New Zealand and New Guinea, as well as Aboriginal Australia. The most immediate source and stimulus for the group’s creative practice was “the clutter and chaos of graffiti and sign-laden realities of urban Sydney, with its litter of refuse, cast-off junk and chain-store trash”: a species of 20th century Australian urban tribalism.

Throughout his lifetime, Brown’s philosophical approach to making art remained essentially as initially expressed by him when his work came to public attention in the early 1960s. He believed in “pushing in all directions at once” and “consciously avoided becoming a specialist”, his work traversing and criss-crossing between pop-cultural text, painting, drawing, assemblage, graffiti, pornographic collage, mural painting and early computer art. He took a “hard line” and an “almost fundamentalist attitude to inventiveness”, never wanting to be pigeon-holed or classified according to a particular style, genre or medium. In 1966, he was the only Australian artist to have ever been successfully prosecuted for obscenity, his case becoming the focus of a seminal civil liberties campaign during the period.  His prevailing attitude to “leftist cultural politics” lay however, “in his understanding of one of Dada and Surrealism’s deepest impulses – the dissolution of art into everyday life.”  As Haese has observed, he was an Australian proto-postmodernist in the sense that he believed in the “democratisation of art” and its realignment with the everyday. In Brown’s view, art “is what people do and what they are.”

Brown’s cosmic and explosive “mindscapes”, realised as drawings, paintings and large-scale murals, prefigure contemporary street art. Emanating from the late 1960s and 1970s, their abstract, labyrinthine and improvisational forms reflected the artist’s ambition to mine the unconscious sources of creativity and explore “the relationship between the visionary and mystical”, paralleled in his use of hallucinogenic drugs. Also influential to the works’ compositional structure was the artist’s fascination with geometric and decorative forms, as reflected in Oceanic art, and “pattern painting” drawn from Islamic, Byzantine and Celtic art to folk arts and crafts. For Brown, “flat, frontal and bold designs” encompassed “a more aesthetically coherent language than painterly abstraction”, at the same time challenging “old formalist dogma.” With “a forthright and linear character” and a clear and undisguised purpose, they offered an effective vehicle for communicating abstract thought and exploring the aesthetic and metaphysical wellsprings of art. 

Art critic Elwyn Lynn described one of Brown’s earliest “mindscapes” as marked by “staccato movements, broken forms, sudden twitches … like a rioting tapa cloth.” As in Delusion II 1981, a “concealed rhythm saves it from chaos”, with a dialectical exchange established between opposing tendencies that punctuate the visual realm: organic and inorganic forms, clarity and diffusion, reason and intuition, order and chaos. For Brown, the “mindscapes” represented a “Yin/Yang game” that was “endlessly entertaining.” Brown resumed his pursuit of “a comprehensive abstract based style of painting” in the early 1970s, when he withdrew from urban life to the country in South Gippsland, Victoria. His survey exhibition Embracing Chaos, held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1977, represented this body of work as a major direction in the artist’s oeuvre. A major retrospective, entitled Power to the People, was curated by Richard Haese and held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1995.

Brown was also an accomplished writer and incisive essayist, unafraid to make his beliefs and values known. His catalogue essay for a 1972 exhibition at Watters Gallery in Sydney [I Don’t Know What to Think About Anything (It Don’t Matter No-How)] carries a timeless message through to the present, as relevant today as it was to an earlier generation. One extract suffices to illuminate Brown’s moral and philosophical stance:

We have forgotten that art isn’t some special condiment your splash on life to make it taste a little better: if it’s anything at all, it’s everything there is, or was or will be, everything that a person can do, think or say to another. It’s a way of living and thinking, a way for me to transmit to you the totality of my being and for you to transmit your totality to me.

The work of Mike Brown is represented in major public, private and corporate collections in Australia. Delusion II 1981 will be displayed in the CDU Art Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, Made to last: the conservation of art, showing from 10 April to 27 June 2014.

Anita Angel, Curator
Charles Darwin University Art Collection and Art Gallery
5 March 2014

Richard Haese, Permanent Revolution: Mike Brown and the Australian avant-garde 1953-1997, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2011

Lesley Harding & Sue Cramer, Cubism and Australian Art, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2009

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