Julian Brown, Future Islands works on Paper by Andrew Parkinson

There is something at the same time ancient and contemporary in the abstract watercolours of Julian Brown. The centuries old practice of painting is often considered today to be outmoded and abstraction is no longer fashionable, having been overtaken by high resolution digital imagery both in the contemporary art scene and in wider society.

Yet, when digital representation is ubiquitous, analogue processes like making and viewing abstract paintings becomes even more interesting and engaging, not in the sense of an escape from the digital but more as a correction of its technological purposiveness, and perhaps a nod towards alternative futures.

So we should expect to find in Brown’s paintings that which resonates with our everyday experience of abstract relations mixed with a longing for a more direct connection with the social and the natural milieus.

Two of Brown’s paintings, Vega (2016) and Tattoo Lagoon(2017) have recently been on show in a group exhibition in London, whichprovides a starting point for a brief consideration of his recent output.

In Vega, gestural multicolour bands, some favouring the yellows and oranges of the spectrum and others the blues and violets, zig zag over a polished, pearl white ground that shines through the positive shapes. Above and among the coloured bands are black circles or dots that look to have been dropped or splattered into existence, except that they also look to have been carefully placed.

Tattoo Lagoon,features a central circular void of dark blue and black, which appears to be slowly opening outwards as if in the process of enveloping the painterly crescent shapes in various colours which are tentatively poised on the edge of extinction. Or maybe the coloured crescents are emanating from the central darkness, or then again, resting upon it like boats on water. They are accompanied by circles in gold, amber, maroon, black and silver along with tiny yellow speech balloons, ochre asterisks, pink drips and blue or green runs.Underneath all this, some form of lattice like structure can also be discerned.It find myself reading into this work themes of order from chaos or the ebbing and flowing of ideas and emotions, the layering of memories and future hopes or the relationship between the conscious and unconscious minds.

The structure of Tattoo Lagoon has an isomorphic correspondence to an earlier painting Buccaneers II (2005), on show in the Contemporary Masters from Britain exhibition. This painting also has a dark void shape in the centre but here it is loosely rectangular and the figures that correspond to the crescent shapes are more like arced bands or brush strokes. Other paintings by Brown, whether acrylic on canvas or watercolour on paper, also have this structure as if the artist is continually repeating it in order perhaps to resolve something, as in a recurring dream.

Vega and the paintings like it appear to belong to one informal series whereas Tattoo Lagoon, Buccaneers II and others seem to belong to another. However, it is also possible that these two series, whilst appearing to be quite different,actually originate from the same starting point.

Themes and structures in Brown’s paintings on canvas orlinen seem to continue into the works on paper such as the 2017 watercolours onshow here at Yantai Art Museum. I suspect that influence flows in bothdirections, or that each genre both affects and is affected by the other in anever ending circle. The polished white grounds in paintings like Vega could be seen as an attempt to replicate on canvasor linen what is more readily available on paper.

Watercolours such as Everland, Moon Palace, PlasmaPark, Wandering Star and Zabawhave similarities to paintings on canvas such as Tattoo Lagoon and Buccaneers II, whereas the works with Gamma or Serso inthe title are similar in structure to Vega, the Sersoworks being the closest in that they employ a single vertically oriented zigzag. In the Gamma watercolourstwo zig zags form a pair structurally mirrored along a central vertical axis.In two of the Serso works theground colours of the opposite halves are different, on one side is the whiteof the paper, on the other side a yellow or orange ground. Then the black dotsor drips break the symmetry by being placed in other than opposite positions,the artist also varying the number of dots either side of the vertical divide.

Zalamac is made upentirely of dots on the white of the watercolour paper but here they seem tohave grown up into larger circles. Each one is different, having its owncharacter as a result of the production method. Here it is conceivable that theartist, building on the process of previous works that culminate in the placingof black dots, decides to forgo the earlier stages and go straight to the dots.A kind of building-on by paring-down. It is an audacious painting because ofits stark simplicity and spontaneity. Yet, viewing it is a complex experience.The differing sizes of the circles or dots immediately sets up spatialrelationships, the eye/mind attempting to make sense of them and to positionthem “correctly”, resulting in an energetic push/pull. The optical excitationmay be a function both of the size variations and the contrast inducedafter-imaging that takes place, black dots repeating as offset white dotsenlivening the space in a way that is fascinating and highly pleasurable.

In other works the dots or circles appear to have been thefirst move, and lines or paths of colour seem to have been arranged aroundthem, or used to join them up, sometimes creating a network of paths, as in Tworcahansa yellow and Matma, whilst at other times leading to discrete figuresthat are repeated, as in Rancherand Flicknife.

The spontaneity of these works must mean that there are manyattempts that didn’t make it to the final cut, in something akin to the processof natural selection. One could imagine a rather haphazard approach where lotsof things are tried, chance playing a major part, with only a few watercoloursachieving criterion. This raises the question of technique and skill in abstractpainting. Is the artist in control of the output or vice versa? There is nodoubt that, over time, spontaneity itself comes increasingly within theartist’s control so that fewer works end up being discarded. The artist getsbetter at, for example, making a drip land in just the “right” place. However,when working in sequence, it must also be the case that the artist is educatedby the work itself.

I am reminded of the thought experiment about turning a tapto fill a glass with water. Where is the locus of control in the system tap –glass – water – person? We are used to thinking of the actor as the person whoturns the tap but, from a systems point of view, the position of the tap andthe water level in the glass also have agency. They exert influence over thebehaviour of the person. So, whilst skill in Brown’s oeuvre is partly aboutcontrolling random events like drips, stains and pours, and there is much skillinvolved, it is also about entering into dialogue with trial and error andpaying attention to what happens in order to discern alternative futures. Thegeneration of works and the development of artistic skill are part of the sameecology, the artist exemplifying systemic wisdom in collaborating with theseries’ evolutionary mutations. The method is a stochastic one, in that “arandom component is combined with a selective process so that only certainoutcomes of the random are allowed to endure”[i].

This is true also of the watercolours that look slower tomake than the ones discussed above and are closer to the acrylic paintings TattooLagoon and Buccaneers II, works such as Everland with its flower-like dark centre surrounded bybrightly coloured informal geometries or Moon Palace, where the central dark void has become a clearlydefined bright pink circle or Plasma Park, which loses the void altogether, resulting in a serene circle ofcoloured shapes against the white of the paper. The decorativeness of theseworks, as well as the circular structure recalls certain Polish folk art ofBrowns family heritage, and which he cites as an influence. So there is, inthese paintings, a looking back to as well as a looking forward to newlygenerated mutations, the artist following their trajectories like so manyParallel universes.

The abstract watercolours of Julian Brown offer us anantidote to the purposive rationality of our technological world. To be seenproperly they demand to be viewed in a real space, such as the one that YantaiArt Museum so beautifully provides, and in seeing them we cannot help but bedrawn into an ancient mode of experience in which the random and the ordered,the conscious and the unconscious, past traditions and potential futures arebrought into closer relationship.

Andrew Parkinson, June 2017.

[i] GregoryBateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity,(Cresskill NJ, Hampton Press Inc. 2002). 

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