By Cherry Smyth

‘The Tranquility that Fires Requires: The Work of Julian Brown’

‘…a heavenly body lands over a field of irises.  It lacks the tranquility that fire requires, although some other form of stillness may coexist with this openness. Unfamiliar forms circulate at odd hours.  Does immateriality have to be an obstacle?’  (1)

In Sea, artist and poet Etel Adnan tranverses the inner and outer worlds,and considers outer space and our quest to find an earth-like environment beyond this one, as if this reality could be fully known.   Julian Brown also mines that seam of consciousness between worlds, contemplating the similarities between the space within and universal space; and the archetypal echoes between shapes in the natural world.  His work in‘Future Islands’ can be divided into roughly four stages or iterations that may appear disparate but overlap discreetly with each other.  As Brown suggests, ‘The work is like a garden with different flowers that speak to each other.  They co-exist rather than stand in separate sequences.’ (2)

Many of the watercolour drawings and paintings try out ideas that will be expanded into larger oils on canvas that twist and complicate the templates of geo-abstraction.  They have the light-heartedness and focus of experiment and carry their own stand-alone integrity.  If anything, the transfer of the ideas to larger works allows more of the slippage into chaos that fascinates Brown and pushes the confines of perfection towards the energy and freedom of failure or what he describes as ‘the mucky, puddling world’.  In many ways, this dynamic between order and messiness unifies all the work here.

In drawings like‘Gamma’ and ‘Serso’ (both 2017), bands of colour criss-cross like rays or waves on a plain ground, establishing visual tension between the sharp geometrical lines and the variegated hues that threaten to over spill their borders.  The solid dots of dense black glitter in the light, setting up the effect of notes on a score, or even puncture holes through the paper itself.  If they are seen as holes, where do they open into or out from?  What is this rhythmic darkness the artist keeps returning to in order to complete his compositions?  These pause-punctures amplify the diagonal traction of colour and line and also draw the eye to the lozenges of unmarked paper between the bands of colour.  The shades of green, jade and brown in one, and pink, yellow and orange in another seem to vibrate and lift off the surface in the two drawings where one half of the ground has been coated in the faintest wash of pale yellow or pastel pink.  This makes the works appear veiled, the 3D illusion of a breathing membrane bringing the drawings alive.  The images mesmerize, making the brain stimulated and stilled at the same time, suggest inga form of rigid harmony where roles must be adhered to within fixed relationships.  This effect is described by American sculptor Anne Truitt as ‘ the severe logos of structure magnetizing the flux of colour.’ (3) 

Other contemporary artists like British painter, Philomene Pirecki use similar magnetizing effects of stripes of colour to represent the dislocated after-images we carry forward optically from what is seen on the digital screen.  As in Brown’s practice, there is a desire to still theendless flash and flow of visual clutter, to create and hold that pause-puncture moment and find the consoling and significant solitude that tapsinto deeper waves or patterns of connectivity.

Brown’s certainty of colour becomes a constant signature across what are distinctly different expressions of his sensibility.  In the next series, works such as ‘Five Moons’, (2017) expand the striations of muted colour to suggest the vastness of space where the black dots have exploded into light-reflecting planets or stars. We are torn between seeing these drawings as macro versions of the previous series, or micro visions of the universe.  The vertical gradations make the eye and the mind travel great distances, as if Brown has zoomed into the swatches of merged colour in‘Serso’ and taken us on a beautiful, exhilarating trip.

The later series of coloured line drawings, which include the drawing Serso’ (2017), develop the association of playful colour and dots into a more integrated field.  Here, the black dots are more in conversation with the travelling loops of colour than superimposed upon them.  These drawings suggest how things fit together; the technological world of interlocking codes; the tube and trains we need to navigate the urban world; or simply a child’s Meccano set.   Here the individual,meandering line seeks more autonomy, but must still negotiate and interact with others, the upright red line turning right into blue, the curved brown lines naking into pink.

The colours are more differentiated and their joyful energy recalls the palette and intoxicating kinetics of Len Lye and what he dubbed ‘the art of movement’.  Lye, a New Zealand artist and film-maker, worked in England in the mid 20th century.  In films like ‘Swinging the Lambeth Walk’, (1940) and ‘Colour Cry’, (1952), Lye presented exuberant cameraless films by painting directly onto celluloid.  He used the rhythms of jazz to syncopate his mobile images of swiping lines and floating vibrant dots.  Like Brown, he was drawn to the unconscious echo of microscopic forms that trace the development of human evolution.  Lye’s poem tries to capture the dreamlike quality of making the immaterial material which is the recurrent challenge for the abstract artist:

‘Of thinking of no length

I stand now in a long dream of doing

I stood then in a short dream of knowing.’ (4)

If the first series present ribbons of colour held taut like controlled skids, the final series of works in this show attempt to unfasten the structure of logos by cutting into the motifs and layering them.  Brown’s iconic motifs of the boat or the smile and the triangle or tree are revisited in what I’d like to call his‘Party Paintings’.  If the first series elegantly represent theory and intellect, here we have raucous music and dancing: a post-punk, club-night collage, which conjures the messy expressiveness of the body as opposed to the tranquil geometry we try to impose on the mind.  The earlier sequence of works may articulate the experience of a fixed cerebral world of ideas made into form, while here, paintings like ‘>>>>>>’ (2017), seem to allow the form itself to create ideas. These fantastically bright multi-coloured works are undeniably merry, debauched almost.  While some of the previous drawings describe play, these drawings enact play itself.  The rather solitary sense of control and restraint emitted by earlier works now explodes with carnivalesque conviviality, verging on fluorescent chaos.  The patterned ground sets up counterpoints of triangles and squares which seem to recede against the buoyancy of the semi-circular forms in the foreground.  This is just before the party peaks when balloons pop and confusion and exhaustion reign.  Perhaps Brown uses the traditional tondo here to emphasize the transience of this fragile, childlike celebration of happiness.   The patterned ground is the Modernist backdrop against which the artist has to rebel and reincorporate as his own, to create his unique,disruptive ciphers of meaning and renew the language of abstraction itself.

These works recall American artist, Mary Heilmann’s bold colour abstract paintings, such as ‘Musicof the Spheres’, (2001) and ‘Mojave Mirage’, (2012) and their extroverted joy in extending the limits of the form and function of abstraction whether it is via a physical chair as painting or a series of ceramic blobs of colour that scale the wall in a sculptural breakout of dots.  Brown’s dense, delightful paintings exude the wild abandon that precedes sensory overload and doesn’t even see it coming.  Arguably, the sensate body is present in all painting but in this last series it urges and saturates more than elsewhere.  As Merleau-Ponty putsit:

‘The painter “takes his body with him,” says Valéry.  Indeed we cannot imagine how a mind could paint.  It is by lending his body to the world that the artist changes the world into paintings.  To understand these transubstantiations we must go back to the working, actual body – not the body as a chunk of space or a bundle of functions but that body which is an intertwining of vision and movement.’ (5)

‘Future Islands’ gives the chance to experience Julian Brown’s major concerns: how can the purity and simplicity of an idea co-exist with the complexity and material density of the body?  How can the desire to impose order on chaos open us up to new freedoms and insight rather than reiterate another form of control or control of form?  Like generations of artists before him,Brown wonders afresh if it is possible to retain our individuality amid the masses and asks how to balance freedom with responsibility.  Is it possible to feed the joy of creative timelessness while being set to the more mundane timetable of everyday living?  These new vibrant drawings and paintings conjure the interstices of art, philosophy and play in brilliant and innovative ways that maintain intellectual rigour and unfashionable cheerfulness.

(1) Etel Adnan, Sea (Callicoon, New York:Nightboat Books, 2012) p.55

(2) Julian Brown in conversation with the writer, 17/05/2017

(3) Anne Truitt, Daybook: The Journal of An Artist (New York: Penguin, 1982), p.163

(4) Ley Lye, quoted on

(5) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception (Evanston: Northwestern University, 1964), p.163

Cherry Smyth is apoet, art writer and novelist.