'A Sense of Wonder' by Robert Priseman

The world is full of magic things, patientlywaiting for our senses to grow sharper.
W.B. Yeats

Ondisplay in the National Gallery of London is an intimate painting whichmeasures only 44.5 x 45.8 cm. It was produced between the years 1307-11 by the 14th centuryItalian artist Duccio and is titled The Annunciation. This beautiful masterpiece depicts themoment when the Archangel Gabriel descended from heaven to reveal to the VirginMary that she would give birth to the son of God.

Aswith all great art, every aspect of Duccio’s painting is the result of a deliberateconsideration by the artist. It synthesises a series of ideas into a singlecoherent object which represents a universal vision as he saw it. In order toachieve this Duccio has employed a number of signifiers which include placing acopy of the Old Testament in to Mary’s left hand. This she holds open at thepages the prophet Isaiah wrote which predict the event we witness. Standing betweenMary and Gabriel we also notice a vase of white lilies which allude to herpurity, whilst hovering overhead a white dove represents the Holy Spirit. Inthe background we see gold leaf instead of paint which symbolises the glory ofheaven whilst we also observe how the Virgin Mary is dressed in blue robes.This blue is Lapis lazuli,a pigment so expensive, it cost more than gold and provides testament to Mary’simportance in the painting.

Aswell as these symbols, renaissance artists like Duccio made use of geometricprinciples to help compose their paintings so that the mathematical orderobserved in the movement of the stars would be reflected upon the earth. Inthis way, the adoption of the golden section rule and Euclidian geometry wereengaged to mirror the divine order of heaven on earth, which in turn placedhuman actions at the center of a celestial symmetry. Just as the infant Christ wasborn into a culture which pre-existed him, we are also born into a pre-existingworld of objects, places, languages and social structures which we slowly learnto make sense of. The ability to see beauty in this allows us to perceive patternsand make connections more readily, so that our environment becomes a personalplace rather than an alien world of chaos and estrangement.

Duccio’sAnnunciation is oneof Julian Brown’s favourite paintings, yet at first glance it appears to havelittle in common with the work of this 21st century British painter.Instead, Brown’s work seems to be more in keeping with abstract artists of the20th century such as Willemde Kooning, BernardFrize, Mary Heilmann and Raoul de Keyser. What this connection allows us to consider,is that whilst cultural expressions find differing articulations depending uponthe time from which they emerge, all artists are fundamentally concerned withexploring certain underlying themes which are universal to human experience.

WhereDuccio is informed by Christian texts and sacred geometry, Bernard Frize’spaintings emerge as an expression of pure images of paint, colour andreflected light produced ina process driven way. But unlike the openly gestural marks of an artist like deKooning, Frize seeks to obscure the trace of process in his completed work. Inthis way his paintings are not a manifestation of religious faith, but havedeveloped within the specific language of 20th century abstract painting.Yet in working in this way, Frize presents us with paintings which appear asthough they were formed beyond the realm of the man-made. Mary Heilmann on theother hand works more in a constructivist mould and says of her own work thatshe likes to reference other artists, describing in a 2011 interview how “I imaginethe images of other artists. These days I tap into Google to find something onthe internet. My current obsession is Malevich, which is why many of my shapedcanvases are slanting up and down the wall. I look at the everyday objectsaround me and mentally take them apart, cut them up and put them together innew ways. All of this is done in my imagination, until I finally get busy andactually make something.[i]This makes Heilmann’s work the very expression of the human desire to createorder and sense out of the chaos we see around us.


InBrown’s paintings we can observe a sophisticated synthesis of abstract styles whichhas been informed by the process-led work of Frize, the constructivist ledpaintings of artists like Heilmann and the gestural abstraction of artists likede Kooning and Guston. In addition to this Brown draws heavily upon of the folkart of his mother’s native Poland. His mother Joanna was the daughter of the Polish intellectual and politicalwriter Wojciech Wasuitynski. Wasuitynski fled Poland in 1939 and Joanna followed seven years later, first to Meppen in Germany thento the UK. The heritage of the country she left behind must have been importantto her, as examples of the craft of Wycinanki were displayed in the homeBrown grew up in. Wycinanki is a paper cut-out craft which originated amongst Polishpeasant farmers who couldn’t afford to buy glass for the windows of their houses.In its absence they hung sheep skins to keep the warmth in and the cold out,which some of them then took to cutting patterns in. This grew to becomeappreciated for its decorative qualities and evolved into an activity of brightlycoloured paper based appliqué.

Artists often draw from the work of pre-existing traditions.Between 1846 and 1853 the pianist Franz Liszt composed aseries of piano piecesknown as The Hungarian Rhapsodies which were basedon Hungarian folk themes, whilst Béla Bartók composed a suite of six pianopieces in 1915 titled Romanian Folk Dances which were centered on seven Romanian tunes from Transylvania. Synthesising the work of other artists inthis way is a form of artistic sophistication which seeks to elevate the senseof beauty inherent in the work on which they were formed. When we look at JulianBrown’s work we see that, as with Liszt and Bartók’scompositions, he has been informed by a local folk tradition, which for Brownis an appreciation of Wycinanki.

Ifwe break down the components of Brown’s paintings more carefully we begin to seethey are composed using apredominant mix of vibrant acrylic colours with staple pigments being lemonyellow light, cadmium orange, manganese blue, quinacridone nickel azo gold andlight magenta which are either underpinned or overpainted with black and earth basedpigments. In addition to this he employs an aubergine and putty coloured mix forlayering. This vivid mix of paint is applied, somewhat reminiscent of Polish Wycinankipaper cut-outs, very flatlyto the surface of the canvas.

Inproducing his work, Brown prefers to generate ideas intuitively, saying of hisapproach to painting that “I have worked on series of paintings formed on preparatorystudy, but generally I like to allow the painting to evolve with the paintingprocess.” He goes on to say that “Sometimes I deliberately avoid using any kindof study so the paintings evolve into something new or push my work in anunknown direction. (…) Painting is live, it’s fluid, tactile and hand renderedand timeless. I don’t react to any other form of art work in the same way so Iwill always make paintings and I’m obviously not alone in this.” [i]

Wecan see clearly how Brown has created a fusion of abstract painting in BuccaneersII (2005). Here, Brownhas begun with an aubergine and putty colour mix applied as a base, over thishe has laid a geometric framework across the surface of the canvas, which actsas a kind of matrix from which the painting can hang. In the centre Brown has painteda large void using a magenta base; this is a kind of zero space which seems tosuck everything in. Overlaying this, if we look very carefully, we can observea subtle rendering of dark green paint which has been allowed to drip down thesurface of the canvas. On top of this a series of separate yet interconnecting broadupward brush-strokes have been applied in black paint which have themselves a seriesof brown marks superimposed over them. These seem to resemble tinder. Theirshape is echoed with black brush marks of a similar shape and size whichsurround the void. In addition, Brown has scrubbed passages of manganese blue, overlaidwith marks of quinacridone nickel azo gold which act as a kind of frame to the vacuum.

Thetitle for this painting originally started out as Kindling, but was eventually changed to BuccaneersII after the struggle toresolve it was complete. Of this Brown says, “I often set up actions to changethe direction of the painting, I’m interested in the idea of bad painting orcertainly pushing order as far as I can. Titles can change because the general messagein a series can evolve.”[ii]Here, Brown’s statement highlights something interesting to us, in that notonly does the language of his painting emerge from a tradition of 20thcentury abstraction, but the way he interacts with his work does so too. Whenwe think of a painter such as Duccio we realise that he will begin each work witha very clear plan laid out of what he wishes to achieve before the work ofproduction is even begun, whereas artists like Brown have none. What they haveinstead is a tool box of working techniques, preferences and visual language. Itis with this they set out to make each painting, not knowing how it will conclude,instead the journey of production becomes one of a conversation with the natureof paint and painting itself, and the result a meditation on the metaphoricalnature which materials and traditions can provide.

Thevoid presented at the centre of Buccaneers II has yielded for Brown the subject of thevoid as a universal metaphor as it occurs in many great works of art. In CasparDavid Friedrich’s The Chasseur in the Forest (1814) forexample, a lonely figure stands before an opening in some trees, the Chasseurhimself is a stand-in for ourselves and allows us to meditate on being at thethreshold of the unknowingness of the future. In Mark Rothko’s The SeagramMurals (1958) we are again presented with a void, ablank which for Rothko appears to represent the unknowingness of death. Butwhere Friedrich has placed someone in front of the image to act as ourproxy, Rothko places us as viewer at the heart of the action. Rothko’s visionis bleak, sad, it is an uncompromising confrontation. In Buccaneers II, Brown has taken the same concept and foundhope in it; he has found something which can dance.

WhereBrown’s canvas paintings offer up complex harmonies of colour, technique andstyle, his watercolours are much more direct. Paintings such as FrostFlowers (2012), Autobahn(2012), Gamma (2012) and Orion (2012) present simple and direct markswhich seek to find patterns in elements as diverse as the effects oftemperature, motorways, radiation and stars. In these works Brown unites asense of wonder at the configurations he sees in the universe of things whichsurrounds him and he communicates that sense directly to us. By thedictionary definition of the beautiful being a “combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or formthat pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.”[i] Brown’s paintings are unequivocal displays of the beautiful.

What thoughdoes beauty really mean to us?

When weconsider beauty we become aware that it finds varying forms of expression indifferent cultural traditions and periods, yet certain core tenets underpin allof them. The things we see around us as beautiful are the things we form aconnection of sensitivity to. This is an aesthetic appreciation which allows usto look closer at people and objects by slowing down our engagement with them.In this way beauty helps us gain a sense that we are at the centre of life,somehow inter-connected to the world of things. By taking a position which isaligned to the beautiful, Brown is making a powerful statement that our desireto appreciate colour, form and harmony is hard wired into our psyche. Inheightening and presenting this aesthetic, Brown is creating an opportunity forall of us to look again at our surroundings and re-connect to the spectacle ofthings, so that we, like the Virgin Mary in Duccio’s Annunciation, can stand at the centre of a universe of beauty and wonder.

Robert Priseman, 2015


[1] From an email sent by Julian Brown toRobert Priseman on the 15th January 2015

[1] From an email sent by Julian Brown toRobert Priseman on the 15th January 2015