Abstraction Brown’s icon has and equal non-icon value paintings. in Leonard As he has refined his understanding of Byzantine traditions he has brought expanding sensitivities to his abstracts. ARTIST PROFILE caught up with him in his home and studio in Ipswich, Queensland.
HOW DO YOU BEGIN YOUR DAY?
I tend the olive oil lamps. I’m a lighthouse keeper for the Holy Icons. The one in the bedroom icon-corner burns 24/7, while in the studio, the lampada is lit before my day’s painting begins. The oil lamp is the living flame denoting the presence of Christ, which is a meditation in itself. Then there’s a cup of tea, I walk Fergus (the Scottish Terrier) and then I post the ‘Icon for the day’ on Facebook. I’ve been posting three or four icons (with an accompanying text) daily for many years now; this requires a certain kind of fidelity, seeking out the best icons to represent the day’s Feast. Sometimes, like a mariner consulting his charts, I read the Gospel appointed for the day. It steers my course; there can be an uncanny synchronicity between the set readings with the unfolding experiences of one’s day.
How did you arrive at icon painting?
An encounter in reproduction of the Pantocrator of Cefalu, in Sicily, a 12th-century Byzantine mosaic, as a 12-year-old, I understood what I was seeing was authentic, the image completely expunged of sentimentality, this for me was an encounter with the raw face of the living God. The next thing I did was to touch it by replicating it to the best of my ability. I made a biro drawing of it. I took the drawing to my art class with a supply of tesserae, a mallet, a chisel, and presented Betty Churcher with my project for the morning. That was my first experience of putting on the iconographer’s apron.
What is essential for a Byzantine artist?
The pivotal ingredient in Byzantine priorities is the Christology, whether the icon is of the Christ or the Theotokos or any of the saints. Within Orthodox iconography persona is preserved, one’s personal attributes not obliterated; yet these are transformed having put on Christ. Every icon of Christ comes with the affirmation that he is both God and man. So, within the nimbus of the Christ written in Greek, the monogram of the unpronounceable name of God. Then on either side the Holy Name Iesous Christos.
This Christology is experienced through sacrament, the Holy Icons are such a sacrament; this is a living thing. The artist in the Byzantine tradition is not preoccupied with offering proof. The artist communicates a sacred tradition, working within the remembered likeness. These are not arbitrary. There’s a faithfulness to the remembered likeness, very different to Renaissance Italian tradition where the artist selects from the marketplace a model perhaps or perhaps not in conformity with the subject. The Byzantine artist is not concerned with naturalism. The Byzantine canon extends and enlarges the order of the natural world. The icon is imbued by the participation of the celestial with the terrestrial world.
Is there a numerical relationship with all your works?
Polykleitos, the great sculptor, remarked “beauty transpires little by little with many numbers”. I’ve always found that to be true. The realisation of the Fibonacci series began a whole transformation of my expectations about the way one formalises an image. The more I acquainted myself with the lexicon of art, the more I was able to see this (Fibonacci) as an underlying pattern. The icon is constructed, it begins with many measurements. Within the icon, there can be as many as five vanishing points contrary to a Western perspective, with just one vanishing point. For the iconographer lines don’t meet in infinity or intersect, rather they move ever-increasingly apart; it becomes impossible to measure their relationship in infinity.
Do you use natural pigments for all your paintings?
No. I paint icons with natural pigments, these by their nature have been sourced globally. For my contemporary painting I use stock Art-Spectrum oil colours. Before Art-Spectrum I used Windsor and Newton. With the withdrawal of white lead from their range I experienced a crisis, as my alla-prima paintings of the 1980s and into the 90s held the valued contribution of brilliance, as well as the viscosity and weight of white lead.
What is the relationship with the dripping of paint and the horizontality of your paintings?
To create the fluidity, there’s a lot of mixing with Art-Spectrum oil colours. Mixing of paints in buckets. A lot of pouring and dripping – arriving at a state of fluidity, to sustain, to stretch the paint’s potential to remain wet for the longest possible time. With this I’m laying out (the paintings) horizontally, before being returned to the vertical plane, where I’m drawing with gravity’s assistance. My icon paintings are done horizontally in the Russian manner. Russian icon painting uses the linear style. It’s a very calligraphic style; its domain is the flat table. Whether that translated into laying out my non-icon paintings horizontally, there may have been some peculiar cross-fertilisation.
Can you discuss the varnishing method on your icon paintings?
Icon painting holds its own etiquette, ironies abound. For one, the freak instance, an oil emulsion within the egg yolk, is ever compatible with water. For the duration of the icon’s realisation it remains water soluble, yet it’s essentially oil painting. Painting completed, it’s put aside, care is taken against insects, flies particularly, theirs a love for chomping on the egg tempera. So, covering with acid-free tissue is essential. A year is desirable for the icon to rest before varnishing, for the egg tempera to oxidise. Commercially, that’s a big ask, at least three to four months pass before I varnish. Throughout, all ingredients are of the natural world, emblems of nature – the painter/priest, the task, restoration of matter to the divine image – so a modern synthetic varnish doesn’t fulfil this requirement, rather slow-drying ‘olifa’.
Are your icons made to be viewed?
There is a traditional saying, “you don’t talk to the icon, the icon talks to you, like meeting royalty”. While remaining constant, it may or may not reveal itself.
Part of your work is to do with the defined lines and the fragmented edges. It’s an intriguing duality in your work.
My large enamel work in the Art Gallery of South Australia, the ‘Great Axial Vertical’, of yellow ‘Solva’ enamel. One side, of two layers of yellow enamel, while on the other, solely one layer of yellow, hence a play between densities is achieved. While a quivering line is realised where these zones don’t quite meet, this line becomes the subject. In the ‘Great Axial Vertical’, reference is made to Byzantine tradition, where there’s an abhorrence of grovelling, liturgical prayer is practised standing, affirming human dignity to stand before God. While in subsequent works line serves as a grid; the line being a happy accident of the work’s realisation. These grids may assert, as formal reveals of construction or they may fade, in the softness of the way in which the edge has been maintained. Masking tape as a way of creating a boundary between colours remains an anathema for me. The breath of the gesture, the breath of the line from the brush is something that is pervasive in what I do.
Your icons work responds to the daily cycle of light?
“A sale is a sale”, as Gertrude Stein would say. When an institution buys a work, that’s great; yet it comes with a kind of sadness, a future sealed, seen usually under fixed lighting and when not on show committed to life in a rack, seeing the light of day or the artificial light but occasionally. However, when a painting is hung domestically, it retains its wild, untamed nature.
So, it is that living with icons or painting brings great joy. The idea of leaving my icons to an institution is a terrible prospect. Committed to that solitary existence, while never having an oil lamp burning in front of them, is not pleasing to them or to me. Icons do enjoy the oil lamps burning in front of them. The liturgical rites within the Byzantine tradition happen between sundown and sunrise. There are ingredients within the icon that reflect, the gold particularly, it glows despite the leanness of the lamp. Experiencing it under such a light after a while, one’s visual perception adjusts to the darkness and reads the almost unreadable. It’s possible to massage, visually, as elements rise and fall in the darkness. Experience can be heightened depending on other conditions, whether you’re well or unwell. Lying in a sick room with an icon/painting is a very interesting way of identifying with the work.
You seem to avoid any inclination to fantasy or the invented.
Byzantine spiritual fathers and mothers perennially advise against engaging in fantasy while praying. Favouring the tradition of Hesychasm, of silence and stillness – “go into your closet to pray” – interpreted as moving beyond the senses and withdrawing inwards to pray, usually accompanied by the repetition of the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [a sinner]”, a meditation through the Holy name while simultaneously inclusive of oneself, that’s prayer. Any other fantasy is extraneous to the intensity of your relation to, and vision of, God. Personal imagination in prayer leaves the vulnerable individual susceptible to delusion. The state of meditation and prayer is a pure state. I have little energy for fantasy.
Where does your fondness of leaving the pencil marks on abstract paintings come from?
From my love of Godfrey Miller’s paintings, especially ‘Trees in Moonlight’ (1955-57, Collection of Queensland Art Gallery). Miller’s pedantic formalism I found evasive as a student, but it nonetheless etched itself in the lexicon of what I valued. I didn’t know why I valued it, but I began to hear what he was talking about. Miller being an anthroposophical person, his
preoccupation with cosmic harmony, reconciliation of opposites, heat with cold, the rectangle with the square, night with day, line and colour … these opposites held in this symphonic reconciliation. I imbibed Miller’s profound spiritual language.
Are you comfortable with the description of your non-icon works as abstraction?
My non-icon paintings are my union with reality. Abstract “for abstract sake” doesn’t sit comfortably with me. While there’s a truth that painting needs to hold its own within its abstract formalism, yet I remain unsatisfied. I require my abstraction to be evocative. As a Neo-Platonist, I hold onto the potential for an intimate participation between realities. My paintings are not Aristotelian works; my hope is that they engage with the “other”. There’s a very small conversation, very small audience for pure abstraction and for abstract thought. Literalism rules. Inroads abstract thought had made on the culture have been set back severely over the past 10 years. A malignant literalism holds the day, this I have little connection with.
... and your icon and abstract paintings being curated together?
This last exhibition I had with Andrew (Baker), Experience Untaught Me the World, is a bit about having unlearnt what I was taught. Andrew surprised me by wanting to show the icons and the non-icon paintings dispersed, not localised. I think they interpreted each other. The icon has its context liturgically, the non-icon paintings are not liturgical painting. I see these as personal poetry. I know Rothko has a “chapel” for his paintings, but I don’t and can’t conceive of these as liturgical works.
Finally, what would you say to Malevich if you met him on your walk with Fergus your dog?
Well, I’m not sure about that. I’d probably be apologetic that the dog hadn’t been clipped squarely enough. He’s due for a very precise traditional Scottish Terrier haircut. I might say ‘Bozh’ya blagodat’ (God’s grace) – that’s a traditional Russian greeting. Or maybe ‘Schastlivyy prazdnik’ (Happy Feast, in Russian).
The idea of leaving my icons to an institution is a terrible prospect. Committed to a solitary existence, while never having an oil lamp burning in front of them, is not pleasing to them or to me.