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.


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.

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