Reporting the opening of the NGV’s John Brack retrospective, Channel Ten news declared that Brack “specialised in depicting the colours of Melbourne”, thus conveying the impression that Brack’s contribution to the visual arts was the equivalent of an Age liftout spruiking Melbourne’s “vibrant”, “cosmopolitan” culture and lifestyle. Of course, the opposite is true: many of Brack’s early Melbourne paintings - Collins St., 5 pm and The Bar, to offer two well-known examples - are satirical pokes at the drudgery and artificiality of urban and suburban life. As for “colours”, Brack favoured the dourer end of the palette; he was the go-to man for depicting mid-twentieth century life in all its umber, olive and piss-yellow glory.
Judging by the crowd that packed the front half of the exhibition on Sunday morning, Brack’s necrotic nudes, grimacing suburbanites and creepy shopfronts retain a good deal of popular appeal. This is explicable in a way – Brack’s early stuff is either iconic in itself, or it deals with iconic imagery – but it’s also slightly odd in that these paintings are consistently acidic and nasty. The paintings give off a strange aura: even the pinks and greens feel yellow and brown.
In a recent interview, Brack’s widow, Helen Maudsley, described Brack’s Melbourne paintings as little more than “sneering” jibes at “people who don’t know the right words”. There is some truth to this, but equally there is some truth to the paintings themselves. Sometimes a contemptuous sneer is called for, and paintings like Collins St., 5 pm take conformism and drudgery to task with an admirable all-consuming bitterness. Slagging off suburbanites is as old as the suburbs themselves, and often twice as dull, but paintings like The New House – in which a gaunt, grim-faced husband unlovingly clasps his aproned wife against a classic fifties kitchen backdrop – and The Girls at School – with its parade of tight-lipped Veruca Salts – have a double resonance. That is, the paintings are simultaneously cultural artefacts – satires and/or grotesques of the era in which they were produced – and also, for the contemporary viewer, satires of the revisionist Howardian (John, not Tim) view of the fifties as a kind of Golden Age. Elitist, maybe, but still fascinating art.
Early Brack wasn’t all suburbanite bashing. Amongst the collection there are some cartoonish horse racing paintings, a self-portrait that is so cliché (looking into the mirror, shaving) that it verges on genius, and the famous series of ballroom dancing scenes, all pink taffeta and artificial gestures. (Plus the greatest male wedgie in the history of Western art. I forget which painting it’s in, but you can’t miss it.) More disturbing are Brack’s famously asensual nudes – inspired by the Holocaust, according to Maudsley – and his various still lifes of slicing machines, artificial legs, butcher’s shopfronts. These paintings are desolate and powerful, and show Brack attempting to shift away from local satire towards a generalised critique of modernity.
The second half of the exhibition covers Brack’s work from the 1970s onwards. There are more nudes – chubbier now, less grotesque, although still rather off-looking – but by this time Brack was moving into abstract symbolism. There was rather more elbow room in this part of the exhibition which to be honest was hardly surprising: going from the fairly straightforward representations of human beings to depictions of warring pencils and wooden hands holding up postcards of historical figures makes for an abrupt change of scenery. The postcard paintings seem slightly clumsy to me, a hodge-podge of elements with which Brack occasionally works wonders, eg. 1066, and especially The Hands and the Faces. The pencil paintings are much simpler conceptually, and pack a greater punch. The major work is The Battle in which the Battle of Waterloo is reimagined (with “historical accuracy”, the accompanying plaque assures us) as a fight between factions of pencils holding aloft playing cards.
I’ll spare you further sub-VCE art criticism: Robert Hughes I ain’t. Nevertheless, I highly recommend having a look at the Brack show if you're in town. It is on at The Ian Potter Centre, Federation Square, until August 9.