Freedom and necessity: Angela Brennan and the pursuit of painting

Angela Brennan: Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of capitalism
Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne
21 June – 26 August 2006

Everything in Angela Brennan’s art cooperates in leading us astray. Across a career now spanning three decades, Brennan’s practice has been anything but fashion-conscious or prescriptive in style, having travelled successfully, and somewhat audaciously, between the painterly modes of abstraction, still life, portraiture and what she has described as ‘text painting’. Approaching and sensing the world ‘lightly’ (thoughtfully not frivolously) and in a distinctly visual way, all manner of subjects—whether a recipe, a landscape, or philosophical musing—are met with a painter’s eye, and translated into an atmosphere of colour and shape. Concerned with a mode of enquiry that values openness, connectivity and changeability, Brennan arrives at a creative discourse that is full of possibilities and unpredictable deviations, where styles, subjects and influences collide.

Engaging with Brennan’s art means to slip vicariously into the artist’s personal world: her family and the people who inform her surroundings; her home and the places she visits or would like to traverse; the art, music, literature, or philosophy she enjoys or finds meaning in; and the endless flow and intertwinement of all these things. That is not to suggest that her paintings should be interpreted as autobiographical accounts; subjects of personal significance are often fragmented or layered with multiple allusions. Cutting across the manifold styles and subject matter employed is a decisively subjective standpoint and its painterly corollary: an unashamed delight in the sensuous qualities of paint.

The full extent of Brennan’s oeuvre, as it was revealed at the survey exhibition ‘Every morning I wake up on the wrong side of capitalism’ at the Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA)1, attests to her immersion in the production and potential of her medium. For an artist as prolific and stylistically diverse as Brennan, this review of her career was both timely and revealing, presenting the opportunity to negotiate the different periods of her work, and to trace and interrelate the reticular concerns of her practice.

The selection of paintings, interleaving works from 1975 to the present, recalled the eclecticism of styles and imagery and the informal systems of display that announced Brennan’s public career as a painter in the late 1980s and early 1990s.2 Although best known for her jubilant colour abstraction, figuration has been an equally recurrent characteristic of Brennan’s practice, employed in often surprising and entertaining ways. A ‘still life’ might locate poetry in the commonplace rather than a memorable object; the topography of text can become the equivalent of a ‘landscape’; and a ‘portrait’ assumes a host of acquaintances, from saintly apostles in the guise of friends, to the freewheeling Bob Dylan on an album cover.3 Each permutation is carried out with an innate contrariness, but when seen together the interplay of Brennan’s genres offers a more complete understanding of the stylistic posturing and pictorial impulses that fuse these disparate influences. Brennan navigates the delineations between abstraction and representation: features soften and lose definition, while abstract patterns offer themselves as richly figurative and affecting. Leaving space for indeterminacy, she enables thoughts and feelings to be freely associated and find form in her paintings.

Brennan stretches our visual and verbal perceptions in the textures and forms of her text-based imagery, which has become an increasingly significant focus for her in recent years. Correlated on the walls of the MUMA galleries were liberal samplings from the discursive codes of language. These diverged from hackneyed expressions such as Other fish to fry 2003, to the licentious propositions of Licence my roving hands 2003, and the disaffected voice at large in the simulacrum of graffiti after which the exhibition was named. Imposed over backgrounds of colour, or transcribed as bold, laconic statements, Brennan’s carefully selected words and quotations are freed from the semantic security of their original contexts, and move haphazardly across the surfaces of her canvases. The relationship of these textual works to the sonorous and colourful nuances of Brennan’s abstract counterparts was instructive: words became pictures, meanings were absorbed, and the seductiveness of painted characters assumed a formal vigour of its own.

Brennan’s familiarity with the varied language of abstraction is a constant and enduring theme, and the MUMA exhibition drew together a spectrum of works that displayed her versatility as an artist of abstract styles. Capturing the spirit and optimism of American abstract painting of the 1950s and 1960s, Brennan has often explained that her approach to abstraction is led by an intuitive response to colour and mark making, as opposed to a rational ordered system. Surveying examples over the last decade, these intuitions were revealed in the syncopations of form and radiant colour in works such as Elegant and beautiful 1992, and in the saturated fields and floating lozenges that are typical of her paintings of the mid-1990s. In past and current works, spectres of pattern and rhythm oscillate between snaking brushstrokes, expressionistic drips, splashes, and linear traceries of grids and chequered squares. This tendency towards the unruly and arbitrary was marked in contrast by the elegantly sparse abstracts that comprise the series, Geranium Lake 2005, for which the artist prescribed her own set of rules that re-align the programmatic strictures of geometric abstraction.4 Often our emotional and physical response to these works can feel more insightful than an attempt at theorising, which seems to suppress the works' spontaneous character. Yet behind the colourful exuberance and experiential qualities of Brennan’s aesthetic is an assured formal structure, shaped by her knowledge of the history of painting.

Across the breadth of her practice, Brennan addresses a plurality of stylistic qualities inherent to the medium of painting. She plays variously on the diverse motivations, methods and models that have driven painting’s development, whilst also referring to her own personality, obsessions and interests. Brennan reveals delight in the idea that art is a ‘portable model’, which can function as an intensely personal, evocative and at times humorous networking of experiences, between artists and audiences, regardless of time and place. These references operate on a much deeper level than mere ‘departure points’; they are for her ‘a profound, real force’, which ‘unleash the libido of painting…’5

Desire here expresses itself in a celebration of small pleasures intensely felt. Painting is a carrier of expressive potential that can proffer something irresistible, only to hold it out of reach by the very nature of its formal containment. Brennan has often remarked that she is forever trying to ‘get rid of the edges’ and ‘escape the confines of the canvas’. In this pursuit, the physical stuff of paint on canvas promises boundless enquiry and a cognisance of pleasure.

notes: 

1. Curated by Max Delany and Dr Kyla McFarlane.

2. Brennan’s first solo exhibition was ‘Possible Worlds’ at the George Paton Gallery, University of Melbourne, 1989. She has exhibited with Niagara Galleries, Melbourne and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney since 1991 and 1992 respectively.

3. For her most recent project, Brennan created a series of portraits in which close acquaintances pose as icons from the rich legacy of European art. Exhibited in ‘stolen ritual’, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney, 7 December 2006 – 25 January 2007.

4. These rules mainly addressed the application of colour and pattern, and explored the evocative properties of paint, for example, each painting was named after the colour paint that produced it. A summation of Brennan’s methodology is posted on www.roslynoxley9.com.au/news/releases/2005/03/31/89/

5. Artist’s notes to the author, December 2006.