Interview with Brett McMahon
By Sebastian Smee
SS. It has been about six years since you last showed in Sydney, but in the interim you work has been all over Newcastle, with a big survey show at the Newcastle Art Gallery, a set of installations at the Lock Up, an exhibition this year at the Newcastle University Art Gallery, and the spectacular run of panels you made for the new Courthouse building on Hunter and Burwood Streets. One of the things you’ve done a lot of, which Sydney audiences who know you as a painter might not be aware of, is work in three dimensions.
BM. That shift began a long time ago. It really started with a group of works on paper where I started to cut into the paper and use it in a more sculptural way. It’s been a ten year process. It coincided with my work becoming far sparser than the work I’d done previously.
SS. To me, there’s a natural continuity between the two-dimensional works and the sculptural objects you’re making. The wall works are not “windows” onto another world. They have a very thingy, tangible quality. It comes out in the textures, and the sense in which they feel like remnants, or as the residue of various processes.
BM. You’re right. And I was actually explaining this to my son the other day, talking about how paintings can operate as windows, but saying that I really like to make paintings that are objects in themselves. There are still illusionistic qualities in the work that I’m making. But really what I’m trying to do is to use the material in an honest way. So I think about how paper can be crumpled or folded or perforated, and so on. And going through those processes it what gives the work its narrative, its story.
SS. A couple of works here are titled Accumulation. Do you think of them, then, as accumulations not only of marks but of processes?
BM. An accumulation of processes and an accumulation of time. The works are partly inspired by things in nature which show signs of having been around for a long time. Rock shelves. Fragments of shells. Old burned out tree trunks. Things that have been witness to a lot, and have been formed by this. I’m trying to find ways to imbue the works I make with a sense of having been witness to time. It’s tricky because you might, in making something, go through a really satisfying process and feel that you’re engaging with something you’ve seen in nature and being true to that, but the end result might not be very interesting. So you’re juggling the processes that interest you with your sense of what is finally interesting to look at. It’s never straightforward. I don’t know the answers.
SS. Tell me about the materials in the show.
BM. There’s a wide range. I try to get certain motifs to reappear in different materials. A mark you might see in a piece of burnt wood might reappear on a piece of paper. So there’s a series of echoes that links things together in interesting ways. That’s indicative of the way I’ve been working lately. I’ve just been trying to draw things together in an intuitive way.
SS. A lot of your early work was tightly constructed, and acutely sensitive to tensions between levels of space. The results were very taut. Much of the work in this show has a different quality. It’s relaxed. At times, it looks almost like it’s coming untethered, even flying apart.
BM. With hindsight, I think I was looking at the world then in a similar way to now, but I was trying to use oil paint to replicate the textures and surfaces that interested me all in the one image. So that it was like a collection of fragments of the world. Since they were made in the city it made sense that they would have that tight, locked-together feeling. But I kept looking at those pictures, and the aspect of them I found dissatisfying was that the end result was too far removed from the experience I had when I saw the real things that inspired them. It was too much of a facsimile.
SS. I feel you can really breathe in front of these new works. Their forms and structures are relaxed, almost fatalistic. And there’s room to move around them.
BM. Well, I feel like the way my shows are put together these days borrows a little from the rhythms of walking through the bush. You’re in something and it unfolds before you. I’m not trying to jam everything together. It was a great relief for me when I let things go in this way. And I guess it happened when I re-engaged with nature. I saw the way things just sat in their own space or interacted in the way they had to.
SS. What sorts of things did you do that might demonstrate what you’re talking about?
BM. I didn’t like the idea of the paint sitting on top of the surface. It was too applied and felt too false. And so I had to find ways to embed the marks that I made, to make them part of the material. Maybe it’s a return to what I was doing a long, long way back, which is working with fabrics. Dying and bleaching, so that the marks that you made were part of the fabric. That felt very real. It goes back to what you were saying: It was a thing.
SS. And you’re married now to someone who works very closely with fabrics, aren’t you?
BM. Yeah! And that’s brought all that back again. My wife Rowena and her sisters, who run High Tea with Mrs Woo, are really engaged with beautiful fabrics from Japan. They have a great sensitivity towards their materials. So it’s been a wonderful experience for me to be influenced by them. I love the way they look at things.
SS. So how are you “embedding” the painted marks?
BM. I use a brush that I made out of bush stuff – twigs and fibrous bits of plant – just to give it a slightly different feel. Those paintings are actually the most constructed things I’m making at the moment. They’re made with this brush, and super-heavy linen which I sand back so that I can really push the paint into the fabric. The paintings are very flat, but they still have a sense of these marks hovering in a shallow space and having a bit of vibration there.
SS. What sorts of natural process and phenomena have you found yourself responding to in nature?
BM. I think a lot about the ocean. Seawater. Wind – the way it marks things or knocks them together. And I guess heat. The other thing that’s happened in the last few years is that I’ve moved my making of stuff outside. Everything in the show was made outside. If it rains it gets wet. If it’s hot it gets hot. And there are certain things I do. In winter there are westerlies so if I leave my paintings out on these long lines, they flap around like washing and get a patina. Sometimes if you leave something out there for a few weeks or months and it’s been rained on and the wind has got it and it’s a bit frayed around the edges, it can be kind of perfect. So I am trying to work with and harness things. Things that usually drive you mad. Working outside in the wind is usually so frustrating. So you think, What can I make that somehow works with this?
SS. You talked about walking before. Are there particular places that have informed this work, in the way that your past series have been inspired by, for instance, the coastal bush of the Awabakal Reserve near Newcastle. Or does this work represent more of an aggregation of many different experiences?
BM. It’s a bit of an aggregation. But there are a couple of spots around Newcastle – the Glenrock Reserve and the Awabakal Nature Reserve. They’re places I visited when I was a kid and I just think the form of the bush had an effect on my aesthetic. Something about it was embedded in my psyche. Other bush doesn’t really connect with me in the same way. When I get back to those areas, I can walk into them and it’s my version of church. It feels like the right place for me to be. The feeling of connection has been growing as I get older. All in all, it’s probably a five kilometer strip of coastal bush. There’s a lot of variety in the vegetation. The way the trees grow and twist – certain gnarly angles – you know, it’s always just right. But then, too, the landscape has witnessed lots of things. Things that have happened in Australia’s history that are unspoken. Acts of violence in areas that we think of as pristine nature. I’ve never wanted to explore that in an overt way, but it’s something that I think about. And so I think about the work as having this sense of enduring or silently witnessing something. The unspoken thing is still there, embedded in the piece. The burned blocks in Frequencies, for instance: you have a sense that there is a lot of information compressed in them. They might be fragile on the outside but they do have this resilience, and they let their secrets out slowly.