Darwin has a strong cultural heartbeat. Its beginnings can be traced to creatives who have come and gone and to many who remain, their influence shaping our perceptions and narratives about place.
There is a thirst for visual representation from artists that habituate in this place. One of these artists consummating our desire for iconography is Rob Brown, the enfant terrible of post-Tracy northern frontier art.
Brown is an enigma. He was born in Sydney in 1967. He first moved to Darwin in 1998 to study visual arts at Northern Territory University (now Charles Darwin University).
“I chose Darwin with a sense of adventure in mind. The last Tropical frontier. The indigenous culture & gateway to South East Asia. When I arrived I immersed myself in the aboriginal art scene. Traveling to communities, working at museum, working for Jirrawun Arts etc whilst plucking away at my own practice. The ‘white fella’ art scene was a small community where everyone new everyone else. Now I visit local galleries wondering who all these amazing Darwin artists are!”
(Rob Brown, text message correspondence, 16/05/19)
Brown’s retrospective evolution: A DisRespective by Rob Brown at the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT (MAGNT) in November 2014 was the first mid-career MAGNT retrospective exhibition for a Darwin artist ever!
The opening night was historic, with many hundreds of Darwin’s diverse community turning out to celebrate. Hell yeah, we were celebrating our very own art anti-hero, drinking sparkling wine, three flutes at a time.
But he’s no ordinary bloke despite the laconic, easy going type, sucking on a bevvy living the Darwin tropico-suburbia dream. His art practice and narrative style visualise our collective unease in trying to shape our culture when all signifiers are in disarray.
evolution: A DisRespective by Rob Brown drew over 58,600 visitors, an incredible cultural feat for an artist and an institution starting to recognise the importance of Darwin’s culture makers. To understand his immediate appeal, 165 works were on loan from 42 collections, 32 from private homes in the NT.
Brown has created a recognisable style; works that are bespoke oil paintings aiming to take the piss out of fine art. He has made it a career to explore post-colonial pop-surrealism in a frontier town. His sold-out solo exhibition This One’s for Mic at Paul Johnstone Gallery in 2016 was further testament to his works’ popularity.
His current exhibition, The Plum Spanky which opened at Mayfair last Friday night, continued to create anticipation and delight. Hundreds packed inside Mayfair Gallery in Harriet Place for the opening, and many filled the backyard bar, creating a buzz for the rest of that early dry-season night.
Most of the works sold on opening night.
It was so good to see Mayfair Gallery evolving, showing that it is capable of shifting between garage and high white cube temple for contemporary art, proving able of showing worthy fine oil paintings on board.
His narrative paintings speak for themselves and allow for individual understanding. Brown coats the grotesque and the obscene with the fairy floss of innocence. There are many layers to his visual language, a language that is coherent and internally sound, an axiom of modernism that still holds true.
Brown’s oil on board works in The Plum Spanky, are familiar motifs, repeated and rearranged, by a serious painter working towards a resolution. Superheroes, children toys and myths, strange creatures and palm trees, impossible feats, are organised, with works from the canon of art history inverted, and arresting floating time.
A lot of skill and effort goes into creating an object worthy of capturing our instinct for long enough to invite speculation. The thickness of the paint, the sketch, the canvas, the brush, the shadow, the tone, the line worked to honour paintings’ tradition. Brown invites us in for quiet reflection then throws a punch with a dirty joke.
I was pleased with the red back wall between the storeroom and lavatory, which became a site for a singular work, subverting the location for a moment, turning the exhibition space into a temple of ill repute. Why is it that something eternally sinister simmers inside Brown’s exploration of painting?
The Plum Spanky continues his punk irreverence, lampooning memory, identity, location and tradition giving visual representation to the less than ordinary being existing in an improbable town.