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Brown, Mike - 1977.3

Mike Brown

Untitled c. 1977 (n.d.)
synthetic polymer paint and photo collage on plywood
122.1 x 121.9 cm
Purchased 1977

Born in Sydney in 1938, Mike Brown abandoned his art studies at the East Sydney Technical College in 1958. In 1961 he joined Ross Crothall in Annandale where they experimented with collaborative strategies. Together with Colin Lanceley they launched the short-lived ‘imitation realist’ movement with an exhibition in Melbourne the following year, introducing collage, assemblage and installation into Australian art for the first time. Developing his commitment to collage and pop subject matter Brown soon became the most controversial artist in Sydney; a key painting, titled Mary-Lou as Miss Universe, was ejected from a travelling exhibition in 1963 because of its overt sexual content. Later, during 1966 and 1967, he was prosecuted for an exhibition protesting against censorship, becoming the only Australian artist to have been successfully convicted for obscenity. Following a year in New Zealand, Brown relocated to Melbourne in 1970, thereafter exhibiting at the Pinacotheca, Watters and Charles Nodrum galleries, remaining a leading figure in Australia’s radical avant-garde art world until his death in 1997.

A relatively large work, painted with synthetic polymer paint on a square board, this untitled painting displays Brown’s life-long fascination with collage. It is characteristic of his mid-career phase in Melbourne showing a vast range of compacted imagery and Brown’s seemingly endless capacities for formal invention. Its figurative elements, including female nudes cut and pasted from newspapers and magazines, jostle against painterly abstract forms and all manner of improvised painted objects and structures (chequer board patterns, flowers, crescent and star shapes) together with apparently nonsensical words. One is struck by the impact both of the use of strident colour and the dynamism of its relentless energy.

In December 1976 (approximately the date of this painting) Brown’s first retrospective survey exhibition, Embracing Chaos, opened at the National Gallery of Victoria. As its title suggests the artist’s oeuvre was characterised by a career-long practice of encompassing practically every direction in contemporary art (from pop-related collage to realism and abstraction) rather than a specific direction or style – a phenomenon that simply bewildered most critics and historians. Initially Brown employed photographic collage to critique the character of our mass media-focussed world, typified by a disconcerting sense of chaos. Increasingly, however, it has become clear that as insightful as such a conception of society may be, viewed with hindsight Brown’s work projected a more profound and overarching dialectic in which both order and chaos were seen to participate in a seemingly endless conversation.  From its origin in the paradoxically named imitation realism movement, Brown’s interrogation of the nature of art itself remains true to the abiding influence of the dadaist revolution in twentieth century art. With the formulation of post-modernism already apparent by the 1960s, Brown’s work, with all its contradictions, must be understood within the context of this radical reframing of contemporary art practice.

Richard Haese is an Honorary Research Associate with the History Department at La Trobe University.