John Brown at Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast, October 17 – November 16, 2013

Gallery Two  has an inbuilt corner, on each side of which was one image of an open book. In this photograph they are next to each other, the larger one on the back wall, the small one as if in front of it.

John Brown, New Works, 2013, installation view, photo Tony Hill

Whoever else John Brown is, he is a lover of books. He is also a poet, and not just because he writes poetry. This is not a hyperbole. Looking at the smaller image, I became aware of the aesthetic principle of economy of means, so well described by  Gottffried Semper (1803-1879), and so exquisitely evoked by haiku.  I do not mean  the format of moras (syllables) only, rather the allusion to nature of being, to nature. Haiku focuses on showing not telling, and that is visibly at work in  in these mixed media paintings. All share one title  After Alexandria  and one date, 2013. Brown also published a book so titled, with poems and reproductions of these images.

To illustrate the poetic nature of his images, I have chosen to invoke a haiku from the 17thC, its author is given as Basho Matsuo.

An old silent pond

A frog jumps into the pond

Splash! Silence again

The  smaller image is an open book cover with its spine reduced to  a threadbare ancient binding.

John Brown, AfterAlexandria ( smaller) mixed media 2013 Photo Tony Hill

John Brown, After Alexandria, mixed media, 2013, photo Tony Hill.

In  rough paraphraze the image turns into a possible haiku:

An old opened book

lost all its printed pages

Now it measures time

It is not telling how it  measures time  when and where its time started, nor it is indicating what happened to  its original content, and what it was about. Nevertheless its identity as a cover of a book is not undermined or doubted. The handmade horizontal lines remove the possible print so far away that all its letters join to make a mark from one edge to the other, even if the blue, deep red, black and white hues insert shapes that cut into the continuity of the parallels. The page is miming the appearance of  a printed page  in a way a  sketch parallels the final surface in painting.  The biomorphic shapes provide a general link to appearance of living  organisms, a leaf, a fish possibly?  More importantly they point to their being before the book existed. I see a parallel here with books like this one:

 Johann Christoph Volkamer’s 1708 book Nürnbergische Hesperides (The garden of Hersperides at Nuremberg), which documents both the introduction of Italian citrus culture to Germany and the ensuing revolution in urban planning as private orchards designed for the cultivation of fruit also began to serve as semipublic parks;

The “Limoni Salermo” existed before the words and images in this book. Brown established time before the book lost its printed pages by comparing the sketchy page and biomorphic forms.  They stay separate, if tolerant to each other. There is no conflict. Just passing by.

The ensuing silence is further intensified on the right hand page by suspended pendulum. Now the similarity between the top whitish shape on the left with this time measuring device is observable,  visible. The difference is, that the one on the right can move, the line on which it is suspended is clearly separated from the background, and there is a promise of a shadow that could  follow a move.

Strongly, I am reminded of Poetism, an artists led movement founded in 1920 in Prague.  The group called themselves DEVETSIL and published  a ReD revue. Their art practices included poetry, illustration, sculpture, film, and calligraphy, and in smaller measure drawing and painting. The grounding idea was to uncover a poetic quality in ordinary objects, preferably  by method of discontinuity.

Brown’s visual art distresses the original state of being by either a choice of the ground or by adding elements incongruous with the previous state of the object.  The next image, perhaps makes this clerer and convincing.

John Brown, After Alexandria, mixed media, 2013, photo Tony Hill

It is a poetic image, even if not expressed in one breath. This image connects strongly to the method invented by Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), the staining. The collage has its historical roots also in 1920s and the use of abandoned print points to the tradition of  Art Povera.  With its focus on a place, site, divisions and boundaries, it feels a little as a masculine counterpart to the “time” piece. On the other hand, it is not strictly ruling out togetherness of both  feminine and masculine motives.  The are together, in the same place.The right angle expresses its non disputable authority, perhaps of rational thought, as a complement of the illegible texts and irrational blue blobs.

Both these works of art  are connected not only to books, and  memory of Gutenberg’s gift to culture, but also to being/existence as changing in time and place. The Poetism charged art with an aim to be ahead of changes in life. Poetry does not shy away from  looking  for and  to the wisdom that does not belong  to one time or one place only.

About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
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1 Response to John Brown at Fenderesky Gallery, Belfast, October 17 – November 16, 2013

  1. John Brown says:

    Dear Slavka, Your words are both (too) kind and sensitive to the work exhibited at the Fenderesky Gallery. I really appreciate the time you spent with these art works. The allusion to Basho and haiku is spot on; maybe, too, a short poem by Leonard Cohen that says something like ‘I am not lost any more than leaves are lost/ this is not my time’ is never that far away. I certainly remember once spending a whole day trying to outdo Basho’s ‘frog’ with a Scottish poet, each of us trying to bring the frog back out of the pond or back into it again – but with no success because you simply can’t outdo Basho in such a literal copy-cat-or-frog exercise – even if you just might just ruffle the water in some kind of alternative splash. Then some thirty years on I went back to a place a grew up in and saw a swing (now very high and frayed and above hand’s reach) in a tree (near a swamp and a river) where we had placed it some 45 years ago – and that old stilled pendulum of time started swinging. So, without knowing any of these biographical details – which are unnecessary anyway and which are certainly not literally or consciously contained in the work – you got to the centre of the image as it stands outside of my time/biography. So thank you again. Yours, John Brown


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