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— Essay by Ian Friend

The Metaphysician of Ipswich: 
Leonard Brown, Georgio Morandi and intimate spaces.

 In 1955 Art News published a short essay on Morandi by John Berger, titled Morandi the metaphysician of Bologna in which he stated “….in an age in which a pretentious internationalism of style encourages every artist to feel that he is a potential world figure, such quiet, parochial humility as Morandi’s is rare and dignified.” The more things change the more they stay the same – Berger’s assertion prompts retrospective echoes of the truth of the situation as it pertains in contemporary art in 2016. Berger also stated that in Morandi we can be reminded that “….there is such a thing as a genuine recluse who can still belong to – and not sabotage - the humanist tradition.”

 The studio of Georgio Morandi on the Via Fondazza in Bologna became such a site of pilgrimage in his later years that the supposed monastic nature of Morandi’s existence was sorely tested. As he stated to Gian Paolo Minadi: “An ivory tower, my foot! I would like to put up barbed wire!” A distinct sense of order prevailed, with Morandi being in control of the intimate space within the studio; monitoring the light entering this space, and its effect on the arrangement of the objects that constituted “still life”. Certain objects were fabricated and some painted to alter their tonality, to some degree denying their passive nature. All is not quite as it seems, even though Morandi stated that his only concerns were “space, light, colour and form”. It is more complex than this assertion.

 The studio of Leonard Brown in Ipswich, 40 kilometres west of Brisbane in Queensland, is also of a modest scale and maintains a sense of order similar to Morandi’s studio. The intimate space does not inhibit the intention to create monumental work, not of significant size, but nonetheless totally aware of scale and manifesting serious ambition. As was the case with Morandi, Brown’s studio has to some degree become a site of pilgrimage, not to bear witness to relics, but to observe the intense ongoing engagement with two strands of what might seem at first sight to manifest a diametrically opposed practice in painting, but on closer examination reveals a parallel methodology of a rule governed practice – the painting of icons in tempera on imported seasoned wood panels, and an engagement with an abstract body of work built systematically in oil paint on a drawn graphite sub-structure on canvas.

 On closer examination the notion of the artist operating in an almost totally hermetic manner would appear to present problems. Artists like Leonard Brown or Giorgio Morandi do not achieve recognition or some respected position in art circles, or a broader society, by being shrinking violets.

 Morandi survived within an Italian fascist milieu for a significant period of his life, had fascist sympathisers as patrons, had work reproduced in fascist publications, and counted on this society for survival, but he could not be described as an actively “fascist “artist although, as he stated in his 1928 autobiography, he sympathised with their political aims. He courted important people within this society, and a certain pragmatism in terms of survival came into play as is pertinent with any artist whose persistence in the face of social and political pressures becomes an everyday reality.

 Leonard Brown is an animated conversationalist and an engaged luncheon and dinner guest or host, who maintains an unfettered curiosity and engagement with various notions of spirituality having been trained in the rigours of religious instruction in the Orthodox Church. He is an avid collector of historic icons and contemporary art. As a practising artist of faith his work is an affirmation of this faith, particularly in the case of the icons which by definition are codified religious art.

 As previously stated, Leonard Brown also executes abstract painting in oils on Belgian linen prepared with an oil based ground, the process conducted in an alla prima manner in order to complete the works in a relatively brief period of time. A structure is mapped out in graphite pencil across the canvas and the paint mixed and applied according to the desired final image, with no intermediate mediation of the surface. Despite the perceived abstract nature of the work, it is based in a residual humanist response to experience. Notwithstanding the separation of the icons and the abstract works, both practices are entirely contemporary, as is their assertion of an ongoing tradition.

 Leonard Brown’s practice in the production of icons, using the egg tempera and gold leaf processes, effectively works in tandem with the abstract paintings. By its very nature, symbolic intent conditions to a significant degree the final manifestation of the icon. The process involves long hours of intensively fine brushwork in the medium of egg tempera. At times one can imagine the process seemingly related to the efforts of the alchemist. Alcohol is certainly involved, not imbibed, but as a medium. The basic process involves free range eggs, the separation of the yolk from the albumen, the puncturing of the sac to release the contents of the yolk, and mixing this with pure dry pigment diluted with white wine. The 50% water/50% vodka  recipe for the adhesion of gold leaf to the underlying earth pigment bole, is yet another important element of the painting process. These works cannot be made with integrity without due diligence to process. This effectively is craft and art manifest as a symbiotic process.

 Leonard Brown has stated that the icons are “an emblem of the natural world”. Notwithstanding that the oil paintings on canvas are created within an alternative time frame, in different media, and with separate intentions, they nonetheless offer a view of the deep joy that is also possible within the abstractly painted idiom relating to the natural world. These are works that defy the current obsession with “innovation” and Leonard Brown is certainly not an emerging artist, but perhaps a submerging artist, nonetheless buoyed by the lifejacket of integrity, tradition and enduring ambition.

Ian Friend 
Ipswich, QLD 
April 2016

Since its establishment in 1984, the Charles Nodrum Gallery’s exhibition program embraces a diversity of media and styles - from painting, sculpture & works on paper to graphics and photography; from figurative, geometric, gestural, surrealist & social comment to installation & conceptually based work.