Sebastian Smee caught up with Brett McMahon to discuss his work
SS: You’ve just come back from a trip to Malaysia, and this body of work comes out of that trip, am I right?
BM: It’s the scond time I’ve been to Malaysia to visit my wife Ro’s family, and I hang around their old neighborhood. It brought back memories of trips I did to Indonesia when I was younger. It also started to hook me back into the work I did in the early 2000s – work which was based around the backstreets of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst, when those places were a bit grittier than they are now.
SS: Give me a sense of the neighborhood. It’s in Kuala Lumpur, right?
BM: Yeah, it’s on the outskirts of the city, about 20 minutes from the center on the LRT tramline.
SS: What sort of stuff did you find yourself noticing?
BM: Where we are is a residential area, but each of these residential areas has a sort of square of shops and a morning market, where you buy lots of fantastic produce. In the evenings there’s a night market. Through the day, near where Rowena is, there’s a shopping square full of restaurants, food shops, a hardware store. But this square is divided by laneways, so there’s two cross lanes and one central lane running through the back. For me that was where it became really interesting, because of all the junk from the restaurants, old table tops with gas bottles and so on. A lot of the food prep for the restaurants is done out in these laneways, so it’s this really fantastic, sort of underbelly environment.
SS: So what else were you looking at there? Awnings? Fences…?
BM: Awnings, grilled doors, ducting for the restaurant kitchens, and all the other bits and pieces that are just out there, lying around, being used, or that have just been sitting there for ages. It rains almost every afternoon, and it’s hot.
SS: So this stuff is exposed and weathered.
BM: Yeah, it’s all kind of breaking down. It just feels organic out there. And visually, it’s really exciting, because as well as all the staining and the weathering, a lot of these things were originally painted with really beautiful colors. So you have beautiful oranges and yellows stained with rust or mould or all sorts of other residues. I just found it really visually exciting. I’d worked for almost ten years on a series based on the rock platforms around Newcastle. A lot of it was to do with patterns and structures, which manifested itself in quite a monochrome way – blacks and whites, greys, silver. I guess that was the way I could see the structure in things. I really got hooked into that mode for a long time, and I didn’t use much color at all, for years. So when I started to see these things, it was the first time I found a way back into color. And it was really exciting.
A lot of the work I’d done in previous years was dealing in textures and ways of working with a reduced compositional format, but then adding lots of detail interest – spatially, texturally. So now I could see how I could use this material. The other thing is that I’d been working with material – especially the paper – in quite a sculptural way, thinking about how to replicate what I was looking at with the way that I was manipulating the paper. So when I saw these things in Malaysia, I could see how I could apply these techniques to those works and to that subject matter. When I’d worked on that previously, 15 years ago, I guess I was trying to paint it, rather than produce an object. So I think the approach I have now is more direct, and the pieces have more of a ‘found object’ quality to them.
SS: They have a really strong physical quality. The bigger works are on paper, the smaller ones are on board. Tell me about the works on paper, which to me have a surprising fragility, compared to your previous works. I wonder if you’ve used different material?
BM: I was using quite beautiful, thick Arches paper when I was working with the nature-based pieces. That was great because you could do all sorts of things with it. You could punch holes in it and sand it. But a lot of what I was finding in Asia was peeling paint and surfaces that had been re-used multiple times. So when I first started doing prototypes of the Malaysia work, it was falling a bit flat. There wasn’t enough going on and there was too much distance between what I was ending up with on my paper and what I was looking at. It didn’t feel gritty enough. So I ended up taking a leaf out of people like Mark Bradford and the French Nouveau Realists who were ripping up posters, and I thought maybe what I need to do is layer up thinner paper and leave it out in the weather. So I make these pieces that get rained on and blown around by the wind and various other things. But all of that accidental interaction with the elements imbues them with the qualities that attracted me to the subject matter in the first place. So it’s almost like trying to make these works on paper and have them live in an environment similar to what I was seeing there. There’s an element of them forming themselves.
SS: Right. When you see them reproduced in a photograph or if you just look at their basic composition you think of abstract work by the likes of Ellsworth Kelly or Brice Marden. But those works are so pristine compared to these new works you’re making. Yours have a familiarity with that language but they’re completely different in feel.
BM: There’s definitely a reference to that era of abstract painters. Because when I walk down those alleyways, it’s often, Oh look at that, there’s an Ellsworth Kelly, you know, beaten up and forgotten in south-east Asia somewhere. But in a way those other artists help you see what’s there.
SS: They do. Ellsworth Kelly was probably thinking that all the time… “Oh, there’s another Ellsworth Kelly!”
BM: [laughs] Well he was smart enough to see it before anyone else. I need his help! But the interesting thing for me is that you find those things in the world as they are. And instead of presenting them as something pristine, or Utopian in a way, they’re actually in a process of returning to something organic. They’re breaking down. And that’s what I like. The reference is there, but it’s being brought back to a state of nature, rather than an ideal. So I guess a bit of a subplot there is the fact of a man-made object being taken back to nature like an Angkor Wat temple. It’s being reclaimed.
SS: There’s an amazing essay by Georg Simmel about “the ruin” and this idea – exactly as you say – that there’s something poignant in a ruin because, as a building, it has been elevated out of nature, or abstracted from it, and now you’re watching it in the process of falling back into nature. And there can often be an almost unbearable emotional pitch to that.
BM: Right, and so maybe these works are ruins in a way.
SS: Ok. So – and not to get too philosophical here – but I wonder, given your mention of that pristine, Utopian aspect coming out of early 20th century abstraction, whether it’s not hard to think of abstraction in those terms any more? Is there a sense in which your work is almost letting abstraction itself fall back into nature, so that those Utopian tendencies are now framed exclusively in terms of the actions of nature, the processes of breaking down?
BM: I guess in those early days abstraction felt fresh and it was about building something new, probably as a manifestation of post-war sensibilities. But now, for me, the only way that I can imagine those things existing is less in terms of a painting than as an object. The work I make has to have that “object” quality to it.
SS: Which it does, more and more…
BM: Even the work I’m doing now I feel I can take to another level of physicality. It’s not trying to replicate anything directly. It’s trying to take on the processes, which gives the pieces a certain weight. And in a quiet way, I think they are saying something about the fleeting nature of things and human time against nature’s time.
SS: You didn’t make these works in Malaysia. So did you use photographs as visual aids?
BM: Yeah, I took a whole bunch of photographs but I also did lots of sketches. And I guess what I was recording was the way the material was, its shapes. I recorded those basic structures which I’ve been working into the paper. I needed some kind of direct reference to what I’d seen. The black and white one which has a shield-like quality – there was a doorway I’d seen which was cut like that. But I wasn’t really trying to replicate what I saw. I just had these basic structures, and let the works just do their thing. When they were right I knew they were right because they took me back to where I was when I was looking at them.
SS: So it’s not a literal transposition.
BM: No, I couldn’t walk you back down the laneway and say, Look, there it is. But I could walk you down the laneway and say, Look, there’s that one that was cut like this and you could see the connection. And I think that’s enough. I’d rather be faithful to the process the thing I saw went through than the literal appearance. The thin ones that have been sanded and have holes in them – those holes come from sitting on the concrete in the back of my studio and there just happens to be rocks there that eat through the paper. I manage that and compose it…
SS: … but there’s a big aspect of chance, and of time – it just sits there being trodden on and exposed to circumstances?
BM: Yeah. There was a piece of metal in the laneways that had holes in it and was worn. The holes were all in different spots. But it was just the fact that it was like that.
SS: There’s one that has the quality of being almost a floor, or the ground. There are bits of wire, and an almost mosaic-like arrangement of coloured stuff.
BM: That was the floor of a daily market, which had been painted, and all sorts of junk had accumulated on it. A whitewashed floor that was grubby and stained. I just saw it and thought, that’s such a beautiful composition down there. There were a few other footpath and grounds I recorded and made notes from, but that’s the only one I’ve made so far.
SS: And the process of making it: did you have it on the floor in the studio?
BM: Yeah, and I crumpled it up and I sanded it. All the gesso was there and I sprinkled a whole bunch of stuff on it. And it just sat there. And then you lift it up and some fell off, and then you brush it and do it again. You leave it like that and the paint’s wet, and it’s a windy day, so a whole bunch of other stuff has blown in and stuck, and you think, Oh, that’s kind of cool. [laughs]. So hopefully the works have a naturalness about them. They don’t look overly contrived and composed.
SS: Right. But at the same time they don’t look overly beaten up. There’s some art you see where the artist has tried to make almost an expressionistic point – you know, Look at this ravaged, beaten-up, tortured thing! But yours still have that tautness, a kind of mature reticence, a sense of a man-made thing that’s still living its life in a way…
BM: I did make a few where I really beat them up, but too much. And the fact that they were so torn up and destroyed made them lose the tension. It started to enter a zone that was angsty and expressionistic, which is not what I was after. I like the sense that things that are just caught in a particular moment. In the same way that a photograph just captures things in a particular moment. It just is what it is. But that says something about my aesthetic I guess. It’s not too pristine. It’s not totally trash. It’s just that poignant, poetic moment where something’s just turning… Maybe it’s what it’s like to be 50!