To and from 1989 signed and dated 'John Brack 1989' lower right watercolour, pen and ink on paper 68.6 x 108.0cm (27 x 42 1/2in).
PROVENANCE Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1991
EXHIBITED John Brack, Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, 7-28 September 1991, cat. no. 13
LITERATURE Sasha Grishin, The art of John Brack, Oxford, 1990, vol. 2, pp. 74, 250 (illus.)
John Brack was a maker of imaginative puzzles. His pictures were intended to lead the viewer's thoughts into a mental labyrinth. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the simulated still life compositions he devised during the 1980s. They represented coloured pencils and ink pens all standing upright, and massed together in different configurations upon table tops. Their purpose was to explore human conflict, sometimes through simulating battle formations, more often by alluding to socially-based competitiveness and division. 1
The large watercolour and ink work To and from shows a mixture of coloured pencils bunched on a round table as if at a meeting. It comes from a later sequence of these introspective works where groups of pencils will hold up cards from a children's spelling game, all of them printed with a single alphabet letter. In this piece four of the cards face us and spell out the word From, while another two are turned away, the implication being that they spell the first word in the picture's title.
To and from confounds easy interpretation. The series it falls within was focused upon producing allegories that might be applied to all levels of human aggression and manoeuvring, from petty office politics up to international jockeying between governments. 'The pencils and their pens stand as metaphors as much for soldiers and their commanders as for office workers and their chiefs, or any other grouping,' the art historian Sasha Grishin writes. 'Once a grouping has formed, their rivalry and opposition seem inevitable.' 2 In this sense, the paintings gesture to humanity's simultaneous need for, and attacks against, hierarchies and administrative structures. Likewise, discussing how Brack's allegories were highlighting 'humanity's perpetual disputes over territory,' the curator Ted Gott has written, 'we realise we are all the same; and this cycle of aggression, colonisation and assimilation is perpetual.' 3
To and from is one of several major works depicting rival parties of massed pencils which face off against each other as they hold up cards to state a blunt point: Us, Them; Now, Then; Here, There; Yes, No. However, the pencils in To and from are neither organised in to groups according to colour, nor are they ranked by type. And instead of a sheet of paper on which have been short graphic dashes, they stand on a circular marble table top. These pencils are not overt visual metaphors for people there is nothing here to suggest ethnicity, race or class is an issue yet the cards imply the artist wants the viewer to ponder questions of territory and location. The words themselves bear connotations of movement, of travel, and also of migration and dislocation: we go to, and we come from. Indeed, the table top grouping is more like a political rally, where individual pencils ignore their differences and join together in a formal discussion.
John Brack signals his symbolic intent within the painting by having the still life image halt a few centimeters from the edge of the canvas, then filling the remaining border with a darkened gapa spatial framing device to show the viewer that this is not a window on the world. Further still, by drawing a shadowy false edge around his composition, the artist emphasises that reality is ever absent in his traffic of representations: an allegory about the state of things is being presented.
Dr Christopher Heathcote
1 Christopher Heathcote, 'John Brack and the Allegorical Still Life,' Quadrant, April 2012, pp. 71-3 2 Sasha Grishin, The Art of John Brack, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1990, vol. 1, p. 145 3 Ted Gott, A Question of Balance: John Brack 1974-1994, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 13-14