Elastic stockings 1965 signed and dated 'John Brack 65' lower right oil on canvas 130.0 x 96.0cm (51 3/16 x 37 13/16in).
PROVENANCE The collection of the artist Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1996
EXHIBITED John Brack, Gallery A, Melbourne, 29 March - April 1965, cat. no. 6 John Brack, Gallery A, Sydney, 14 May 1965, cat. no. 4 John Brack and Fred Williams, Albert Hall, Canberra, 1-13 August 1967, cat. no. 7 John Brack: Selected Paintings 1947-1977, Royal Melbourne Institue of Technology, Melbourne, 15 March 1 April 1977, cat. no. 21 John Brack: Retrospective: paintings and drawings, Melville Hall, Australian National University, Canberra, 21 September 16 November 1977, cat. no. 26 John Brack: A Retrospective Exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 11 December 1987 31 January 1988, cat. no. 67 John Brack, Selected Paintings 1950s -1990s, Geelong Art Gallery, Geelong, 15 June 1996, cat. no. 8 John Brack Retrospective, touring exhibition, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 24 April 9 August 2009; Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2 October 2009 31 January 2010 (label attached verso)
LITERATURE Ronald Millar, John Brack, Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1971, pp. 25, 35, 52, 108, pl. 6 (illus.) Robert Lindsay, John Brack: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, pp. 55 (illus.), 122-123, 130-131, 140 Sasha Grishan, The Art of John Brack, Oxford, 1990, vol. 1, pp. 97 (illus.), 99, vol. 2, p. 129 Kirsty Grant, et al, John Brack, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p. 138 (illus.)
The mid-1960s saw John Brack labouring upon what were to be the most demanding, perhaps the most intellectually ambitious, Australian pictures of the day. They were rather disquieting paintings of shop windows and, when exhibited, they attracted almost instant admiration from local intellectuals. The writer Patrick White later wanted one reproduced as the cover illustration for his major novel The Vivisector.
The paintings' forlorn tone was certainly evoked by Brack's choice of a palette inclined to brown, ochre and blue-grey: the colours alone are so cheerless, so drab. But what chiefly unsettled was his subject matter: gleaming surgical instruments, veterinary equipment, artificial limbs and medical supports on glass and chrome shelves. Grim existentialist themes of pain and wounding were guiding Brack's choice of objects, for everywhere the viewer looks, one encounters things associated with cutting, piercing and human injury. This was heavy duty modern art which tackled weighty matters.
Painted with an economical, at points loosely handled brush, Elastic stockings represents a garishly painted window in which are displayed surgical scissors and calipers splayed out in patterns on a plain brown shelf. Beyond them we can make out the blurry forms of other apparatus on glass shelves, including the sketchy suggestion of glass receptacles, measuring cups, a foot support and knee support. There is the chequered pattern of an advertiser's poster above, which is partly obscured by the embellished sign on the plate glass window which gives the painting its title. The seeming message of this closed and boxed-in space is direct: life wounds us.
As usual with this most precise painter who did not like others to categorise his work, John Brack himself was evasive about the allusions. His own comment was that 'The things themselves also have a peculiar beauty; the beauty of efficiency. Certainly there is a connotation of pain when one considers artery forceps and invalid chairs. There is also the connotation of its opposite, of healing.' 1 Clearly the potential meanings run deep, very deep. Art for him was an autopsy in the fullest sense of that word: it was a rigorous inspection in which he saw something for himself, and arrived at his own intellectual conclusions.
The painting's inspiration was a shop window in Swanston Street, Melbourne, that the artist walked past on his way to work at the National Gallery of Victoria. It displayed a single prosthetic leg. This caused Brack to keep an eye out for other curious windows, such as a shop that sold kitchen implements. Every few weeks the owner would reorganise the odd window, arranging new whisks and spoons and biscuit cutters in geometric patterns. It seemed hilarious to an artist, a running visual joke, but the staff were very seriously attempting to market products. They did not see the funny side to what they were doing. When later talking with the curator Robert Lindsay, the artist explained he had come to be fascinated that the presentation methods used for fashion and luxury goods were also applied by retailers to products like surgical supports and artificial limbs. 2 A shop keeper would try to make his stock look cheerful and attractive, thereby effectively denying any dour associations.
Brack also once told me that what increasingly came to intrigue him was how those display settings would present, and aestheticise, everyday items which were not prima facie works of art. Referring to the French thinker André Malraux's influential book on the psychology of art, The voices of silence, he suggested that much as through their exhibition practices museums will intrude upon our experience of artistic work, so too do commercial display techniques aspire to sever other associations and make objects seem beautiful. The result of these thoughts was a painting like Elastic stockings which explores, within its own terms, the presentational process that estranges objects from normality and recasts them as potentially artistic.
It may be a popular conceit of recent critical writing to assert that the artist concerned deals with complicated theories, but in the case of John Brack such claims ring true. For all its apparent ordinariness, Elastic stockings is a necessarily complex painting that shows the artist restlessly exploring weighty ideas.
Dr Christopher Heathcote
1 Quoted in Kirsty Grant, John Brack, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2009, p.115. 2 Robert Lindsay, John Brack, A Retrospective, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, p.19.