Don Brown Fleurs comprises of six new oil paintings – each a grisaille depiction of flowers. This new body of work marks a decisive new phase for Brown, whose practice is best known for his meticulously made figurative sculptures. First presented as part of our online series HOMEWORK, additional new works from the series can now be viewed in person for the first time at the Kingly Street gallery.
Sadie Coles HQ: These new oil paintings mark a significant new phase in your practice. What prompted the transition to this medium?
Don Brown: I essentially decided to paint because I desired more immediacy in my working process. The practice of painting generates its own demands: you have to create a field of potential that allows things to happen; an everyday practice that is generative and self-reflective. There are a few paintings from the past three years of this exploration that have an independence but in the flower paintings, the process and the subject are talking to each other.
SCHQ: Flowers have been a constant source of inspiration to artists throughout history. What drew you to them as a subject matter?
DB: Flowers are both a beginning and an end, they are more than merely a symbol of regeneration, they epitomise regeneration and vitality, a miracle that is hidden for most of the time in the depths of the plant. They unfurl on the ends of their stalks like little parachutes for a few days, perhaps only a few moments, a glimpse of perfection. I can remember thinking as a child, how nice it would be to have a flower shop, the smell of a flower shop, the catalogue of exquisite blooms from all over the world; and the solely poetic purpose of the flower shop is to bring beauty and happiness to people.
SCHQ: This new group of paintings are entirely depicted in black and white, omitting all colour, a defining feature of flowers.
DB: There are many dimensions to my decision to paint in black and white. Monochrome pictures have strange emotional and psychological effects, there is something elegiac about black and white images; and something beautiful or beguiling always has a touch of sadness, an element of impermanence and fragility about it.
Removing one of the most important feature of flowers, their colour, shifts the focus towards something more contemplative. Watching Fellini’s 8 1/2 a while ago I was struck by the quality of the black and white, the milky highlights and the rich darks, the way that the whites bleed into the black. It is very seductive. We are pulled into a black and white image in a way that is quite different from the way that a colour image seduces us. Forms appear more defined, objects appear more real and yet have a dream-like quality and are engraved into the mind. It is a different space, one we are very familiar with through photography and film and yet it’s not quite the world as we see it when we look around. This attraction to tonal images might also have something to do with my working in sculpture, especially in the white sculptures — I’m very drawn to the way that forms emerge from darkness and the way that light falls onto an object.
SCHQ: The flowers you have chosen are particularly abundant – Roses, Hydrangeas, Chrysanthemums – what drew you to choose these types and can you tell us about the way you’ve chosen to depict them?
DB: Hydrangea blooms are so excessive when they are fresh and hydrated, but need a lot of water when they are cut. I wanted this incredible excess but found it difficult to stop them wilting. I tried all sorts of things like putting the stems in boiling water and soaking the petals in the bath, with some success, but then found that the wilting petals took on a silk or satin like appearance which was beautiful, the little deflated silk parachutes, a fabulous fin de siècle dress – so I painted the wilting Hydrangeas. I suppose that I am borrowing some of the special qualities of each flower that I choose to paint: Chrysanthemums have for example an explosive almost loud quality. It’s a dialogue with the flowers, the fact that they epitomise beauty to us is curious in itself, something we strangely take for granted – what are they to an insect? ...literally attractive. Why are they so delicate and often so excessive?
The vase is an element that is very inspiring. It is a piece of the history of style, there is no neutral vase, every vase exists within the frame of reference of a particular form of society, at a particular stage of historical development – whether it is a Pinner Qing Dynasty vase or a milk bottle or a stylish 60’s vase – yet they have a purity in that they are more or less simple vessels defined by their function to hold water and flowers. I like the way that this human-constructed beauty corresponds with the flowers. Though in fact, the flowers I chose for the paintings are of cultivated varieties. I think this kind of reflection is what brought me to the idea of making the paintings ‘after’ Fantin-Latour... experiencing the qualities of something, saying something about it and then passing it on.
SCHQ: Flowers can be signifiers of many different meanings. Is there a message or symbolism you have looked to convey?
DB: Yes, they are a prepotent subject throughout the history of art, the emotions that they give rise to in us are countless, and yet they remain inscrutable. Flowers and paintings are alike in many ways, ultimate and enigmatic expressions of the organism. A flower, like a painting is an ambiguous thing, into which we can project and read our own thoughts, it is as much a reading as it is a writing.
SCHQ: The theme of time is prevalent within the paintings and you have said of this: “I’m wrestling with the idea of trying to make an image and fix it, while the thing itself is changing.”
DB: I was referring essentially to the process of working with flowers. As I draw them they are, literally, very slowly moving and changing, it’s part of the fascination we have with flowers that they exemplify the passing of time. It’s also a metaphor for the process of making art, to pin down an idea, a fleeting thought that feels so important and yet is always just out of reach. The impermanence of flowers is so intimately bound up with their beauty that we feel that we are ‘in the moment’. When we look at them, time is suspended and we have arrived at some kind of peak experience, though we are conscious that however much we try to cling to the experience it will disappear; and that is a very important thing to recognize and reflect upon.
On the other hand painting could be said to be attempting to arrest time. It is paradoxical that in reflecting on their transient beauty I am also trying to make something as stable and permanent as possible. A flower’s beauty may lay in its mutability and yet a paintings beauty – I’m thinking of Jan van Huysum’s incredible flower paintings – may lay in the attempt to permanently fix an image of something fleeting; I see this in Chinese and Japanese ink paintings too. While what we learn from looking at flowers is to be in the moment we nevertheless have an irresistible urge to hold on to time.