We recently had the pleasure of attending the opening night of Brad Franks’ exhibition RETRO at the Muswellbrook Regional Arts Centre.
Brad is a Darug man who has been an artist and photographer all his life.
The exhibition contains works from across his career, curated by himself and Elissa Emerson, Director of Muswellbrook Arts Centre. The opening was accompanied with music by Bob Short and was opened with speeches by Bruce Tindale and Brad.
Awesome Black has been given permission to publish one of the essays that appeared in the catalogue from the exhibition the written by Billy Crawford.
Whereas the British modernists found their metier with a gentle form of post-impressionism, Australian painters ‘found’ themselves within a sort of eviscerated German expressionism. Some, such as Bergner and Tucker, went for the slightly harder post-war Germans, others, such as Boyd and Perceval, melded the more lyrical lines of Picasso and Matisse with the influence of Kirchner and Kollwitz. All were searching deeply for an Australianness, alongside Dobell, Drysdale and Nolan and with the Angry Penguins and Jindyworobaks within an adjacent literary world.
This became the basis of the first singularly Australian school of art, summed up within the the 1959 Antipodean Exhibition and its accompanying Manifesto courtesy of Bernard Smith. The next decade saw the rise of Williams, Blackman and Whiteley etc. with their excessive sentimentality and a burgeoning reminiscence of a time that never was (what could be called a sympathetic nostalgia). At the same time Australian art was opening up, sucking up abstract expressionism, hard edge painting and pop art. This was all thrown into a sort of melting pot with the Annandale Realists, and then Reinhart, Sansom, Powditch and Dawson.
The result was an optimistic but undisciplined mess, tastily picked apart in Gary Catalano’s The Years of Hope.
Then the 1970’s came. For young Australians it was a roller coaster ride of Whitlam and Fraser, easy money and unemployment, music, drugs and sex and the creepy inveiglement of structuralism, self-consciousness, self-referentiality into discussions that were now called ‘discourse’. Art theory brought Australia into the art of the western world once again, with neo-expressionism being particularly influential in the new schools of Sydney College of the Arts and the College of Fine Arts.
The world of Brad Franks soaks up all of this and then pulls it together within a country setting. His work is a conduit to the variety of forces in painting (not fine arts in general) at play at the time. With Richard Haese’s Rebels and Precursors there was suddenly an art tradition to be proud of and to relate to. It was not hankering to be like something from the pages of Artforum. The Field still seemed fresh but was also folly, it was the world of Australian painting before that was the road to follow.
One of the first paintings in this retrospective is a self-portrait from 1984, Head (Aberdeen), where the influence of Nolan and Tucker is plainly visible. It is a neat meld of expressionism and neo-expressionism, but always respectfully redolent of the Heide artists of the late thirties, early forties.
Then the moods become more variegated; Franks moved from Darlinghurst to Muswellbrook in the early 1980s and parenthood replaced punk rock as a life force (although like almost all within his teenage cohort, music remained core to his foundations).
Muswellbrook in the early ’80s was a long way from Darlinghurst. Still is, I suppose. Franks took to the countryside, not pristine, slightly ravaged by agricultural industry. A tanning factory left its mark in the air. It was not quite Queenstown in Tasmania, but it was getting there. Franks painting from the last two decades of the last century show that urge to somehow capture the uncapturable – the Australian countryside. Nolan, Williams, Boyd all tried with varying degrees of success. It is an honourable ambition for an Australian painter.
9 x 5 (x8) Granite Belt Impressions from 1989 shows the equal respect for the painting tradition in Australia and the respect for the living landscape. In Ask the Angels (1993) the Australian landscape of Nolan and Williams seems to be devouring the gently laid (and Whiteleyesque) Madonna in the foreground. The Australian earth may give but it will also take away. The theme is revisited in The View from Rossgole (Mt. Woolooma in Rain) (2000) but here the work seems more self-aware due to the proscenium effect created by the framing curtains.
Rain, drought, fire, the life of the Australian countryside is and has been a continuing theme of Australian art for two centuries, since Glover. The gradual overturning of the the squeamish relinquishing of authority to European and American cultural power is most evident in the art produced within the country, rather than the city. The city still reacts (rather than interacts) with overseas fashions; the country goes its own way, with blue skies and sandy grounds.
Landscape after Rain (Manooka Gully) from 2018 shows something of the result of four decades of infatuation with the land, overfilled creek, already drying soil and deep Streeton sky with ghost gums redolent of Williams and Boyd. It is a beautiful painting of a land that was always half myth anyway.
Franks seems to enjoy the unenviable task of capturing the half myth, half reality of the countryside. His sculptures stand like remnants of a farm, the shadows of his photographs hide the reality of the country, intimating rather than imitating life lived day by day.
Sentimentality and sympathy are out of fashion these days, replaced by realism (including hard edge ‘abstract’ realism) and the false ‘reach out’ of empathy. The Jam’s 1980 response to the OTT Hollywood glamour movie, That’s Entertainment, showed that the old days had a use-by date. Bergson’s concept of multiple levels of sympathy (of which ’empathy’ is none) disappeared with, well, Bergson.
But Franks loves the country where he lived for so many years. The colours, the organic swirls, the flatness of the earth and sky are unembarrassed. It is a sentimental look at a countryside in constant change, the carnage that man has wreaked is noted but not criticised. The sympathy for those afflicted with the effects of life seen in the stark subjects of his black and white photographs. The sentimentality and sympathy for subject that sets Whiteley apart from his peers is evident in the Franks oeuvre. Until now, that oeuvre seems to have stayed mostly on the artist’s studio walls.
We make choices between lives and careers and Franks decided on life. Looking at forty years of work it seems he would have fitted well into the Watters stable. That didn’t happen; but it is good that we have a chance to see, perhaps somewhat understand, a life where art was not the means of production, but instead the product of love.
Billy Crawford, June 2022
Editors Note: Brad Franks is my father and has been a huge supporter of my work in the arts as well as the development of Awesome Black.
Photography by Travis De Vries