Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Christopher le Brun, Painter-Sculptor

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Christopher le Brun, Painter-Sculptor

Article excerpt

Christopher Le Brun's move into sculpture throws into question any too ready identification of his art with a specifically English form of Romanticism. He is a self-avowed member of the 'awkward squad'. His apparent rejection of modernity and realism for an art drawn from within the topography of the romanticsymbolist imagination, his adherence to the traditional fine art materials of bronze, oil and watercolour, his unease at being trapped within prevailing orthodoxies, coupled with his willingness to take on the unfashionable are all still to the fore. His art rides a memory-go-round of culturally loaded recurring images. His career path from European Zeitgeist painter of the eighties to defender and exploiter of tradition could have him cast as a latter-day Giorgio de Chirico, one of his mentors, who similarly went from avant-garde painter, the pictorial inventor of Surrealism, to a perplexing preoccupation with the great structuring myths of European civilization from Classic to Gothic. And like de Chirico, Le Brun's work is informed by German metaphysics, tempered by the light of Italy, and by a belief in the mythic grandeur of art. He too excels in the evocation of a transcendent mood. But there is something else that is brought home by his recent sculpture, and by his notes and responses to successive drafts of this text: his fundamental allegiance to the improvisatory heuristic methods both of Abstract Expressionism and of a modern tradition of welded sculpture from Picasso and David Smith to Sir Anthony Caro.1 The Le Brun that emerges is a more complex artist, fully aware of his position within the dialectics of modern and postmodern art, and polemical in his understated strategy of engaging with the complexities of tradition and cultural memory, while at the same time challenging accepted practices and stances.

From 1970 to 1974 Le Brun studied at the Slade School of Fine Art where Malcolm Hughes (1920-97) taught part-time from 1970, running the Graduate School from 1973 to 1983. Hughes, an advocate of international constructivism and co-founder of the Systems Group in 1969, adopted an anti-Romantic stance, quite at odds with Le Brun's emerging ambitions as a painter. One feature of Hughes's teaching stood out for Le Brun. He played recordings of David Sylvester's interviews with leading American artists, commissioned by the BBC Third Programme between 1960 and 1967, which were subsequently published.2 The interviews with the great Abstract Expressionists initiated, or at least confirmed, Le Brun's principal method of composition: 'an openness to the resources of the unconscious. The ongoing project that started with that is still with me.' His adoption of an intuitive method is not, he maintains, indicative of an uncritical attitude to process: 'The cliché about my work is of course Romanticism and Neo- Romanticism. What it doesn't acknowledge is my absorption of artists like Ad Reinhardt. The fact is that I thought very hard about how painting might develop.' Ad Reinhardt (1913-67),3 one of the most polemical of the Abstract Expressionist generation, was widely accepted to have taken painting to a logical conclusion. In a review of Reinhardt's Black Paintings on show at the ICA in 1964, published in the New Statesman (12 June 1964) and later re-published,4 David Sylvester first attacked Reinhardt's 'sheer denial of what art is supposed to be' before coming round to recognize that the Black Paintings demanded a different, more concentrated way of looking. Le Brun, too, felt that with Ad Reinhardt art had reached a dead end: 'a painting becomes, as it were, bravely and existentially selfsufficient, but the weakness being its inability to satisfy our interest in mimesis and picturing'.

Of far greater relevance was the precedent of Philip Guston. In his review of the Guston exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in March 1960, first published in the New Statesman (15 January 1963), Sylvester saw Guston as the 'odd man out' among the Abstract Expressionists in his willingness to engage with 'complexity': 'the more recent works are so packed with doubts and denials as to have gone beyond the brink of what we think of coherence'. …

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