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Art

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

By Quentin Sprague

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

Stephen Bram, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm. Photo: Christian Capurro. © Stephen Bram, courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

I recently sat down (yes, over Zoom) with the Melbourne-based artist Stephen Bram. It was a handful of days after his untitled exhibition had opened in the upstairs space at Anna Schwartz Gallery, in Melbourne’s CBD, and although the suite of six new black-and-white paintings – part of an ongoing series Bram first began to toy with in 2014 but didn’t show publicly until 2019 – marked a significant body of new work, they were unveiled at a moment tinged with sadness. In the downstairs gallery – a long, imposing and evenly lit space – the final group of works by the recently deceased abstract painter John Nixon, an exhibition that had first opened at the gallery in March, crowded the walls and two trestle tables with the kind of productive busyness that was so characteristic of the artist. Nixon died in August – the height of Melbourne’s second wave of coronavirus – after a struggle with leukaemia. The gallery, which had shown his work regularly since its earliest days, extended the exhibition until the end of the year, initially by appointment and now during regular gallery hours: a quiet gesture of warmth and respect for both the artist and the significant legacy he leaves.

Running the two exhibitions together makes perfect sense. Nixon was a close friend and informal mentor to Bram, who is roughly a generation younger in art terms and part of a loose cohort of Australian abstract artists that for Nixon embodied the tenets of radical modernism, minimalism and related conceptual forms that guided his own work. For many, such abstraction – characterised as it often is by reductive forms, hard edges and utilitarian materials – can initially appear a bloodless undertaking, but presented en masse (there are more than 100 works in the current exhibition, including a series of collaborations with one of his studio assistants, Jacqueline Stojanović), Nixon’s work displays the current of joy that clearly sustained his constant activity in the studio. Single works might not move you, but you’d be hard pressed not to respond to the bright song of the whole show.

Under the self-imposed guidelines of Nixon’s long-running Experimental Painting Workshop (EPW), anything could, and was, turned into painting. An old spoon? Sure, glue it together with a black-painted wood disc to a red-stippled mini canvas, and you have a tiny constructivist composition that echoes with domesticity (Untitled, 2020). The same goes for an offcut of wooden dowel, or a splintered piece of wood: add color, call it a painting and move on.

The current show, titled Groups + Pairs 2016–2020, is dominated by stripes, curved forms and geometric shapes; small canvasses are painted in monochrome hues and either butted up against each other or overlaid; wood grain is often left raw. Most of one diptych is covered by stuck-on lamb’s wool and upholstery foam (Untitled, 2018). When I walked through Nixon’s exhibition a day after my first conversation with Bram, I was carrying my almost-two-year-old in my arms. She was initially overwhelmed by her first post-lockdown visit to a city gallery, but she soon identified the various coloured objects that adorned the space around us as “toys”, a designation that I imagine would have pleased an artist so committed to the simple curiosity that can drive studio practice.

Bram’s exhibition provides a counterpoint to Nixon’s. There are clear overlaps and resonances, but it’s the differences that stand out. Over a three-decade career, Bram, a figure whose gently deferent character can initially seem at odds with the conceptual rigour of his art, has produced an uncommonly committed body of work. Until he began his recent series, it was exclusively defined by a process in which a small group of external perspective points were chosen at random, and then extended onto the canvas. The overlapping lines created geometric compositions of varying complexity, which were then carefully filled in with flat areas of acrylic paint. That body of work – which eventually extended the same concept to sculptures, drawings and built environments – was hard-edged, like Nixon’s, but the freewheeling nature that clearly guided the older artist was in Bram’s instance replaced by studied process.

The new series, which was first unveiled at an exhibition at Geelong Gallery in late 2019, pulled that process apart. Using black acrylic on white-primed canvas, each work consists of loose, blob-like daubs of paint that ebb and flow across the picture plane, gathering here and there into dark clusters and elsewhere spreading out like slow drifting amoebas. As with the well-known image of a Dalmatian dog hidden in plain sight against a black-and-white landscape, the mind can’t help but search for figurative purchase, but in Bram’s paintings it’s to no avail: they are built solely upon the action of applying paint to canvas; shapes form and disperse as each brush-mark responds to the last, but they never become images. Bar one, the works currently on display at Anna Schwartz’s are the largest in the series the artist has to date undertaken; they swim with restless visual energy.

Nixon was among the very first to see the beginnings of Bram’s new series. The two of them were at the time sharing a city studio with fellow artist Rose Nolan, where Bram recalls initially working on the paintings as a playful counterpoint to his perspective works; when Nixon and he later moved into the same West Brunswick studio complex, and Bram’s new series slowly began to take precedence, Nixon was often around. It’s the kind of closeness that characterised many of Nixon’s countless art friendships, and the contours of Bram’s story will be familiar to many. The two first met when Bram was a student at the Victorian College of the Arts, and Nixon a lecturer. It was 1986, and Bram had only recently turned to abstract painting; at 37, Nixon was already established as one of the most committed abstract artists in the country. He had already lived for a period in Brisbane, where he’d not only been director of the Institute of Modern Art, but a formative influence on Brisbane band The Go-Betweens, and publisher of the experimental music and art zine Pneumatic Drill. In Melbourne he’d held early exhibitions at Pinacotheca – Bruce Pollard’s flagship avant-garde space – before opening his own gallery, Art Projects, which he ran for five years from 1979.

Bram knew Nixon’s work, but although he admired it, it struck him as particularly uncompromising: he didn’t yet feel he had a way to access it. But if he was daunted by the prospect of Nixon’s first visit to his studio, the older artist soon allayed any fears: he proved open and generous, and seemed to immediately understand what Bram was attempting to do. He offered guidance. On that first visit, Bram recalls Nixon emphasising the virtues of simplicity to such a degree that he even expressed admiration for a group of primed canvasses Bram was yet to begin work on. Nixon soon drew Bram into his social orbit, inviting him into exhibitions he organised, and including him among a small group of soon-to-be-influential abstract artists who went on to establish the formative Melbourne artist-run gallery Store 5. When Bram joined City Gallery – later Anna Schwartz Gallery – in 1988, Nixon was already there. Although Bram’s new works represent for him a radical shift, he recalls Nixon welcoming the first of them with characteristic generosity. “John was a romantic,” he said. “He enjoyed beauty; that’s what he wanted from art. I think he recognised the beauty in the new works.”

It’s more than clear Nixon’s passing leaves a void for many artists that is both individual and collective in scope. On our visit to the gallery, my daughter and I by chance encountered Bram alone in Nixon’s show, seated quietly on a gallery bench before his late friend’s paintings. In that moment I recognised that, as much as the general public might want to see Nixon’s final exhibition, it will be among the art community that it truly resonates. Surely this, too, would make Nixon happy. The obituaries that have followed his death have without exception all noted his lifelong commitment to a singular kind of grassroots artistic organising. The Go-Betweens’ Robert Forster wrote in Art Forum that “sociality was a central feature of John’s work … he was a conduit, connecting peers and disseminating ideas around the often competing forces of artmaking and its sacred principles”. For Sophie Knezic, writing in Frieze, Nixon’s markedly participatory DIY approach “embodied a latter-day utopian drive”. Elsewhere, the curator Juliana Engberg, whose life first intersected with Nixon’s in the 1970s, noted simply that “Artists collected around him like the planets of our solar system do the sun, drawn into his charismatic definition of art and life”.

As with many artists, especially those in Melbourne, Bram understands this at an almost bodily level. The fact of Nixon’s life runs through Bram’s work like a thread, linking his own practice not only to Nixon’s, but to that of a vast array of other artists and other generations. It ties Melbourne to Sydney, Perth and Brisbane; in its own way, it ties Australia to the world. When Bram studied at Munich’s Akademie der Bildenden Künst for a year in 1999, it was this quality that he often found himself trying to explain to his German counterparts. Some had heard of Nixon, who exhibited in Europe throughout his career, but Bram wanted to emphasise the way Nixon effortlessly corralled artists and like-minded spirits around him, the way this energy seemed to extend seamlessly both from and to his own activities in the studio. Bram would find himself reaching for the postwar German artist Joseph Beuys as a comparison, and although it might strike some as far-fetched – the famously catalysing Beuys is, after all, recognised as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century – Bram always meant it sincerely.

“It might be a simplistic view of history,” he told me, “but you think about postwar Germany and you think about Beuys, or the 1950s in the US, and various people there. Those people were responsible for the art being made in those environments no longer being provincial and local, but engaging with a wider world.”

“That’s what John did in Australia,” Bram said. “I’m sure other people did it too, but that’s why he’s a central figure: we now live in a very different art world than the one in which John’s practice never happened.”

 

Stephen Bram’s untitled exhibition and John Nixon’s Groups + Pairs 2016–2020 are running until December 19, 2020, at Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Quentin Sprague

Quentin Sprague is a Geelong-based writer, and author of The Stranger Artist.

Stephen Bram, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm. Photo: Christian Capurro. © Stephen Bram, courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery

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