Drive time painter

Talkback radio, comic-strip characters and paintings by Old Masters collide and ricochet off one another in Mark Braunias’ boisterous, mix ‘n’ match works.

The late-night talkback radio fades in and out on the dark back roads to Kawhia. The callers—disembodied, crazy, sane, wired and just plain weird—fill the airwaves. For Mark Braunias it’s a weekly ritual, driving south from Super City-in-the-making to Kawhia-by-the-sea, where the 100-year-old Bank of New Zealand building that has been his home and studio for the past 13 years.

And it’s no coincidence his first residency show, at Dunedin Public Art Gallery in 2002, was named First Time Caller. It appears, from the resultant work of that residency, as well as the large wall works he has since produced for the Tauranga and Sarjeant Galleries, and the recent Auckland Art Fair, that Braunias’ universe is populated with the denizens of the radio waves—the pompous, the pumped up, the caricature and the clown, Tweety Bird and Fred Flintstone, as well as the odd alien that has hitchhiked into his galaxy. All vie for attention—from each other, from the viewer, from the artist—pressing against the confines of the artwork, ready to cascade into the room, chattering, gesticulating and squabbling.

“There’s something about listening to the radio in a car rather than in the house—driving between two little towns on the highway. Inside the car you’re in your own real world; you take in the language of the callers and the music never sounds better, cleaner somehow. And suddenly you’ve arrived, wondering where that last half hour went to,” says Braunias.

Braunias has always been an observer and chronicler of the human and not-so-human condition. After graduating from Canterbury School of Fine Arts with a BFA in 1987, his early figurative works effortlessly captured the essence of his subjects—his rugby players, debutantes, soldiers and corporate citizens were not highly rendered—often faceless, gesturally composed but vital and convincing. By 1991 he needed space, so found it in Prague where he worked for a year as a freelance cartoonist for a number of Czech periodicals.

“It was a really pivotal time for me, as I’d been working in a studio for three or four years and needed a change. New ideas were growing in my head and I needed a completely different environment to allow them to germinate. It was just after the fall of Communism, right on the edge of change, with all the old symbols of the past still around you—I loved the atmosphere of that time.”

Mark Braunias, Londontown, 2008. Installation view, Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui

After returning from Czechoslovakia in 1992 he won the inaugural James Wallace Art Awards with Roll Call, a painting he’d started before travelling and completed on his return. He notes that this work marked a transition in his development—a move away from his figurative roots to a more abstract fusing of organic and mechanical forms.

“I’d gone overseas without a camera, preferring to absorb rather than record while I was away. This work, and others after that, reflected my notion of having a camera in my head. I became obsessed with how we record images, and the whole mechanism of a camera and a memory, so I was using my eye as a mechanical device and that’s where those shapes initially came from. I became obsessed about vision itself, as if I could be inside a camera, but an organic one, and that’s where those forms started to become abstracted.”

In his work throughout the 1990s the forms became totally abstracted, amoeba-like shapes, then slowly morphed into characters—primitive life forms, developing vestigial organs and basic limbs as they climbed up Braunias’ evolutionary chain.

“All my work essentially comes out from within itself and each work feeds into the next one. When I’m working on a series, I don’t want to repeat it; I want to challenge it and go somewhere else,” he explains. By now his weapon of choice was the humble A4 sheet, (later described by critic Justin Paton as Braunias’ “natural habitat”), and often in his exhibitions with dealers Gregory Flint, Peter McLeavey and Jonathan Smart, it felt like the viewer had walked into a giant freeform comic strip, with dozens of images pinned, grid-like to the gallery walls.

In 2001 curator Alan Smith ‘gave’ him a long wall to create his work Sherbert for Auckland Art Gallery’s The Cartoon Show. By now the creatures had personalities, mouths, faces and they even talked… sort of. Braunias explains, “I reconnected with my childhood; we all grew up with comics—I knew Donald Duck well before I knew Leonardo da Vinci. The reason I picked up a pencil at the age of five and began to draw was in response to what I read in my comics.”

Suddenly it seemed Braunias’ figures had better places to live. Once trapped inside his sketchpad, they now had big walls to conquer. In 2002, as he headed south to his residency at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, the talkback rants that had been bouncing around inside his skull during his weekly Kawhia commute found a new home.

“In Dunedin I let it all out. It wasn’t a long residency and some of the small works were done prior, but First Time Caller allowed me to inhabit a gallery space and work more intensely on the walls. And since then the wall works have been brilliant for rehearsing—they give me a huge area to download all those images from my books (and my head) and mix them up. I like to put the figurative with the goofy; the whole disjunction of it and the conversations they will have with each other. It’s like putting my whole career in one condensed view and creating my own versions of a primal soup.”

Mark Braunias, Congo is a Sly Grogger, 2007. Installation view, Ashburton Art Gallery

And you’d love to eavesdrop on some of those conversations. In his wall work, Visual Bank, created for the opening of the new Tauranga Art Gallery in 2007, a Brueghel-esque bagpiper squares off with the ‘one-eyed, one-horned, flying.. pink.. people eater’ and nearby a 1960s Carnaby Street dandy locks lips with Pogo the Penguin. Elsewhere, Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son beseeches, surrounded by a swarm of blobby alien refugees, finally freed from the confines of the sketchpad. But although at first glance these visual outpourings look like an exercise in random spontaneity, they are anything but, as Braunias explains, “I like to put out little puzzles for the viewer … but leave it open ended. Every form and placement is quite considered, and once I start I’m very conscious of what I’m going to put next to it—it may be a polar opposite in shape or scale or line, mixing popular culture with ‘high’ culture, like the Rembrandt sketch next to something from South Park that’s gone through Walt Disney backwards.”

For his most recent residency, at the Sarjeant Gallery’s Tylee Cottage in 2007, Braunias zeroed in on Londontown, the grandiosely named department store that stood in Wanganui’s main street until the 1970s. Stumbling across old advertisements for local businesses during his research, Braunias zoned in on his boyhood in 1960s Tauranga, and the appeal of the one-stop department stores of that era. In his 2008 residency exhibition, London Town at the Sarjeant, the walls juddered and jived with another of Braunias’ circus parade-collides-with-Dr.Seuss-and-Sergeant Pepper. Here the walls of the Sarjeant burst with an eye-searing cacophony of social history, comic-strip fantasy and a salute to the Old Masters. Flares, bomber jackets and the cringe-inducing fashions of the 1960s and 70s bedeck Braunias’ figures, including Falstaff and the Fab Four. But what lifts his painterly processions above the prosaic is the ‘frozen in the moment’ poses his figures nonchalantly strike—this man can draw!

“I want to draw them elegantly but also retain an acute sense of spontaneity,” he says. “I don’t just draw with an expressive line for its own sake; it’s formally quite considered. Drawing also enables me to convey the urgency with which I want to communicate. I like to remind the viewer of the human hand at work. It’s a vital position I take. For me the relationship between drawing and painting is almost invisible. I have the same attitudes to both disciplines, the only difference being the media. The animations I’ve done in collaboration with Jill Kennedy operate in a similar vein.”

And there is a satirical streak, verging on the sardonic, that veers through Braunias’s dialogue with the viewer. Put it down to the juvenile diet of early 1950s Mad magazines he purloined from his elder brothers—not the mainstream magazine it became from the 1960s onwards. These were the far grittier, darker issues edited by Harvey Kurtzman, which were banned during the McCarthy era.

Visitors to this year’s Auckland Art Fair were treated to a rare opportunity when this artist delivered a few barbed messages to the art world. On his wall in Bath Street Gallery’s stand, Braunias let his fingers do the talking. Hanging over the wall work were over 20 smaller sketches, many with typed annotations aimed specifically at the fairgoers—buyers, curators, critics and art publications.

A sample snippet: “Memo to all Art Lovers: Beware of people pretending to understand what your taste is. When you hear the word ‘context’ you are in deep trouble. Other danger signs to watch out for are anybody who starts talking excitedly about ‘ideas’. This is a sure indication that boredom has invaded your space. Shut the door. Immediately.” Add to the A4 mix, a picture of a drooling rat with the caption: “The Australians are coming!”. In another sketch two small dogs, a yapping dachshund and a Sidney Silky typify the ‘young curators’ and ‘an old Jersey moo-cow’ the ‘old curators’.

On his Kawhia studio wall Braunias has written: “Do something wrong right”. Long may he continue to do just that.

Mark Braunias’ next show is Fuddy-Duddy in LO-FI at Peter McLeavey Gallery, Wellington, December 2009

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