Interview with Racheal BRÜHN
the ephemera interviews
In this series of interviews artists directly involved in ARIs and artist-run culture 1980- 2000 speak about the social context for their art making and provide insights into the ephemera they produced or collaborated on during this period. Artist ephemera includes artworks, photocopies, photographs, videos, films, audio, mail art, posters, exhibition invites, flyers, buttons and badges, exhibition catalogues, didactics, room sheets, artist publications, analogue to digital resources and artist files.
I was born in Southport, Queensland. Went to Seven Hills, finished in 1981 having studied visual communications. I have kept working on my own work during and since then up to the present. It is my constant companion and insight into my world, the pattern, pace.
I relocated to Canberra in 1990 but I have been unable to make artistic connections like I had in Brisbane. Some roadblocks with getting shows, work spaces as I wasn’t a graduate from ANU. I happily continued my artistic relationships with the people I knew in Brisbane. I have enjoyed having tandem shows friend Ross Booker over the years, we exhibited at Doggett Street regularly until recently, when it closed down. My sister Amanda and I are working towards a show on together, but still need to find an exhibition space. I have also showed in Sydney, Melbourne and a couple of group shows in Canberra.
Some families like sport to express their shared culture an insight into their lives, values. Our family liked playing with buckets of clay, drawing on walls, painting and drawing on plies of butcher’s paper. My parents met each other at East Sydney Tech, where my mother–studied painting and my father–sculpture. Artwork was fun, silly, happy and frustrating, it was purposeful and taken seriously. When you were cranky with someone you drew an unflattering picture, you also drew jokes, made volcanoes, built clay cities, blew them up, drew revenge, cut up, tore, outraged, then drew flowers, tractors, horses and trees…
My parents didn’t see us going to art school as very important. As any parent, they wanted us to have something more stable in our lives. So I studied film and television and illustration at Seven Hills. We had grown up with stories of their own art school experiences and were hoping to experience a similar world of belonging, excitement, acceptance.
Memories of going with my mother into the what I thought at the time was unfinished, Opera House in Sydney to see the first Sydney Biennale in 1973 a small show. An almost unpopulated show, with hardly any audience or work…the highlight of the show for me was when two European couples looking very urbane berated the reception people for daring to call the show a Biennale, the work dull, boring an outrage! That the art establishment world of Australia could be a shallow shadow world, in someone else’s very strong view, a pastiche of a ‘real’ Biennale could be, delighted the instinctual gossip in me. Europe still drawing the bow!
Going to the IMA with my mother for a show opening one night. It was crowded and it was hard to see the performance going on and then talking to her on the way home about the loss of object. Meaning and context of experience. Talking about one of her artist friends (after travelling to the states in 1968/69) was left in crisis about his object making after being challenged by the post objective world of sculptural installation of talcum powder.
All experiences helping me to build a view into a life where if I determined my own language, independent with my work. I would determine my language, my visibility and my access to a kind of audience. I am lucky enough to earn a living in the design world. So, I have delight in being my own person and quietly continue to make work. I have worked for myself since 1997 as a graphic designer, illustrator. I have also worked as an occasional design tutor at Canberra University.
1980’s Queensland/Brisbane Social History: what sort of world was this Queensland society for you Racheal?
My father had warned me that not being an attractive woman would mean that I would have a hard time and did I want to bother going to art school. I waited for my younger sister Rebecca to finish school before we went along to art school together, we also spent nearly a year before art school working for our father as laborers for him, as drainer’s laborers. Once we had some money and with two going to art school at once it became more possible to go and study.
I wasn’t naïve to that world, nor was I expecting to break through those barriers, I was just interested in building my practice and doing my work. Also having heard many stories from my mother’s contemporaries—women who supported and subordinated their own artistic careers to bring up children, support and build their partners careers, I didn’t want that sort of outcome for myself. I knew that women’s work would always be feminized and therefore trivialised and not seen as important work. But I didn’t see that as a reason to shift my focus and not engage. For my mothers contemporaries, their experiences had woman’s work easily demonized, their concerns deemed trivial and because they had children were in some way unable to ‘create’ great work.
Art school was a place where the misfits could fit in and heal, feel part of a world that ‘saw’ that what they did was consequential and then asked them the ‘hard’ questions. The questions that are meant to challenge each other and be taken seriously. And maybe find a voice, experience, practice, some gleaned skills. People who were fragile, serious, interesting and challenging. Most lived in the moment, with an exuberance because they were claiming ‘their’ moment. But maybe that is the experience or gift of youth, because most were all so young then.
I just wanted to survive, being able to afford the rent, do my own work, showing it was a bonus and anyone speaking to you about it a luxury that would have been even more delightful. So, any art space where you could rent space and work up a show was a delight.
The Bjelke-Petersen Regime, “The Police State” years Qld’s unique 1980’s political backdrop, twenty years of “oppression” Racheal, how did it directly or indirectly impact upon you and your friends and peers, or not?
I kept a very low profile and was really apart from going to work someone who didn’t have a large group of friends to hangout with, but I did have my sisters and a couple of other sweet friends.
I worked in the day time for state government departments, the first full year of work was with a quango the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in 1984. With a group of five other unemployed designers, filmmakers, communications and writers (Roman Kowakoski, Desley, Carmel, Therese O’Leary, John Smallbone, and the estranged daughter of Joh’s press secretary at that time was an administration person). It was one of those employment programs, which was handy as it started not long after I had given the money I had managed to save up on the dole to my parents, so they could move out to live in Pittsworth and was thrown off the dole in the same week, so this job was luck for me. The quango was sacked overnight by Joh because it wasn’t in footstep with the National Party agenda. Too civic in its focus.
I would meet my sister Rebecca at a Chinese restaurant for a lunch catch up occasionally. The restaurant was next door to the infamous Bubbles Bathhouse (that no one from the National Party knew existed) and Oxlades, the art materials store. Rebecca faced out to doorway with her baby son Llannon in his pram next to her and was first to see Russ Hinze and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and the minders came blustering down the hallway. Joh bent down to take the baby in his arms… and Rebecca using her best cold blue eyed stare said: “Hands off”. He was flustered and moved on into the back rooms of the restaurant. Llannon has been very active in Socialist Alliance for over a decade now, we like to joke that his radical centre was forged in that instance.
The Valley, Saturday morning memories of taking a bus, visiting Oxlades buying panels to make up my canvas collections. The Oxlades brothers were always so kind offering discounts and extras—a special brush, always so kind and generous. The Cosmopolitan café for a toasted sandwich, coffee and random conversation, meeting old friends. The old Italian men sat on crates on the footpath, smoked, read papers, laughed, drank coffee and played cards…. It was a small part of heaven. I had to endure working in places where people openly talked of their fear of driving down the road into the valley, how they wind up the windows to get out of there safely. A fear so illogical but a convention of thought,not experience, with the reality of the place.
I do recall with my ongoing work as a designer, from small contract to the next, that despite the change of government from the Nationals to Labor barely effected the way the public service acted at all. It was considered the joke, and an example of their ‘superior’ professionalism, that ‘change of government’ didn’t stop being a propaganda vehicle for whoever the minister in power, that it was the spoils of the win. I suspect the whole notion still hasn’t changed. The script hardly changed and the functionaries within the service just turned their well oiled wheels towards the vehicle of power, ever so gradually. The duplicity and the ornate system slightly tilted to shade the new stem in the growth of power.
I was actively searching for work elsewhere. My sisters had already left Brisbane, a couple of other good friends had left years ago and it felt that I didn’t need to stay and had lost most of my connections, started to feel quiet isolated, so the move to find work wouldn’t change too much and it was getting impossible to stay in work. Initially, I was offered nine of months work in Canberra, as a design studio manager, so I left Brisbane in 1990.
And the type of design or art work you were making during the 1980’s, the media/technology used, your key subjects, contents and themes?
I was concerned with building a serial practice that explored object making. I had to also shake off and have a dialogue with my parent’s artwork culture, not to leave it, but build. I was concerned with creating beauty or non-beauty, the idea of collectives and singularity. The expression of formality, and the presentation of imagery, subject matter, the ideas, formalities of cultural expression. I wanted to work quietly, and durably, wanting to move back and forward through formal frames. Bits of ideas, language, things that built and led into the next exploration.
Jug, apple, banana, still life. Plaster, poured into holes dug into the garden lined in cloth, sump oil, then dried, carved into and painted with cheap water colours from Woolies, then either cover a surface with bees wax, or dark polish then carved, cut shaped and sealed with varnishes. Reworking as I wished. It was a reflection on what was subject matter and the idea of the female image making.
Post Apple, Jug and Bananaism figures painted with gouache, cracked and caked onto negative paper that I recycled from daylight bromide paper from my day job. This referenced the subjectivity of a woman’s body and referenced the visual vernacular of some of my father’s work. The work he did when he was an exhibitor in the “Unknown Political Prisoner” prize, in the ‘50’s. It was about the idea of the female subject within as being subjected to a politicized by being the subject matter.
The show that I installed at That Contemporary Art Space was fun… I got a lot of support from friends who helped me hang the work. I met Mark Dean, who showed the weeks before me. He was so enthusiastic about doing work, quiet determined to get representation. I also had my friend Deborah Cavallaro’s band Wondrous Fair play at the opening. I tried to have her play at all my shows when possible as I loved their music and their enthusiasm to make work.
Still life on TV glass jugs on television screens large format (oil on linen) content also reference the surface breakdown of a TV screen being like a horizontal line defining a formal landscape. Pushing along the idea of formal picture making.
Portraits (For a few years I’d taken photos of people I knew as a reference material)
I exhibited 150 small paintings of these, oil on linen. Basically white, oil graphite with the outline of the head in glow in the dark paint. I liked the idea that at night, when no one was there that the show would be there for in another way for no one and as line work created a landscape line of outlined faces. It worked well within the Arch Lane Public Art space, an artist-run off Adelaide Street. I turned out to be like a catalogue of friends, family before I left Brisbane. A little bitter sweet.
Still life glass jugs on television screens small graphite drawing with linseed and glow in the dark paint intersecting the levels on the screen marked out. I had arranged to show these 30 paintings at the big Old Salvation Army Warehouse in Newstead, the warehouse burnt down, the weekend before I was going to show It was such a shame… I didn’t have time or a place to find another place to show before I left. I had enjoyed a kind of Bartlebooth one of the main character’s from “Life as a User’s Manual” Georges Perec approach. But my take was to paint, paint and keep over painting the same 3 x 3 foot linen canvases. Also a nice solution for storage problems.
My main occupation had been a preoccupation and exploration on the idea of the subject matter, how I make a picture and object making. What is valued or not valued or over valued in object making.
I had at art school been involved with photography as a way of documenting timed experiences. A series of bus trips down to Southport, by a time based preset to author the photos. This meant, following a timetable and order to take photos to a preset order. Accidents and differences being the ‘content’ of the frame. My subjectivity and authorship being reduced. I also did a series based on different tide times at Wellington Point Park over a series of eight weeks. Timed and authorial position was determined from the position of picnic bins that were evenly spaced around the headland. The subject of the tide lines allowed me to build work based the changing tide line within a set photographic frame. I recorded the tide lines onto acetate and made up a small books of tide lines, which imaged in the end as a gathered animation of horizontal black ink onto clear acetate a serial notation or a system to make work that stands a little distance from expression.
I produced a series of paintings, drawings using various surfaces, media and brushes to make a series of works using a set number system, and using a slightly moving and predetermined numbering system as a template for action, so I could explore the nature of mark making, authorship by limiting it in various ways, its absence being a way of showing it. Reducing my conscious engagement with the process of decision making was also a relief at that time. I think my engagement was all about what to be engaged with, what to investigate, leave in or out. The usual student thing.
Tell me a wee bit about two or three vivid and memorable artist or artist-run space/project/exhibition/performance collaborations you directly participated in, where, when, who, why and what?
I organized a show, Which Art in Heaven, with a couple of old friends from art school at That Contemporary Art space. Amanda Bruhn (my sister) paintings of her room in Sydney, Rebecca Bruhn (my sister) her handmade dolls embroidered; John Hill with his narrative almost magical people in Landscape; Patricia Cellondoni’s lithography; Ross Pulbrook’s Lindy Chamberlain’s photos from TV news reports; Deborah Cavallaro small jewel like paintings and the lightness and poetry of Elizabeth Pulbrook’s small quiet assembled work.
I understand that someone from Photospace in Sydney wanted to show Ross’s Lindy Chamberlain photos, but he didn’t take up the offer. They would still make a good show. Some of the images were definitely almost holy picture cards, at proof sized they were like opalised icons an appropriate reading of the frenzy and imagery surrounding the whole very long episode.
I was writing to a friend who had studied at Seven Hills with us, who was then on a fellowship in New York, in another world. Ingrid sent me an invitation to her show that she organized at the Whitney Museum asking if we could send her one to our show. It was a nice connection. A documentation of the decay of the natural world there which was harrowing.
I also organized a show with John Nelson, Deborah Cavallaro, David Clarke, Donald McKillop, at Metro Arts. We did have loads of fun pasting up posters around town, the main part of the imagery being a drawing of a toy that John had done. At the show ‘What do you mean by that?’, David and John met and were taken on by a chap who ran a gallery space at Savode in Stafford, he started showing them.
Kinship: A brief biography about you and some measure of detail about your family’s recent or not so recent immigration story?
I was born in Southport, my parents had just moved up from Minto where my father had been working as an assistant to Tom Bass (a public sculptor), working on commissions that he had for the Melbourne University and the Catholic Church. Mum and Lenore (Tom’s wife) had taken Mum in to live with them when she was 16, when they were living in what they called the shack. They kindly referred to her as helping with their five children. Tom had tutor at East Sydney Tech where my mother had been attending waiting on tables and trying to pay her fees. Her erratic attendance at art school had been helped along by kind friends and tutors. Lenore remained a friend for life and we considered her like a kind of grandmother. Certainly seeing her drawings is like seeing my mother’s drawings such is the kinship in lines, paint and marks. She painted beautifully and wrote poetry, she often rang me up and talked for ages, her way of staying in contact as she got older. She taught you how to look, love and see the beauty in everything.
I had one older sister Gretchen, and then very quickly after me…Stephen, Rebecca, Amanda and Conrad were also welcome into the family. Instead of taking up a scholarship to learn about carving in Italy my parents moved up to Southport to settle on a block of land that my father’s mother had given him. Mum a single child was so hopeful to be with a big family and be secure with a home, garden.
They built a fibro house, planted a huge garden, had chooks, dogs, cats, finches, canaries, budgies, gold fish, guppies, turtles, mice, guinea pigs, a sheep etc. Then when able, surrounded by a six foot fibro fence, to keep out the world. We were lucky to have the bush over the road when young, so we could wander in, play in the paper bark forest waste deep in tidal water. Build bike obstacle courses, paths, dig caves into huge sand piles. Sleep out in the bush and wander down to the Broadwater to hand fish off the jetty. Pump yabbies for bait, chase blue soldier crabs on the mud flats and yes there were still some fishing boats and prawners working. See and walk around the small hills and roads that my Dad had done as a child. Dig the same clay up to make models of animals and faces of people.
My mother’s family were Irish. My mother’s great, great, great grand father Hugh Vesty Byrne was tried in Wicklow as a Political Rebel Prisoner and transported on the ‘Tellicherry’ for life as a state prisoner, with the provision that when he arrived on the 15 February 1806 that he, his wife, child and child born on board were settled, free.
He was one the Wicklow Five, who became the Tellicherry 5 when they were illegally further detained. They were then emancipated when Bligh was arrested and they were granted 100 acres of land in the Cabramatta District. The family eventually settled into Monaro district breeding horses and generally being radicals, or establishment around Gundagi and Tumut.
My father’s family were Danish, his grandfather first arriving 1865, to settle Beenleigh (little Berlin). Escaping the Germans post the second Schleswig war in 1864. The family settling into Southport, a master stone mason he used to carve for graveyards not cathedrals that he was trained for. He ended up building kilns and ovens for the sugar mills up the Queensland, skilling his children. My father’s grandfather designed and built the first full brick building in Southport. My paternal grandmother’s father settled part of his family in Southport going back to Germany to bring out the rest of the family from Seigen, Westphalia. (My father’s mother was a drafts person working for her father who designed and built houses, one at a time, the family lived in the houses until the wood was ‘cured’ which meant a few of the children died or got terribly sick from the cold). Her father on his way back was interned in South Africa when WWI broke out, she was stranded and restarted her life as a housekeeper to a sick mature widowed man who already had a family. The family was broken up and he eventually settled and married again making a new family in Spain, between the wars.
So much collaborating happened Racheal, a vivid and fond memories you have about the artist-runs/events that proliferated during the 1980-1990 period, why do you think/feel artist-run culture proliferated so well and in such abundance during this time?
I would have loved to be more involved, but didn’t get invited to exhibit in any other shows, I wasn’t really part of those friendship or working groups. The shows I had were solo shows at That and a couple at Arch Lane Public Art, ones I help organize with old friends. I used to try and encourage a collective showing with some of the people I knew. I used to hire my mother to “man” the shows as I was working full time, she was fairly extroverted plus it was a way for her to earn some extra money. I do understand that sometimes she skipped home earlier, but that was her prerogative. I was pretty timid, so loved that I didn’t have to be around the show or groups of people. I liked the quiet times when people slipped in to see the work, sneaked up and maybe said hello. A couple of really extraverted people became good friends, Mark Dean. I was amazed by his enthusiasm for doing work and his confidence and spirit of energy.
I enjoyed making connections, swapping work and being gifted some work, which I felt was so generous of people. I enjoyed trying to find out what people liked didn’t like I never wondered why they did work, I was more interested in what they made, experienced and mused on why. I also meet Stephen Mok, and Nic Comino who were sweet and I enjoyed talking to them over cups of tea while drawing away.
I enjoyed visiting the all the shows I could and seeing what people were up to. It seemed like there was almost a show every night. A place to have some cheap wine, look around and be surrounded by engaged, happy and excited people. It was almost a crazy luxury, being able to go out almost every night.
It was especially easy to be more social when I lived so close by in the Pink Palace in Wickham Terrace Spring Hill. It was good to feel that the world wasn’t totally occupied by the pink carpet and bronze fittings of the Yuppie world. (My sister and I joke about the now Hipsters being the progeny of the Yuppies in the 80’s).
I suspect that I might be still be welded to the idea that the artist within society needs to stand apart to have a kind of insight into a community. I am drawn to look at the mis-made, the awkward and the spontaneous yearnings, they have a more interesting authentic voice. The professionalised, corporatised and co-sponsored world of art promotion I find a lot of work tedious, predigested, processed like the ‘transfat’ of contemporary culture.
It was an interesting time for mistakes, mis-steps, sidesteps and sideshows. Loved the chaos and humour (intended or unintended, it didn’t matter) of some of the performance work. Work that pushed, pulled and poked hard the usual presets of behaviour and gile and verve. I recall having to run away from the show with so many fumes from the spray cans at That, Outside Art in 1986, (gosh, I find it hard not to blow up with an allergic reaction while walking down a nursery alley in a Hardware store).
A particularly scary show at the artist-run John Mills national when performance artist Virginia Barratt had a accident with her axe, it reminded me of a similar accident that my father had when I was a young child. It was shocking to witness. People were active, hopeful and confident, it was always so bewildering to me as I felt not very hopeful and certainly not confident, so being around that was amazing to witness.
Anything you would like to add about this re-iterating we are gathering both on the social media page and here at remix.org.au Racheal ?
At first I thought it was one of those random things…seeing it mainly as a recollection of the parties and events people attended. The youth, the joy of living having power within the body and expression that power, I started finding it fascinating. The contexts with the reading, the gentle approach to recollection. It is interesting to see the reflections, the shadows. I find that I haven’t recalled very much, edited quiet a deal away and consequently without the bonus of a shared conversation, would have probably recalled even less.
I think that I am startled by the persisting innocence within the contributions. It is hopeful that people who are still practicing their work continue and anyone who is in hiatus becomes inspired, gives themselves the permission to continue and keep the work building.
Exuberance seems to reflect an optimism and drive that so many people seemed to exhibit in the past and maybe that exuberance isn’t just the property of youth after all.
The energy and verve have produced a conversation full of stops and starts, and all the rhythms that builds participation and reflections of a time past, however ‘correctly’ recalled.