Brad Rusbridge: Familiar Paintings

Brad Rusbridge’s ‘Familiar Paintings’ contains works that allude to a particular biographical occurrence from the artist’s past. ‘At the moment, the self is the only subject that I feel I can represent with any authenticity,’ he tells me. ‘I don’t tend to start with a theme or concept for an exhibition… Rather I spend time with found images, which trigger memories.’ These pre-existing images allow him to reconstruct aspects of his own experience.

Rusbridge’s paintings are diverse, and in viewing them I initially struggled to pin down a single style. At times a montage quality promises to bind his works together; yet equally, the contrast of vibrant versus minimal colour palette, realist versus surreal versus abstract composition, seems to push apart his works into distinct clusters. Understanding the role that ‘the self’ plays in his work, therefore, became a means of tying his art together. To use the artist’s own theoretical position, ‘in Freudian terms it would be described as the ‘return of the repressed’.’

Brad Rusbridge, Divine Hammer (After Lisa Reid), 2018, oil on canvas, 51.4 x 36cm. Photograph: Tim Gresham. Courtesy the artist and Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne

‘There are some paintings that might appear wildly different from the rest in this exhibition’, Rusbridge agrees when I outline my position. He points to three works in particular – Divine Hammer (After Lisa Reid) (2018), Late Nite Live (2019) and The Impostor (2018-19) – whose brightly coloured, flat and abstract appearance contrast with the rest of the show, which ‘is largely monochromatic and representational.’ But by using ‘the self’ as a lens, a connection between all his works emerges. The noted abstract paintings, for example, were inspired by his ‘mother’s ever-evolving archive of gift-wrapping paper. They are an aesthetic celebration of the principles of frugality and the conscious saving and re-use of discarded materials promoted by my mum since I can remember.’

This artist’s preoccupation with re-use and self-exploration has been ‘basically consistent’ since he began exhibiting in 2013. It begins ‘digitally, using Photoshop’ where, he explains, ‘[I draw] on my ever-growing archive of images that catch my eye while wandering the vast visual wasteland of the Internet, occasionally augmented by scanned photographs from the family album.’ Once an image is identified as worth painting, it is printed out and transferred onto a primed Masonite sheet or canvas. ‘I then start painting, moving from the top left corner and across row by row, until I eventually get all the way to the bottom right corner, almost like the way an inkjet printer would behave.’

Brad Rusbridge, SISTER, 2019, oil on masonite, 65.3 x 45.7cm. Photograph: Tim Gresham. Courtesy the artist and Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne

Found materials allow Rusbridge to explore his past, while also resulting in art that might prompt different reflections among viewers. He illustrates this for me using his painting SISTER (2019), which appears in this exhibition. While the painting is derived from a photograph he took of his sister around 17 years earlier, he says he ‘painted it because I believe that it contained the qualities of an archetype.’ He reads the image as follows: ‘The child appears startled, almost paralysed by whatever future is in front of her. The parents appear as shadowy sentinels; the mother’s hands forever occupied with the articles of her domestic labour, the father represented here as an empty recliner – an absent figure. The carpeting points to a simulation of nature, a sanitised substitution for wild and authentic experience. It is a safe environment, but depending on how you look at it, it can also be terrifying.’

Rusbridge has had a number of solo exhibitions so far, all which present aspects of biography, memory and childhood. ‘I paid homage to my grandfather’s working life and creative expression (‘In the Shadow of Progress’, 2014), re-imagined the interior flourishes of my childhood home (‘Defending the Nest’, 2018) and mentally pre-empted an overseas escape (‘The Trip’, 2017)’, he explains. As with these earlier exhibitions, themes ‘surfaced gradually over the course of making the work,’ and ‘Familiar Paintings’, too, has allowed for a focus on new aspects of his relationship to self. The ideas behind ‘Familiar Paintings’ are known to him, but will naturally ‘be more opaque to everyone else.’ And while happy to explain the genesis of particular works to those who ask, the ‘less-familiar’ experience of viewing personal works by someone else holds a special artistic potential in Rusbridge’s mind. As he concludes ‘this would mean that people would look at them a little longer.’

Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, magazine editor (National Safety) and media scholar based in Sydney.

Nicholas Thompson Gallery
16 October to 3 November 2019
Melbourne