SUE JACKSON Therapist/Writer/Photographer/Activist

Last year, as the unofficial blogger/photographer to the anti-East-West Link campaign, our battles were my blog's entire focus. But by Christmas, with the electoral win for people power and the dumping of the dud Tunnel, I was suddenly at a loss. What to write about now? Not sure yet. But there will be ongoing musings and images from this Australian life. So please leave a message. (No need to sign into an account. Simply comment as ‘anonymous’; then leave your name within the comment itself.)

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Graffiti Godfather: Mike Brown

Mike Brown and art work - Fitzroy wall (1980s)

The tussle about whether graffiti is 'art' or 'vandalism' probably dates as far back as Pompeii and Herculaneum. That's where the world's first known graffiti was unearthed. Ancient Roman graffiti-ists tended to specialise in lewdness. One of my favourite examples, discovered in a Herculaneum bar, featured a drawing of a penis, with sign attached imploring: 'Handle with Care!'
I recall exactly the first time I ever considered the possibility that graffiti could be art. It was way back in the 1980s, when, standing at my front gate, I spotted a man I knew by sight riding by. He looked carefree, as if he had all the time in the world, and was helmet-less (which is against the law in Australia).
In answer to my question about the identity of the tall, skinny, balding, bearded cyclist, my neighbour replied: 'He's Mike Brown...he lives around the corner. He's the crazy artist who loves graffiti'. Later checking out his images on the wall (above), I found myself smiling and pondering. The artist, a life-long exponent of 'art for the people', would have been pleased with my reaction. It was exactly what he was after, and the reason he originally championed graffiti, becoming the first established Australian artist to do so.

Painted on wall of his neighbour's house in North Fitzroy in 1990

The other morning I checked out what is possibly the last remaining example of Mike Brown's graffiti art still remaining in our neighbourhood. Even though it was painted over twenty years ago, it is still in good shape, perhaps because Yarra Council had the foresight in 2003 to award it Heritage status. Many Councillors recognise that Fitzroy's graffiti art has become part of our cultural landscape and of course it is also proving an increasing national, and even international, tourist attraction. But in true Mike Brown tradition, ordinary people get a say in assessing graffiti art's merit, with the council offering a service to residents to have unwanted tags or unappealing graffiti removed from their properties speedily and free of charge.
But back to the artist. Mike Brown was a firm believer that 'art should expand and engulf everyday life.' The ancient fridge that was centre stage in his modest kitchen exemplifies that philosophy:

Mike Brown's fridge with improvised handle

I too have an old fridge, decorated with a collage of pamphlets, reminders, fridge magnets and posters, documenting the history of our family's unfolding interests. The kids are endlessly at me to get rid of this ancient monument, even citing - a particularly low blow - its undoubtedly poor environmental credentials. But Mike Brown's devotion to his model has strengthened my determination to hang on to mine until its very last whir. Even if my kids don't, I'm sure the artist would understand my attachment to our family's own example of 'spontaneous' art...
In keeping with this notion that art should engulf everyday life, once in the dining room of the Heide homestead, where he was staying at the time, Brown initiated 'an irresistible lava flow of paint covering everything in its path.' The holland blind (below) is my favourite example of the objects that stood in the lava's way:

Holland Blind - 'It ain't necessarily so'

Mike Brown died over 15 years ago now. He was farewelled at his beloved Heide by many admirers and friends, who decorated his casket (below) in fitting style:

Mike Brown: eternal anarchist

I often wonder what the artist would make of the exuberance, variety and sheer expanse of today's street art. As someone who ran 'Aerosol Art' workshops and even wrote a letter to The Age in 1987 entitled: 'Support Graffiti Kids in the Struggle for Artistic Freedom', I'm sure he'd thoroughly approve. After all, modern 'graffiti kids' are following in his footsteps.
If you'd like to learn more about Mike Brown and see further examples of his work, you are in luck. The Heide Museum of Modern Art in Bulleen is hosting an exhibition entitled 'The Sometimes Chaotic World of Mike Brown' until 13 October. I thoroughly recommend it to you.
Next time I think I'll post about 3 big events scheduled for this coming week. None of them is the Queen's birthday.


Blogger Luke C Jackson said...

Great post! I'm definitely going to check out the Mike Brown exhibition. It should provide a great contrast, in so many ways, to the Monet exhibition currently showing at the NGV.


11:03 PM  
Blogger Sue Jackson said...

I agree with you. I can't imagine two more different artists, Luke. I suppose what they did have in common was their utter devotion to their art.

1:15 AM  

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