Abstraction Between Order and Chaos - Terri Brooks in an Interview

October 11, 2019

Terri Brooks is an Australian gestural abstract painter who literally swings from the hips.

Her interest is in all over body movement as it relates to mark making on canvas. However, as I found out, there is much more in the mix.

Here, I had the chance to talk with her.

Left Terri Brooks - White Black Construction, 2018 Right Terri Brooks - Flattened Package, 2018
Left: Terri Brooks - White Black Construction, 2018. Oil and enamel on canvas, 38 x 31 cm / Right: Terri Brooks - Flattened Package, 2018. Oil on card, 42 x 34 cm

Terri Brooks, Plunging Into Abstraction

Brent Hallard: I see in your work a body movement systemized into a grid formation, and an anti-grid system working to annihilate what you have done, suggesting that what you are actually after is something freer. There is also a piece that has just one dark bar on the left where you have worked through the process and paired it right back. Underneath, though, likely, is a territory of earlier marks.

Terri Brooks: The painting you are referring to is Black Side 2015. It was a lengthy process. I remember my first act of reducing was during post-grad at RMIT University. I completely removed anything superfluous and it's something I've continued to do. One of my teachers, abstract artist George Johnson, said all work sits somewhere on the line between order and chaos. Meaning an artist either works toward order or chaos. I think I go back and forth seeking an equilibrium between the two.

I've always been a linear and gestural painter and mark making is a great interest. However, subject matter is always problematic – I just don't trust the conscious narrative. I'm interested in process painting and remember the Gerhard Richter film where he is using his entire body strength to push the giant squeegee through his large works. I see the struggle of life and persistence regardless not knowing the outcome. It's very heroic and after several trips to Germany it’s something I think is cultural there. From my experience I see a shunning, or not trusting of the affectations of the wrist in favor of a deeper body movement.

I'm not so much interested in a grid per se, as just dealing with the path of least resistance through the traditional horizontal and vertical shape of a canvas. However, other interests in stripes and checks and processes like weaving (which include natural weaving a spider might make) and tracks, traces, the detritus of what went on, is at the heart of the work. It's quite performative. In this sense I want the viewer to be able to see the process.

Left Terri Brooks - Line Crunch 2, 2018 Right Terri Brooks - Black Enamel Rim, 2017
Left: Terri Brooks - Line Crunch 2, 2018. Oil and enamel on paper, 40 x 30 cm / Right: Terri Brooks - Black Enamel Rim, 2017. Oil pigment on paper foil, 30 x 26 x 15 cm

Australian Traces

BH: With a diptych such as "Regency", 2018, up close I see the marks and flow of a Tony Tuckson. I also see the bush, and stringy bark tree. There is a kind of mapping of the canvas/support that does share the tides of generations of aboriginal painters, or could be on the way through a Ryman, perhaps.

TB: Abstraction is something that is a hardwired part of the human condition. It occurs in all cultures. The way we navigate the built world developed in Florence and it's abstract. Prior to the Renaissance, Western art had strong elements of Abstraction.

Tony Tuckson and sculptor John Davies are two of my most loved Australian artists. Tuckson envelopes space in a way that is very reflective of the Australian landscape. Both artists looked at nature through the eyes of Western abstraction. In Tuckson’s case, during his late spatial works, the artist he most pondered according to Daniel Thomas was Antoni Tapies.

However, there is an element of convergence within early "Australian" culture which is not often spoken about. This is most probably due to the still unreconciled state of our nation. However, in any zone where cultures mix and collide there is always an element of convergence.

Australian Indigenous artists are some of the best abstractionists in the world. Non-Indigenous people can appreciate it on that abstract level the same way any person can appreciate Islamic patterning for example.

In my family, I have Indigenous relatives but it was all kept secret, as often happens. I also grew up near the Aboriginal Advancement League and my school had a policy to teach Indigenous art and culture while our dedicated art room had a teacher who was into contemporary art. As was I. When I was ten, I was given large sheets of paper and materials where I made work based on the linear black and white paintings Bridget Riley was doing in the 1960s.

Regardless, when an artist explores this landscape in an abstract process way there is bound to be some overlap. For me, the visual source of Indigenous art is evident in the landscape. The bands of lichen on trees and the colour of the soil, for example, and the concept of people belonging or being part of the earth is a thought I share.

Trees are part of my world. I wasn't consciously trying to do a painting of trees but that's what many people see in Regency. The painting developed layer by layer each line laid intuitively after the one before. I was and am trying to paint my own expression based on my knowledge and experience of living. That includes nature visible and abstract (motion, cycles, weather and of course duality).

Left Terri Brooks - Red White, 2016 Right Terri Brooks - Brown Weft, 2019
Left: Terri Brooks - Red White, 2016. Oil and enamel on canvas, 153 x 153 cm / Right: Terri Brooks - Brown Weft, 2019. Oil and enamel on canvas, 91 x 71 cm

Moving Between Media

BH: You also work with flattened out packaging, cardboard construction and enamel on paper, with the latter moving away from the purely surface interest of painting.

TB: In my twenties, I found a fruit basket from the 1930s in an opportunity shop. When I got it home I realized it was made of paper mache. This memory stayed with me. I grew up in an extended family with my grandparents who both lived through the Great Depression.

There’s a long tradition in Australia to make-do and it was quite a craze during the depression with competitions run for the best Makeshift objects. My grandmother maintained her love of turning one object into another. Our Christmas tree, for example, was made of an umbrella frame wrapped in cotton wool and tinsel. There are a lot of Australian artists who reference this way of salvaging including Rosalie Gascoigne (NZ). It has a correlation to the Modern movements of Arte Povera and Art Informel.

I’ve been interested in the borderline between painting, drawing and sculpture for some time. In 2011 I took my painting over the edges of the canvas creating shaped canvases. Then in 2013 I focused for a while on process drawing paintings. More recently I’ve moved my interest in shape to paper and think of the Merzbau built by Kurt Schwitters and Cy Twombly, who did both large scale paintings and intimate sculptures.

On an alchemic level I like that my paper process reverts paper back to a more wood-like structure. The shape of each paper work seems to conjure up memories in a dream or surreal way. For example, Filter, 2016 actually arose from a desert walk many years ago where I found a sun bleached engine filter which was made of paper. Other works including Black Enamel Rim, 2017 and Line Crunch 2, 2018 are also based on memories of objects found in the landscape. For Black Enamel Rim, the shape comes from a memory of a deflated discarded soccer ball I saw floating in a creek, while the painting in both works comes from that old white enamel which was the way buckets, cups and bowls were made before plastic. It was usually white with a black rim.

BH: So, there is a story behind each piece, and, in a sense, they are alive with memory. I’m assuming that the viewer isn’t expected to seek all that out, but instead bring their own (memory) experience to it. I’m interested to know about another turn in your work, very much sculpture, painted one color, different colors, bulbous-like rocks jutting out from the wall.

TB: Of course, with any art the viewer brings their own experience to the work. I hope if the work holds something for me then some people will also find the work interesting in their way.

In Black White Red 2016 initially I wanted to make the shape of a really textured painting out of paper. Something in the textural order of a Bram Bogart. However, once I had made the shapes I changed my mind and decided I wanted a glossy, almost automotive finish more like the sculptures of John Chamberlain.

In 2012, I visited the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome. Contemporary Italian painting is not exhibited in Australia. The contemporary paintings mostly referenced Arte Povera, Art Informel and the shaped canvases of artists including Enrico Castellani of the Zero Group.

It’s interesting right now in painting. So many artists around the world have moved away from the traditional canvas and stretcher and are bringing new and revised statements on the shaped canvas while raising questions of what a "painting" is. The senior artist Ron Gorchov has crystalized his completely unique form of painting including the canvas which is often a layered structure of convex stretchers.

Featured images: Terri Brooks in the Studio, 2013; Regency, 2018. Oil on canvas, 122 x 182 cm; Terri Brooks - Black White Red, 2016. Oil and enamel on paper, 25 x 17 x 22 cm. Images courtesy the author.