With only two days to go until the opening of the June Mostra, we bring you the next interview from our Meet the artists series, this time with Chris Browne (William Fletcher Foundation Scholar). Here he gives an insight into his practice and discusses the surprises, the benefits and the challenges of working in Rome.
Chris Browne has an ongoing interest in spaces, particularly man-made, and how these inhabited environments influence and shape people’s behaviour and sense of themselves, as individuals and as groups. Elements that contribute to the character of these architectural spaces, such as time, climate, colour, texture and scale are key to the development of the current group of works. Browne’s mode of expression could be classified as contemporary realism, working mostly in oils and various graphic media.
You have previously been based at the Florence Academy of Art: I was wondering how you find Rome as a city to work in in comparison to Florence?
I knew it would be different, but I was surprised by how different it is. Rome is a lot more diverse in terms of colour and texture and influences. It’s not as unified, but that’s part of its character, and there are so many layers – it’s great.
Given your interest in classical and renaissance architecture, in a city like Florence or Rome you are spoilt for choice for subjects to focus on. Have you found it a challenge to narrow your focus?
The images that I’m doing came pretty soon, and other images have built up but I’ve had to put them on hold and I’ll work on them when I get back to Australia, or in Rome if I can come back here. It’s a matter of logistics: because I’m a slow painter, there’s only so much I can do in the given time.
Have you found yourself drawn to a particular area of the city?
I’m drawn towards the textures, graffiti, decay, colour and variation of the street life, and of the churches too. I was looking at marbling in a church the other day and there was this tiny little area of a trompe l’oeil moulding, and it was one of those instances where you are struck by the quality craftsmanship and the discovery of it. I’ve been looking at a lot of marble; the churches here have such a range of it, and I’ve just been trying to build up my knowledge about the types of marble – I sat in on the City of Rome lecture on marble which was really good. I’ve been looking at those materials which unfortunately in Australia, you just don’t get.
Taking for example this image of the piazza overlooking the Piazza del Popolo [the central painting in the photo below]: what is the process behind this? Do you take a picture, do you work on site, or do you revisit it many times?
I revisit a place to see it in different conditions, different groupings, and just to get a sense of how the light plays in the space. The figures tend to come last – I first suss out the context, and I don’t paint a picture from beginning to end in a short time frame. I take it to a stage, then leave it, then come back and decide what works, and the figures come later. Obviously, in that particular place there is such a range of figures and types of events – you can’t really distil that.
I don’t paint in public if I can help it. I don’t mind drawing in public, that’s less noticeable. I tend to do a lot of watching, looking, and I take photos as well. I mainly draw with a sketchbook quietly somewhere, and take visual notes on colour, scale, tones.
Your works have a tranquillity to them, and I was wondering, because Rome has its very beautiful and picturesque and monumental side, but it also has the chaos and the crowds of tourists and graffiti and rubbish, do you think that infiltrates your work, or do you actively distance yourself from it?
There is a tension: I love the baroque and the classical, and coming to Rome I did want to incorporate more baroque and more movement and chaos into these images which are very still – but I keep going back to the quiet churches and things like that, so I’m gradually trying to force myself to put a bit of movement in, it just doesn’t come naturally. I tend to still things down, but I’m trying to go against my tendencies and bring a bit more life, texture, things like that. It’ll probably take me a couple of years to do it properly. Patterns of behaviour keep repeating themselves. But I am already planning my next trip back as the process needs to be ongoing, rather than just a one-off. I feel an affinity with Italy and with Rome, so I am happy to focus on this area than, say, other parts of Europe.
How have you balanced the relative brevity of your residency with your practice, in which you paint a layer and you have to leave it for a stretch of time to dry properly before you go back to the next?
I like the long process of letting the layers dry properly but it’s a bit tricky here, and I’ve actually been experimenting with a few mediums. Take this canvas here: the paint keeps sinking in, so I’ve had to adjust my mediums so that it doesn’t dry matte all the time. I don’t want it to crack, but for the mostra I’m taking a few risks in terms of not waiting as long. They’ll probably be about 70% finished for the mostra and in the last few days I’d like to put on an overlay, otherwise they will stay quite matte and dull.
Has the residency presented a challenge with regards to working alongside artists whose practices are so different from your own?
It was interesting, with the Florence Academy, the style and technique is very uniform, but here it is more unexpected. Initially I felt I had to compromise and adjust my practice, but in the end I continued doing what I do, as they continued doing what they do, and so I’m quite comfortable with that.
Would you say that, despite not having to compromise you practice as you at first felt you might have to, your practice or approach has changed in the past three months?
There’s bound to be an influence. I probably couldn’t pinpoint it exactly, but certain things seep through. For example, at the Florence Academy I’d learn something, but it wasn’t until six months later on that it became engrained and I knew what to do with it. There’s not a eureka moment but there is an accumulation.
The residency has been good because being in this environment with this group of people – researchers, archaeologists, historians – is a richer, broader experience, with a diverse set of influences.
Chris’ work will be exhibited alongside the six other resident artists in the June Mostra; open 16.30-19.00, Friday 16 June until Saturday 24 June 2017, closed Sundays.
Interview conducted by Ellie Johnson (Communications & Events)