There is something alien and queasy about Lyall Brownlee’s paintings and sculptures and it’s not that easy to find a way in to them. His recent show at Gallery in the Attic, entitled The Significance of Insignificant Matter, finally gives self-taught artist Brownlee a chance to unveil a more complete cosmology of his work and his determination to illustrate a detailed alternate universe, fully equipped with births and deaths, saviours and demons, love and sacrifice – a stylized dance between moral and amoral. He is like the J.R. Tolkien of weird.
The work is on plywood, cut out or classically framed, painted smooth and flat as a cartoon, in a style and palette that reminds me of nothing so much as Persian miniatures – the delicate colours and hard edges, the downturned 3/4 postures of the repentant, the upturned gaze of the beseeching, the blank stare of Humanoids caught between cycles of good and evil. In this world everything is ordered and calm, almost light, even as beings are being bleakly consumed or disembowelled by forces of greed and lust. This eerily even hand is one of the artist’s greatest strengths.
With a day job as an aircraft electronics technician and a long lean body covered in all manner of tattoos, Brownlee is something of a brainiac, and not of the distracted, all-over-the-map variety. No, he’s invented a complex, clearly defined Overworld, Middleworld and Underworld, populated by Demon Seeds, Cherubs, skulls, “wurms”, wayward souls, high priests, Watchers, a Sextapus and possibly my favourite, a grimacing Gatekeeper with no arms and a schnoz like an elephant, sporting white tube socks. Individual characters often appear in multiple pieces and have names like Sebastion Finklestein, Jebediah Twinklevyn and Javier Sanchez. There is a proprietary language and script to this other world, an altar, Masonic eyeballs embedded in pyramids and a sacred door knocker with a silver knob to grasp the knocker, shaped like the back of Homer Simpson’s fist. The paintings and installations have precise, super-charged, run-on titles like On Evil’s Consumption Of Rosemary Woods, And The Interconnectedness Of All Things and On the dangers of falling in love with creatures of a different world (A level 2 demon learns that his mermaid lover cannot venture far from the Middleworld sea without serious adverse health effects or even death.)
His website and blogs give insight into the evolution of this new work. Influenced by the California surfer/skateboard graphic aesthetic of artists like Ed Templeton, Jim Houser, Barry McGee, Margaret Killgalen, Chris Johanson and Porous Walker, with a dab of Dr. Who, Brownlee’s 2 dimensional screenprint-flavoured universe is innocently banal, almost comic, inhabited by pale, lugubrious characters with their guts, halos and horns exposed. The pastel colours, the orderly composition and the placid poses of the figures present us with a cognitive dissonance to its subject matter. Revulsion, offense, humour and anxiety tug and pull in our own heads, not on the canvas. It seems the tension in Brownlee’s work lies solely in our own reaction to it.
There are those who would draw a hard line between fine art and design or craft, but I’m not one of them. Comic books, zines and graphic novels, graffiti, street art and outsider art are all raw and powerful expressions of the human condition. If it makes me think or feel, as far as I’m concerned, it’s art. In a world where the internet and globalization homogenizes culture, it becomes increasingly difficult to discover original voices. Lyall Brownlee is one of those voices.
The Significance of Insignificant Matter runs March 7-29, 2014 at Gallery in the Attic »