Leonard Brown calls his residence in West Ipswich, Novo Poustinya, or ‘new hermitage’, a name usually bestowed on remote Russian Orthodox monastic communities. Brown converted in 1976, shortly after commencing the study of Byzantine icon painting. In his studio you will find an icon-corner – a wall of icons which depict saints, the Crucifixion, the Theotokos (Mother of God) and the Holy Trinity, their golds, ochres and olives flickering under the light of a burning lampada. To the side is his icon-painting desk, where he works in the Russian manner – horizontally.
Icon-painting is an age-old, prescriptive tradition and an iconographer is more akin to a theologian, one working in colour rather than script. Yet Brown is known foremost for his large- scale abstract works – winning the 2010 Blake Prize for the shimmering, minimal work If You Put Your Ear Close, You’ll Hear it Breathing. Abstraction is the language common to both sides of his practice – where one is personal, the other is a deeply symbolic tradition, flattening out time and space in the icon.
VK—Tell me about your upbringing and early life in Brisbane. Were you drawn to spiritual concerns from a young age?
LB—On my first day of school in 1955 from the back row of the grade one classroom, I beheld the wonder as it unfolded before a large class – Sister Mary St Rose standing on a chair in front of the blackboard. She stood at four and a half feet tall and was hunch-backed; from my seat her appearance was more like a crumpled black umbrella. Or was it like the circus, this old lady balancing before the blackboard? Then she began to draw, stretching her arm to fill the board with the Tree of Paradise – the biblical tree of the Book of Genesis, planted in the Garden of Eden by the Lord. Sister drew the apples quite large, like baubles decorating a Christmas tree – I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough.
VK—What resonated with you most when you encountered Byzantine icons at close quarters for the first time?
LB—At 12 years old while exploring a Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia from cover to cover, I was stopped in my tracks by a reproduction of a mosaic occupying the semi-dome of the Cefalù Cathedral in Sicily. It was an icon of the Lord, Pantocrator (the Almighty), made in the 12th century by anonymous Byzantine artists who were employed at the court of the King of Sicily, Roger II, a Norman. Here was an image of Christ accompanied by a complete absence of cloying sentimentality. Such a represen- tation was new to me yet obviously very old.
VK—Can you describe the way you approach icon painting (or ‘writing’ as it translates to in Russian)?
LB—Within its fabric, the image possesses the possibility of a ‘participation’ between the subject and the object. In this conjunction of subject and object one encounters the dimension of mystery, which by its very nature defies analytical dissection – all things are as they are. This relationship is realised without the need to resort to contrivance, theatrics, or any compromise of the vehicles of matter. That which is represented is done so not by subjecting the spiritual or natural world to illusionism or a shonky theology, but by a rich vocabulary of intention, held within the medium of prayer and pure abstraction.
VK—There are several reasons as to why the verb ‘writing’ is preferred over ‘painting’ when it comes
to iconography. Why does it work for you?
LB—“The work of an artist’s hands is the product of their imagination, so therefore subject to delusion.” (Emperor Charlemagne on receiving the edicts of the Dogmatic Authority on the Icon, 7th Ecumenical Council).
This statement can be viewed as a significant watershed in Western art history and consciousness, disestablishing any possible equality and authority that existed between logos and icon (scripture and image). The philosophical Greeks did not lightly refer to the artist as Zographos – life-writer. In the West, the practice of painting was to be maintained as functional, providing (as it did) illustration for the illiterate and a decorative purpose, however without authority, not central and not liturgical.
The Reformation reformers had no dogmatic obstacle in disregarding the ‘image’ – they simply tossed it out, while celebrating ‘the word.’
VK—How do you define the edges of the two – art and spirituality – and how do they coalesce for you?
LB—My abstract painting exists in the realm of personal poetry and unlike the icon, is not liturgical. The only authority it possesses is the sincere poetic realisation of one who has, throughout a lifetime’s practice, developed a personalised language of abstraction. In my case it is ever informed and enriched by my ongoing activity handling the aesthetic and theological sensibilities of the icon and icon painting.
As an abstractionist, my idiom resides within minimalism and not reductionism. As a philosophic Byzantinist, I identify with Neoplatonic thought, where realities hold the potential to ‘participate’ with each other – the material of paint while remaining paint, simultaneously a poetic vehicle in the evocation of ‘the Other.’
VK—You describe your abstract works as a ‘personal poetic dimension’, how do you access this place?
LB—In stillness, and with your eyes open.
VK—There are two streams of your art practice – what are the commonalities between these
LB—The icon is specific, integral; it shares authority and equality with Scripture. Yes! The icon’s realisa- tion is formal in all its strata, following a strict canon. There are zones which the uninitiated will not be able to penetrate.
Essentially, the icon’s life is within the incarnation of Christ, that God became Man in flesh therefore becoming representable, and conversely not to make the image of the Incarnate Lord, speaks of a flawed theology of the Incarnation. It also follows, generally the saints are depicted frontally, not looking up to God nor to left or right, they look out as they have become God. The icon celebrates the beauty and goodness of matter – that it’s through matter, that matter is redeemed. So, it follows in the icon-painting process, everything I use is of the natural world, synthetics are absent.
My abstract painting is not an illustration of the text. There is a need to make the distinction between commentary and illustration. As a ‘commentary’ it enters a sympathetic resonance with the text, and more importantly that reality which is the text’s subject, achieved from the artists’ perspective through the twin vehicles of focused intention as well as abandon.
VK—Does working alla prima in your abstract works make the process of work intuitive and temporal? (I mean as related to time, but double entendre intended).
LB—Working alla prima calls for a kind of athleticism, unrehearsed, and not unlike thinking in the moment as one does when engaged in a public conversation. It calls for a delving into one’s personal reserves.
It is not unlike climbing a mountain, on reaching the summit one inevitably returns – as one cannot remain – the moment having passed
VK—In 2010, you went on an icon study tour of Russia and were taken by its “vast horizons and skies with no end”, likening the spatial dimensions of icons to these limitless expanses. What truths does this expansion of space communicate for you in an icon?
LB—When confronted by the spatial dimension within the icon, particularly architectural forms, these follow an inverse/reverse perspective, the ‘conclusion’ (of which there’s none) of a line’s extension remaining unmeasurable, growing ever wider apart; contrary to a one-point perspective, where lines do intersect in infinity allowing for the measurement of their meeting and intersection.
Orthodox Christianity’s theological preference is for an apophatic theology (negative theology) it attempts to approach the divine, by negation, resorting to terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2019 print edition of Art Guide Australia.