Following a Path
A Line Made by Walking, 1967, Richard Long
The sojourns of neighbour’s collide, but how often do they travel the same road? Grass bends beneath our feet, as together we cross between old and new paths, while talking about life and art and all the poetry in between.
I am one twinkle in the constellation of humanity, trying to understand and see other stars. Light emissions fluctuate as their light is blinded by orbiting companions or perhaps my view is blinded by mine. I sometimes fail to see the wonder of other stars.
I feel this is where my view of Terri and her art started, overcast with distractions. However, I’m not sure if becoming better friends with Terri has led me to admire her art more or discovering the world of minimal art has resulted in seeing Terri as a truly bright and beautiful star.
My neighbour walks the path I trod,
But does she see the things I saw?
Sometimes I ask Terri to describe herself or what her art is. The answer always seems to blend both as we walk a path that has inspired her art and directed her life. Terri’s painting philosophy is closer to Chinese landscape painting than the Western realist landscape tradition ... an artist stands on one mountain and paints what it feels like to gaze upon another mountain.
Terri is a sixth generation Australian, or perhaps even more. She lives near two waterways, the Yarra and the Merri, although she cannot see them from home. Her kindred birds and trees tell her the river and creek are near. Throughout her life, Terri has walked almost all the paths that meander and weave across the meeting place of these waters. It is her space, her peace, full of music she loves and her home.
My hand was held along the river banks,
as nature and I became friends.
The outside world called to me,
‘discover what I’ve hidden - seen and unseen.’
Sometimes the wind and rain hastened my steps
to a secret retreat,
or the sun invited me to linger and breathe,
with eucalypt oil drifting on the wind.
My arms reached up to grab stringy bark
peeling from upstretched gums.
I climbed into the hollow trunk filled with the life
of birds and bugs and me, as the tree decayed.
Fields of wildflowers and grassy woodlands
grown tall and wild in the sun
sway in the wind,
as I sway in the wind,
The sounds and songs that spoke
and still speak to my soul.
Serenity guides my life
and the strokes of my brush.
My art’s not always calm, as nature can be wild,
simplified to bare forms,
comforting and peaceful and serene.
It has been said that a ‘king’s’ burial ground lies where the Yarra and Merri meet and Billibellary is buried here, but a freeway and revegetation now claim this land. A great meeting of Indigenous people was held at the Merri Creek on Heidelberg Road when Terri was a child. They stayed many days in their tents and then were gone. Their departure faded into a memory for Terri, like the songs from a flock of birds gathering and then returning home. Recently, a blackbird inspired Terri’s creativity and the opening lyrics of ‘Blackbird’ (Paul McCartney, 1968) pervaded her thoughts.
The sun shines after rain has fallen, glistening on receding puddles
that beckon the little blackbirds to come and bathe before they fade away.
Birds chirp and call to each other as their plumage puffs in splashed water.
Black wings unfold and tails twitch, but one bird is different.
A white feather interrupts the black symmetry.
No other birds notice or seem to mind, chirping and puffing and splashing.
Lines ripple in the water as the puddle plays too.
The puddle’s time is short as the sun shines on and on.
Then the blackbirds flee, their songs fade, the water recedes and all that remains
are the water lines hinting of their past fun.
The Great Heidelberg Road was the first road to be macadamised in Victoria in the late 1840s and it was private. The toll gate was near Terri’s house, as was the Yarra Bend Asylum. She remembers when Heidelberg Road was closed for days when the Merri flooded after heavy rain. That has never happened again and terraced gardens at Yarra Bend and some stone steps are all that remain of the toll gate and asylum.
It is here she stood as a child with her grandfather on a sunny day talking about nature and the park. Together they would sing ‘Side by Side’ (Harry M Woods, 1927) as they walked.
Terri’s history is intertwined with the land around her, culminating into her present as the rivers combine into something greater together. Painting and walking go hand in hand. Terri walks before she paints. Thoughts float in and out while Terri walks and problems that house her dissipate. She obtains a state of free association while being in the now, looking, thinking and relating.
As an abstract artist, Terri works with the elements of art that include line, shape, colour and tone. She thinks about paint and the marks she makes back in the studio. There’s a relationship between what she has seen walking and marks she creates on her canvases.
A purely straight line is boring, untouched by the vibrations of life,
and my world is filled with distorted lines:
twisted, bending, curved and contorted by the variety of the world I live in.
No straight line was ever true,
an illusion of someone blind to imperfect beauty.
I like the curves, bumps and meandering flow of motion in the world,
so fast my eyes can’t follow or infinitesimally slow the world seems to stand still.
We don’t always see eye to eye, out of view on the bent lines we follow.
We are intertwined in the woven lines,
and tangle for moments
or years or decades,
until quiet vibrations or earthquakes move us on our way.
My lines stretch forth and are what they are.
Fear not if separation finds us because the weave that connects
will see our lines intersect again,
in this life
or the next.
Her city could be any city intertwined with nature and part of her essence. Terri feels the texture of a perfectly formed geometric seed pod while she studies graffiti, road signs telling her to stop and green lights directing her to go. Scuffs, rain patterns, and dribbling rust stains, new and old architecture, and forgotten traces of the presence of man decay and are reclaimed by nature.
These marks and patterns tell her where she is and guide her hand on the canvas. Thoughts of nature and how we are as people are reflected in her art. We really are part of the world. We are the lightning, the wind, the rain and the thunder. During her painting process, she is back in the rhythm of walking, searching for harmony, but now it’s with lines on the canvas using elements of nature such as motion, gravity and time, and therefore history.
Walking at dusk when the lights are low,
Black and white vision are last to go.
That’s why ash is my favourite colour.
Not a burnt-out end or death for some,
A chance for something new to become.
Art born where urban nature is mother
Night and then a deep breath in the dawn,
Black, white and grey shapes and lines are drawn
In the stillness of art, my soul recovers
Kathryn Marshall, catalogue text, Following a Path 2014-19, Tacit Galleries, 2019.
An Infinite Fabric
To paint on canvas is to engage with an inherently gridded form. Like all woven fabric, canvas is constructed from a network of perpendicular threads: warp (vertical) interlocked with weft (horizontal) in a repeating over-under pattern. Fastened around a standard rectangle, it sets the parameters of the surface: verticals and horizontals set at 90 degree angles. Binary systems.
Throughout her multi-decade practice, artist Terri Brooks has used a process of intuitive layered mark-making to push these parameters apart and pull them back together, softening the grid’s hard angles into looser threads and earthy washes of colour.
In Line and Weight, Brooks has produced a sophisticated suite of paintings with clarity and depth. While sitting firmly in abstraction, her work is alive to its surroundings: it hints toward tree bark, stitching, textured cloth, scuff marks, architecture. Tactile things buried in the strata of memory.
For some works, like Brown Weft, 2019, the painting process is a lengthy one, taking perhaps five months and 40 or 50 layers; Brooks shows me the side of the canvas with its strata of paint to prove it. The resulting piece is far from weighed down, though. It undulates, its grid-lines extending off the picture plane. Chinks of light within the ‘weave’ reveal the layers underneath, the visible process of its making.
Brooks remembers her grandmother, who lived through the 1930s Great Depression, describing feats of ‘making do’. A few packing cases, for instance, might with some vision and ingenuity be turned into a lounge suite. In such times of necessity, the function of an object becomes fluid, its edges blurred; it contains the possibility of many forms.
This approach underscores Brooks’s practice. ‘Improvisation,’ she points out, ‘is the basis of making do.’ Pared down to the simplest form—the line—and a reduced palette that embraces the shades between black, white and brown, Line and Weight demonstrates the richness of Brooks’s repetitive painterly gesture, an ongoing improvisation as each mark responds to the one before.
One work gestures further towards the make-do ethos. Flattened Package, 2018, was once a humble cardboard box; the three-dimensional grid of its original hollow form is squashed flat. Brooks likens it to ‘road detritus’ seen on frequent walks: ‘paper and cardboard run over, discarded and weathered.’ Flattened Package is an irreverent object: flat planes buckled, edges bulging, the grid thoroughly disrupted.
In her seminal 1979 essay ‘Grids’, Rosalind Krauss writes that ‘logically speaking, the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity’. The grid within an artwork is therefore ‘a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric’.[i] The paintings in Line and Weight convey both this sense of the infinite spatial grid and, through the building up of layers, the infinite and repetitious nature of time. Washed over, painted across, re-written, line by line.
Anna Dunhill, essay for Line and Weight, Flinders Lane Gallery, 2019.
[i] Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9, no. Summer, 1979 (1979): 50–64.
The profundity of nothing
What is abstract art good for? What’s the use for us as individuals or as a society – of pictures of nothing, of paintings or sculptures or drawings that on initial encounter, do not seem to show anything but themselves? These opening words in a seminal text by American writer and academic Kirk Varnedoe succinctly articulate the fight for legitimacy both abstract minimal art and its advocates have had to endure since its reception in the middle part of the Twentieth Century.
The oeuvre of Melbourne abstractionist Terri Brooks and indeed the works in this exhibition Principia invite this same general misunderstandings and scepticisms that people often bring to an experience of abstract art. However what is made manifestly clear through this beautifully constructed and intellectually engaging exhibition is that more than just pure looking is necessary to understand the highly poetic and symbolic visual language of artist Terri Brooks.
The paintings in this exhibition reflect an engagement with environments both urban and bucolic. Brooks seeks out spaces - the weathered surfaces of stone, concrete and timber, the irregular geometries and patternation of natural objects, the climatic vacillations of season, the vertical thrust of the urban environment and the boundless horizontals of rural space - distilling such experiences and reducing them visually to their purest and most fundamental state in order to make tangible, a sentient and personal world.
Significantly, Principia presents viewers with a compelling paradox - whilst projecting a rough and imprecise aesthetic, inordinately obdurate in its gestural repetition, persistent in its reference to loosely gridded forms and resolutely reductive in its final analysis this work proffers the viewer with a subtle conceptual didacticism.
Paintings are not simply visual objects without any connection to concepts that can be analysed then evaluated – all objects of design project an impression of the psychological and moral attitude it supports.
So what is the beneficence of Brooks’ abstraction? Where can it be located? And how is it to be understood?
The deployment of reductionist aesthetics and the modernist grid – albeit an often disassembled one in Brooks’ work, provide key points of departure for both artist and viewer. The physical properties of the grid offer stasis and a lack of hierarchy, which informs the transformative promise of this work. Attention is given to the simplicity of the works’ structure, to their ordered qualities and muteness, which directs the viewer back upon the quality of his or her own perceptions. The viewer moves from a state of chaos to inner equilibrium and focused attention and as a consequence, one is urged to reflect on the present at a profoundly physical level. Every aspect of such an experience, its reflectiveness, the manner in which it illuminates the nature of our feeling and knowing through an object, a spatial situation, suggests an analogy to the posture and method of phenomenological inquiry.
Brooks draws the viewer in, establishing intimate connections with these works through a strategic play of internal relations; connections set up by gestural articulations, delicate layering of colours, serendipitous moments of form and the strategic placement of compositional elements. Curiously these works then operate to force the viewer to a distance from where all the component parts of the work become critical elements of an integrated whole and where the architectural space in which these works are shown also demands recognition as a key aesthetic element.
This is art that eliminates the descriptive, excludes the pictorial, narrative and the fictive, thus focusing on the essential in form, creating what is often referred to as a truth. Thus Brooks’ reduced aesthetic approach speaks to us about order, directness, integrity, veracity and morality; accordingly these stylistic predilections function to extend an invitation for the audience to be purposeful, ethical and socially equitable - the material articulation of our ideas of a good life. This idea that Brooks’ art – or any art for that matter, can speak to us on matters of morality and truth, helps us to place at the very centre of our aesthetic conundrums the question of the values we want to live by rather than merely how we want things to look.
We started here with an explication on the censures often levelled at abstract art as a platform for the discussion of the profound weightiness of Brooks’ paintings of nothing and we finish with the poignant words of English poet Robert Browning,
That which is less complicated is often better understood and more appreciated than what is more complicated; simplicity is preferable to complexity; brevity in communication is more effective than verbosity.
Dr AJ Byrnes essay for Principia, Flinders Lane Gallery, 2016.
 Michelson as cited in: Minimalism - Meyer, Phaidon publishing NY, 2000, reprinted 2005.
 Lucy Lippard, The Silent Art, Art in America Magazine, (January – February ed) 1967, Art in America Publications.
Still on the line
In Terri Brooks’ immaculately clean and fume-free studio is a collection of music to paint by. Glen Campbell sits next to Springsteen, next to Iggy, next to King. She says she likes songs about everyday people, tunes which celebrate nobodies and their dreams, non-über, non-heroic but dignified nonetheless. There is a definite parallel here with her own paintings and drawings which emerge from repetitive, labour-intensive actions, built-up residues and the extremities of her own reach, coupled with sub-radar inspirations she finds within her local environment, a suburb she has known intimately since childhood.
It is also important to note that Terri Brooks has a Doctorate in Philosophy, one of the most harmonious to art practice within the Humanities. For a philosopher, the enquiry is as critical as the answer, if not more so. Little is seen to have concrete substance and all is open to forensic examination. Over the fifteen years that she has been exhibiting with Flinders Lane Gallery, Brooks has applied such challenges to her own art, gradually reducing both her palette and the variety of her technique, pursuing the elemental base of it all. An associated fascination is with the dualism of the world – night/day; life/death; hot/cold – as she searches for her own balance. She eschews narrative and concentrates on the craft, in the sense of ‘domestic’, even feminine, crafts such as weaving, papier mache and pattern making.
A perfect realisation of all these aims are the suite of Drawings (capital ‘D’) in the exhibition Brown and Bone. In the Drawings, Brooks set herself a series of calculated actions like a production line employee and it is the repetition of these over days and weeks that result in the final pieces. For a piece like Black Base she first paints the canvas, then incises horizontal lines with a pencil from top to bottom whilst the paint is still wet. The next day, she returns and again incises from top to bottom, only now the paint has started to dry meaning clumps and clags start to accumulate like furrows at the edge of a recently graded road. The next day she returns, and the next and so on until the paint can be scarred no more. What is left is a geological field of stucco, a condensed mini strata recording every step of the artist’s passage in the same manner as a foundry worker or brickie. Honest and with every mark evident. However a transformation also occurs for the viewer as these are now artworks as well, elevated from something that merely is (such as the brickie’s wall) to something that is somehow bigger than what it may actually seem. These dynamics of art have been discussed and argued by philosopher-critics over centuries and now Brooks chooses to play her own part as well.
The title Brown and Bone also refers to the reduced palette of her paintings. A key example is Beige Bands Diptych where each vertical brushstroke is executed in one sweep clearly articulating the physical presence of the artist and the length of her arm. Amidst the wavering bands are two diagonals which immediately create a visible tension; and two sprayed black lines create the illusion of foreground. Simple means, simple tactics, dynamic results. This approach carries into the companion piece Beige Bands and to the smaller painting Beige Bands Black Stripes where sprayed dots contrast with the stripes like the accidental sgraffito found on a road after workmen have moved on. In this case, one set of workers have left their mark only to have another come along, recognise their potential and utilise them in the painterly realm to create philosophical meditations on the nature of art/work itself.
Andrew Gaynor essay for Brown and Bone, Flinders Lane Gallery, 2014.
Over the Edge
The neglected zones of urban existence – alley ways, awnings, walls, gutters and shutters – occupy a unique place within the history of painting. Perhaps inadvertently, artists have been depicting such insignificant elements as cracked window ledges and the dark recesses of architraves since the time of Giotto. Ubiquitous, utilitarian and often worn down, the marginal nature of such sites and the phenomenological questions they raise have dominated Terri Brooks practice for the past two decades and continue to inform her work today.
Navigating a territory between material awareness and perceptual sensitivity, Brooks’ practice hinges on the ability to perceive beauty within the decayed. Informed by her observations of the streets around her Northcote studio, Brooks refers to herself as an ‘urban archaeologist’, searching the built world for traces of action and deterioration. The broken edge of a concrete footpath or paint peeling off an overpass railing becomes thrilling subject matter. Reduced to a series of pure forms, textures and lines these visual fragments serve as reference points for her condensed and subtle images.
The impasto applications of her paint hint at an artist delighting in the act of replication. Gleaning her physical surroundings, excavating the fractured and forgotten, Brooks brings to light the incidental poetry of a site. Blackwhite echoes the thick, chalky quality of road boundaries, inspired by watching workmen as they lay down markers outside the local paper mill. Dense white layers are built up and ooze at the seams. Uneven in their application but sure in direction, they expose the act of a brush steadily moving across canvas. Paint spills over the edges to pool and settle like the crust of icing over a cake. A final glaze of pale brown is encrusted within the white, transforming it to an old creamy hue, solid against the black tarry gloss beneath.
Resplendent in blue and white, Northcote pays homage to the Greek heritage of the area and suggests the ramshackle front yards of its inhabitants. Like the faded shade cloths and ever-present concrete slabs found there, the bulk of this canvas, weighed down by so many layers of paint, suggests a corporeal quality that crosses over momentarily into the sculptural.
The refinement of her technique intentionally disrupts any standard readings of the everyday. These works operate within the margins of discrete easel painting and architectural reality. Suspended within each canvas is an intentional exercise in reduction, true to the principles of minimalist practice. The recurring motif of line, laid down in slow and clear sequence, indicates a subtle meditation on labour and the humble truth of the wearing effects of time.
Brooks’ abstraction rejoices in the objective experience and emphasises the procedural nature of painting. By repeating a simple form, reiterating the embodiment of a pattern or gesture, these works in themselves become a moment, an act. A guide to how they have been constructed is embedded in the strata of layers. Akin to the histories of the built environments Brooks references, her paint slowly slips over the edges of the canvas, congealing, shrinking and drying at different rates, gesturing the fragile and residual nature of decay itself.
Phe Luxford essay for Over the Edge, Flinders Lane Gallery, 2011.