Joan Brassil – still a leading contemporary artist

1-IMG_3388Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil opened at Campbelltown Arts Centre, on Saturday June 6, the tenth anniversary year of her death. In about 1958, Joan had moved to Campbelltown as the widowed mother of two young sons and not long after, became Campbelltown High School’s first visual arts teacher. A much loved and inspiring teacher, artist and collaborator, her life and practice were celebrated by the large gathering of family members, former students, friends and colleagues. On her early retirement at the age of 50, Joan was invited by Barbara Romalis to become one of the founding members of the artist community at Wedderburn, where the surrounding bushland became one of her endless sources of inspiration. It was from this point that Joan’s professional development as a contemporary artist took off. Her academic studies ultimately included a doctorate of creative arts from University of Wollongong. In 1999, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by UNSW. Above, Strangers in the Landscape (sculpture) located in the cafe courtyard.

1-IMG_3385Assembling Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil was a major undertaking for the project curatorial committee (curatorium) – Michael Dagostino (director of Campbelltown Arts Centre), Ruth Banfield, Susan Best, Greg Brassil, Liam Brassil, Tony Bond, Marsha Meskimmon and Megan Monte. Joan was an installation and media artist, whose early embrace of technology and video led her into collaborations with scientists, researchers, and artists from other disciplines. She participated in major national and international art exhibitions and disposed of few of the materials she had ever used. In fact, one part of the exhibition includes objects created for one purpose and then changed or re-used in another role. Joan was always experimenting and learning. A selection of pages of research commentary and critical reviews are reproduced to enhance the experience of the object room. Above, Astral Potatoes, located in the object room.

1-IMG_3372Why Stranger in the title? Stranger is a recurring theme in much of Joan’s work. In her catalogue essay, Marsha Meskimmon writes: “It is difficult to look at Joan Brassil’s work without embracing unpredictability, the possibility of change and a profound sense of contingency. Moving easily between the dust of the ground and the light of the stars, the stranger (gazing) engages all that lies between, seen or unseen, heard or beyond hearing. Brassil’s aesthetic tactics were not to fix meaning, but to allow it space from which to emerge.” She was deeply interested in Aboriginal thinking and practice and their closeness to the natural world. Above, Joan as she appears in the film (see below), describes her sense of wonderment.

1-IMG_3366In opening the exhibition, Tony Bond described elements she utilised in her work – randomness, chance, curiosity, interrogation, an intense engagement with the nature of being in the world, a manifestation of wonder. The 20 minute film made with Joan during her lifetime and which screens on continuous loop, reveals these characteristics and the way in which she used technology as an instrument of wonder, light and contemplation. Her style of work was generous, inclusive and collaborative. Astrophysicist Dr Brian Robinson was a friend and collaborator whose knowledge deepened her understanding of science. Her use of recordings such as the movement of electrical energy and pulsar registrations, helped him communicate science to a wider audience and gave a broader dimension to his work. Above, Randomly – Now and Then, 1990, microphone stand, computer, diorite mining cores, gravel rock, pavement, speakers and tuning forks.

1-IMG_3397While the technology may have changed, Joan’s approach to her work remains entirely contemporary. The challenge for the curatorium was to assemble her installations in ways she might have done, since each space was different and she responded intuitively to them. Her warmth and whimsical humour are also evident in some of her work. I was fortunate enough to have time with her on at least two occasions, when it always seemed she had a quality of stillness about her. Joan’s son, Greg, says her advice when all around seemed to be chaos was to “sit still”. Her work is deeply contemplative. Left is one of two panels which stand alongside her sculpture of giant tuning forks Tether of Time in Campbelltown Arts Centre’s sculpture garden. The forks stand over a pool of reflection and a perpetual small flow of water. The panel is inscribed with poetic observations about Tether of Time (with apologies for the layout) –

Wind harps on a busy corner tuned randomly
by natural forces sonipally declare the advent of air
NNE or SE find sound among strings
placing the ear against wood on masts
currents of air may be throbbing through wires
as a sonic harmonic searching for a song

Strangers: A Retrospective of Joan Brassil continues at Campbelltown Arts Centre to August 2. Go prepared to listen carefully. Delicate and diverse sounds are a constant among the installations. The catalogue helps illuminate the experience.

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