Dan Poynton talks to his cousin Matthew Browne about his art and their family art history.
“I never wanted to be a painter,” Matthew says, stroking his brow. “Because I saw Dad painting. His mother was a painter, he was a painter – Hell, I was going to do something different.” In his teens in London he thought he’d be a vet, perhaps in rebellion. “But I hated science at school so that went out the window. I went to art school because I couldn’t think of what else to do.” Matthew, a very average art student at school, is not even sure how the application papers for the prestigious Camberwell College of Arts in London, turned up in front of him, but suspects his ever-supportive father was playing guardian angel. “I just filled them in and couldn’t care less. I don't know why I got in, ’cos I didn't have anything special going on.”
Art school was not easy for a young man in the shadow of his father and grandmother. “It was immensely frustrating. I was distracted – mostly by girls – but also because I didn't really know what to paint.” Then his father gave him The Journal of Eugène Delacroix for a Christmas present. “I was transfixed about his struggles as a painter, and how he thought he wasn't very good. I thought if he can still paint after that, then I could do it.” For, underneath Matthew’s cool geometric abstractions, there seethes a yearning for transcendence. “I am a Romantic as far as painting goes. I have Romantic tendencies about how a visual artist can transcend everyday life – to elevate, to uplift and nourish, while, in the post-modern era, it was much more about an ironic take on those things. I’m taking some of the principals of abstract expressionism and post-modernism but I’m trying to reinvent them.”
Camberwell in the late 70s was “pretty old-fashioned” and his early work was figurative. “I was mad about Camille Pissarro. I went to Paris on my own for a couple of weeks and travelled from place to place, standing outside buildings going ‘Wow, Monet came out that door!’” But back in England inspiration was elusive. “I couldn’t find anything to paint. I was convinced it was because I lived at the wrong time and there wasn't a man coming down the road with a horse and cart. But my crazy Romanticism about being a painter kept me going.” This old-world sincerity might seem a surprise. “Your paintings remind me of my wife’s clothing patterns”, went a recent social media comment to Matthew. “But I would hate it if people thought my paintings were all just formal interplays of colour, line and form. I want something else to be going on.” He tries to recall exactly a line by Miro – “something like: ‘Painting needs to be conducted with a cool head but fire in your belly.’”
So, is his work abstract? Hard-edged? Minimalist? “All those things. But traditional minimalist paintings are very much without feeling. I want my paintings to have some vulnerability. I don’t want them to be so hard that they’re impenetrable.” Some call his works colour-field, but Matthew is a colourist in a different sense. “I’m really interested in the power of colour to transcend the intellect. Many people are afraid of using colour, because colour’s connected with questions of taste. But people have a visceral reaction to colour.” And their wildly diverse reactions to his work fascinate him. “Why are they so arrested by that painting when it’s completely still and simple?”
This fascination with people has helped make Matthew a much-sought teacher. When he was teaching in various art schools around Auckland, “my pupils nagged me to open my own school. Hell no, I wanted to be a painter! But when I do teach, I put a lot of effort into it. Same with painting – I can’t half-arse it.” And so the Browne School of Art was born in Grey Lynn. It turns ten this year and boasts about 350 students every term. “I'm quite into it being more of a maverick school. I want people to come here not because they want a piece of paper but because they hear it’s a really great little school and they can learn something.”
Matthew is sometimes a reluctant head of school. “But I quite like people. They tell me all sorts of things – it’s a bit like going to a hairdresser – people come to the office in tears. I’m quite reasonable at supporting, but that’s probably just because I’m quite nosey.”
LEFT: Matthew in the studio. Photo by Diana Simumpande. RIGHT: Ruth D. Browne, Matthew's grandmother, painting 'Blue Abstract' in her purpose-built studio in Eastbourne, 1961.
And teaching has proven a blessing for an artist with a “melancholic” tendency. “If I’m in my studio day after day, the demons come for me a bit. Teaching means they don’t settle too firmly in my head. Sometimes I really don’t feel like teaching a class, but Melissa says I’ll feel better when I do. She’s always right.” Melissa is Matthew’s ever-patient wife, who he met in London and followed back to his parents’ homeland in 1991. She’s also the certified super-mum of his three kids. Living with an artist is probably not always easy, he recognises. “I’m just thankful I’m not a creative person,” interjects Melissa, as she passes by the camera, “because I’ve been able to run everything here while he’s been able to do his thing. I’m always blown away by
In 1994, Matthew and his father and grandmother – Michael and Ruth Browne – were included in The Family in Art, an exhibition at the then National Art Gallery. Ruth was a pioneering abstractionist in the late 60s. In 1984, during Matthew’s first foray into New Zealand he organised a retrospective of her work in Paraparaumu.
Michael, now 93, studied at the Royal College of Art in London on a scholarship, and then taught at Chelsea College of Arts. Now settled back in Wellington with his wife Jenny Browne, a successful potter, he was the 2017 winner of the Governor-General Art Award. He’s admired for his pulsating abstract landscapes. “Matthew was very apologetic about becoming a painter. He said, ‘I’m sorry Dad, but I’m now going to paint,’” chuckles Michael at home in Newtown. “It was ridiculous in a way, but I think he apologised because I was right and he was wrong – about being a painter.” Jenny pipes up: “Matthew always struggled a lot about most things and put you through it with him! But in a way it’s a good thing because he expects an awful lot from himself. He’s a perfectionist.”
Painting is a balm in Matthew’s struggles for perfection. “I think for most painters its therapy. It takes you away from the crazy world outside that realm.” And there is ever more searching for stillness in his work today, which has lost the organic curves and more agitated brushwork of a few years ago. He says those works were directly concerned with the body: “But I wasn’t thinking about how the body looked, it was more about unconscious drives that were the impetus for the works. I tried to empty my head of subject matter and work in a way that was quite fast and transcended logical thought.”
He’s now more interested in working slowly. “There’s that Zen saying: All mind, no mind. I kind of stop thinking and move outside my head, look down at myself and wonder what it is I’m making.” Matthew is trying to remove the direct, visible influence of the hand – “a gesture I don’t want” – from his brushwork. He explains: “This much calmer approach is a need to create some kind of order out of the chaos going on elsewhere. I’m looking for that inner sanctum, devoid of troubling subject matter.” The work is more austere and architectural now, often with just a few monolithic forms interacting obscurely. But this relative bleakness still yearns for an eye to complete it. “I want the painting’s stillness to arrest people and bring them into that moment – to stop the world’s rotation for a minute. I'm trying to create some kind of stillness from the overstimulation and the overwhelmingly anxiety of things.”
LEFT: Matthew Browne, Morii 15, vinyl tempera & oil on linen, 455 x 405mm, 2020. RIGHT: Matthew Browne, Morii 11, vinyl tempera & oil on linen, 455 x 405mm, 2020.
Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery began representing Matthew last year, and in May he has an exhibition there. Next February Wagner Contemporary will be representing him at the Melbourne Art Fair, and then with a solo show in Sydney.
In 2005 he was the joint winner of the People’s Choice Award at the Wallace Art Awards and in 2019 he won a National Contemporary Art Award from the Museum of Waikato. Although the recognition is “a very nice sideline”, those original Romantic impulses that seem to still drive him. “I want my paintings to have a spiritual aspect to them.” When they’re really working, he says he can feel – there’s “something there that’s much bigger than the painting itself and bigger than me.”
First published in Art Zone #94