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Living the dream: Near-death experience has coloured artist's work

Culture

Robert Brownhall’s latest exhibition puts Brisbane on display through dreamy renderings of iconic buildings and landscapes – but he keeps finding memories of his childhood near-drowning in his art.

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Brownhall, a leading Australian painter, is renowned for his realistic renderings of urban scenes and natural landscapes which take on a dreamy, nostalgic quality.

His latest exhibition at the Philip Bacon Gallery in Fortitude Valley is a collection of his most recent pieces, including depictions of the Royal Exchange Hotel and the XXXX Brewery sign glowing in the night.

“This exhibition is the first one I’ve done where I’ve gotten everything really figured out. I have a clear mindedness about how I paint now,” he said.

“There has always been a dreamy calmness to my paintings but that quality is more assured in itself now that I know it is produced from my memories a long time ago.”

Brownhall suffered a near-drowning when he was three years old, in a creek bed near Bundaberg.

He said he was pulled out of the creek face down and without a pulse. He was miraculously revived in a nearby car park.

“I remember the building directly above me as I came back and it was all hazy and weird, which is why through my thirty years of painting you’ll see all these beach car parks,” he said.

Brownhall said that he wasn’t aware of the explicit details of his near-death experience, and learned about them three years ago, aged 49.

He has since realised the event had been subconsciously influencing the paintings he has created over the course of his life.

“It all links back to the beginning with my drowning.”

“It was like coming out of the cold and the rain into the sun, and it was a sunny day – my father told me that. The sun hit me in the eyes. I have always varnished my paintings with a yellow wash to give them a warm look,” he said.

“I think I’m probably the only artist who obsessively paints beach units, and it was because a beach unit is the first thing I saw when I woke up.”

‘Oceania’ by Robert Brownhall

Brownhall is used to inserting himself into his artwork, usually as a figure indistinguishable from himself, walking through a scene.

In his painting of the Royal Exchange Hotel, he said you can see his self-portrait at the front.

“That’s me walking the Dachshund in front of it – I’ve been in the western suburbs my whole life, and I painted myself there at the age of 70 – probably still there,” he laughed.

“My friend Dave and I would go down and get ignored by girls at the RE, then head out to Brisbane City on our nights out. You know, I’ve got affectionate memories for the place.”

Similarly, his eccentric painting The Vegetarian, presents him as an overweight older man in a tracksuit in front of his local butcher.

He said his battle with high cholesterol caused him to give up eating animals and dairy – the painting includes himself in an alternate universe.

Now with the knowledge of the trauma of his childhood drowning, Brownhall recognises that he has inserted himself in his paintings in more ways than his intentional self-portraits.

‘River lights’ by Robert Brownhall

Brownhall said he has always played with light and shade – giving his paintings the hazy nostalgia that has influenced his success – but had never known where the inspiration had come from.

“I describe my paintings as dramatically peaceful, and my revival coming back to life was very dreamlike, being submerged then emerging, like diving to a pool and holding your breath for as long as you can,” he said.

“Then I let my imagination take over, it’s like my subconscious guides the brush around. I’ll manipulate the light, warm it up, cool it down, to make things a bit stranger than they are. I alter the lighting to make it look like it’s from the past.”

Brownhall said he wanted to change the feeling of a scene from something negative into something peaceful.

“Electric light is nothing exciting and rain isn’t beautiful – it’s just one colour. I’m obsessed with making these things beautiful, the lights in the dark,” he said.

“I don’t want to live with something horrible, I want to turn it into something beautiful instead.”

Robert Brownhall’s exhibition opened at the Philip Bacon Gallery on March 16 and runs until April 10. For more information, go to the Philip Bacon Gallery’s website.

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