Recent paintings by Robert Brownhall explore a life-changing experience he had as a child in Bundaberg, during a period he was living with his parents in this regional city.
Now Brisbane-based and with a national reputation as an artist, Brownhall fell into a Bundaberg creek when he was three years old – and drowned.
He was pulled from the water without a pulse before the rapid actions of his rescuers brought him back to life.
Brownhall believes this trauma impacted his art, shaping the form, colour and the particular quality of light he has pursued in his realist paintings for decades, saying that ‘dramatic memories from near death experiences stay in the subconscious forever’.
Bundaberg Regional Galleries director Rebecca McDuff became aware of Brownhall’s history in the region and invited him to visit the city and explore his memories through a series of new works, which will be exhibited at the galleries from 25 June until mid-August.
Rebecca said when she first visited Robert in Brisbane, he was reliving those childhood memories.
“I invited him to do a residency in Bundaberg, and his first trip was very dark, with his first drawings of the creek he fell into, and the darkness of the trees he remembered at the beach,” she said.
“Then in the second visit there was the beginning of a change.
“During his last visit, a new light started coming in; over the period there was definitely a shift in the way he painted.
“His most recent works are closer to his known urban landscapes, with suburban houses, people – and always that amazing light.”
This return to Bundaberg, to make peace with his near-death experience, allowed Brownhall to incorporate the memories of what he saw and felt as his life slipped away.
In the unique series of paintings, the style and subject matter are visibly Brownhall but with an additional dramatic intensity.
This series has an edge that speaks to the way in which he has processed these difficult memories, infiltrating the landscape adjacent to the beach and informed by the lonely night he experienced as such a young child at the hospital.
Brownhall said this creative process allowed him to come to terms with his experience.
“I spent time going around Bundaberg picking anything that felt familiar – buildings, the beach, car parks, and the cane fields,” he said.
“We left Bundaberg while I was still young but much of the place felt familiar.
“It has resulted in some intense paintings.
“One of the earliest was Sun on the Bricks (Ocean Court).
“In the afternoon the sun creeps around the side of that building. At some level I recall seeing that in the moment of my revival.”
While the recently-painted scene might appear benign, with a fence painter working away in front of a blonde brick apartment block, the eerie light in the sky and menacing shadows of the trees allude to the unfolding crisis that Brownhall remembers from this scene.
The exhibition is titled Forever Memories and features scenes in and around Bundaberg, including the drama of the burning cane fields, the creek lined with treacherous-looking rocks and urban landscapes.
Boy and Dachshund might refer to Brownhall’s younger self, walking innocently in front of a brick suburban house.
His grandparents gifted him a stuffed dachshund toy after his drowning; he continues to own dachshund dogs to this day.
He believes that, “All of this makes me a positive person. Not many people make it through a drowning.”
Working through these memories shed light on his decades of art-making and his interest in the undercurrent within an urban scene, the suburbs, and vignettes of narrative that he observes driving around Brisbane and the nearby coasts.
In this exhibition, Brownhall reaches beyond his biography to develop an increased artistic strength and range.
For McDuff, “Suddenly something lifted for him toward the end. There is a change in the way that he approached the work as he moved through his emotions.”
For a sneak peek at some of Robert’s painting in the exhibition, follow him on Instagram @robertbrownhallartist.