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Michael Gordon (Mike) Brown (1938–1997)

by Richard Haese

This article was published online in 2022

Mike Brown, by Julia Topliss, 1996

Mike Brown, by Julia Topliss, 1996

National Library of Australia, 20643313

Michael Gordon Challis Brown (1938–1997), artist, was born on 8 May 1938 at Roseville, Sydney, youngest of three surviving sons of George Herbert Brown, advertising agent, and his wife Ruth Cristobel Aroha, née Carver, both Sydney-born. Herbert had read history at Oxford and Ruth, although not a career artist, had attended Julian Ashton’s Sydney Art School. Mike was educated (1950–55) at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). Because of his exceptional height and hesitant manner of speech, his school experience was one of unhappiness and depression. In 1956 he enrolled at Sydney’s premier art school, the National Art School at East Sydney Technical College, where he befriended fellow students Colin Lanceley and the New Zealand-born artist Ross Crothall.

Frustrated with formal art studies, Brown quit in 1958 without a diploma. In 1959–60 he spent six months in New Zealand exploring Māori art and culture. Back in Sydney he was fascinated by the recent installation of Melville Island Aboriginal grave posts at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Having joined the Commonwealth Film Unit as a production assistant, in 1960 he visited Rabaul and Port Moresby, Territory of Papua and New Guinea, absorbing Melanesian art and Oceanic primitivism.

In 1961 Brown and Crothall settled into a rundown terrace house in Annandale, where, in partnership with Lanceley and calling themselves the ‘Annandale Imitation Realists,’ they evolved a satirical and primitivistic craft-based mode of painting and sculpture that exploited elements of collage and collaboration. It was a movement later characterised by the English art historian Jessica Lack as ‘a revolutionary art collective designed to shake the foundations of modernism in Australia’ (Lack 2017, 169). With the support of the art patron John Reed, the trio held a successful exhibition at Melbourne’s Museum of Modern Art in February 1962. A second exhibition, titled Subterranean Imitation Realists, followed in May at the Rudy Komon Gallery, Sydney.

Following the break-up of the group later in 1962, Brown focused on a series of radical pop art-style assemblages, most notably the highly sexualised Mary-Lou as Miss Universe. Selected in 1963 for an official overseas travelling exhibition, Australian Painting Today, it was withdrawn in November after it scandalised viewers at the exhibition premiere at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Brown’s notoriety increased the next year when he exhibited a kite-like construction entitled Sydney ’64, which displayed an aggressive essay attacking the character of Sydney art criticism and the work of twelve Sydney abstract expressionist painters, including Lanceley, whose work had featured in a recent group exhibition.

Brown’s propensity for scandal reached its zenith at his Paintin' A-Go-Go! exhibition at Gallery A in Paddington in November 1965, which led to a prosecution for obscenity. In November 1966 at the Paddington Court of Petty Sessions Brown was sentenced to three months hard labour, but following an appeal in June 1967, the sentence was reduced to a twenty-dollar fine and a bond of good behaviour. His distress over the affair contributed to his increasing use of psychedelic drugs. Asked in 1995 as to his motivation for the exhibition, he explained it had been a personal protest against the prosecution for obscenity of Sydney’s Oz Magazine in 1964.

On 26 October 1964 at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney, Brown had married Catherine Ann Cole, a New Zealand-born fashion designer. After the birth of a son, the couple separated in 1965, although they were not formally divorced until 1981. In 1968 Brown left Sydney for Auckland. The next year he relocated to Melbourne, where he found a new partner in the ceramic artist Jan Lucas. They were to have two sons while living in a commune near Foster in South Gippsland, before separating in 1977.

A decade after the Imitation Realists’ exhibition, in July and August 1972 Brown held an even more idiosyncratic show at the Watters Gallery in Sydney. It included works salvaged from his earlier exhibitions and featured a manifesto-like text entitled ‘I don’t know what to think about anything (It don’t matter, nohow).’ Inspired by the fiction of the postmodern American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, the text has been described as Brown’s ‘punk manifesto … a rolling polemic against consumerism, mass culture, and the grasping realities of the art market and the advertising industry’ (Lack 2017, 169). It included a challenge to throw a mud pie at one of the works, with which the Sydney art critic Donald Brook duly complied.

In 1977 Brown’s first retrospective exhibition, Embracing Chaos, was held at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Its curator, Jennifer Phipps, noted Brown’s ‘pleasure in the casualness of Australian life … and laconic Australian speech and humour’ (National Gallery of Victoria 1978, n.p.). By this time he had settled into his final home, a chaotic rundown terrace house in North Fitzroy, the base for nocturnal graffiti excursions around the local streets. He mounted several more exhibitions, notably Hard, Fast & Deep, featuring collages of images from pornographic magazines, at the Charles Nodrum Gallery in November 1987.

Brown had barely made a living from his art, but in October 1992 he received the major recognition of an Australian Artists Creative Fellowship. A second and more ambitious survey exhibition, Power to the People, was held at the NGV in 1995. Diagnosed in December 1996 with inoperable cancer, he held a final exhibition at the Watters Gallery in March 1997. Survived by his three sons, he died on 9 April 1997 at Kew and was cremated. A memorial service was held at the Museum of Modern Art at Heide on 14 April. In an obituary, the art critic John McDonald observed that ‘his career was one of the most turbulent of all Australian artists’ (McDonald 1997, 12).

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Beck, Chris. ‘On the Couch.’ Age (Melbourne), 15 April 1995, Saturday Extra 2
  • Brown, Mike. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 9 December 1969. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Haese, Richard. Permanent Revolution: Mike Brown and the Australian Avant-Garde, 1953—1997. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2011
  • Haese, Richard, Mike Brown, and Charles Nodrum. Power to the People—The Art of Mike Brown. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1995
  • Hughes, Robert. ‘A Lot of Junk.’ Nation, 16 June 1962, 19
  • Lack, Jessica. Why Are We ‘Artists’? 100 World Art Manifestos. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Classics, 2017
  • McDonald, John. ‘Power to You Mike.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 1997, 12
  • National Gallery of Victoria. Mike Brown: A Survey of Work 1961 to 1977. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1978
  • Plant, Margaret. Irreverent Sculpture. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Gallery, 1985. Exhibition catalogue
  • Smith, Bernard, with Terry Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1990, 3rd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1991

Additional Resources

Citation details

Richard Haese, 'Brown, Michael Gordon (Mike) (1938–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brown-michael-gordon-mike-31300/text38683, published online 2022, accessed online 25 July 2024.

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