The ocean indoors

Mostyn Bramley-Moore
Watters Gallery, Sydney & Michael Milburn Galleries, Brisbane

Interplay between intuitive and calculated elements is something that we have come to expect in the work of Mostyn Bramley-Moore. One had only to look behind the linen of his early paintings which exploited spontaneous gesture and rich oil paint to see the sophisticated carpentry and framing. As a child he often worked with his father, a theatrical set-maker, and he has never lost his fabrication skills or respect for the paradox of materials versus appearance.

Around 1988 Bramley-Moore's focus shifted substantially away from easel painting, to constructions which happily utilised sometimes disturbing juxtapositions of painterly and mixed media surfaces. Significantly, he began to use furniture as a vehicle of mediation between painting and sculpture. This approach has been extended in the work exhibited recently in Sydney and Brisbane.

Two of the major pieces in these shows are cabinets. Cupboard for 11, rue Larrey and Ka Cabinet can be viewed from a stool, Tidal Bench. The physicality of these, and careful installation, allowed the artist to set a scene in which he could both maintain a complex range of references and sustain a central core of ongoing thematic preoccupations. Briefly, Cupboard for 11, rue Larrey refers to the open/closed challenge of Duchamp's door sculpture of 1927, (by an ingenious use of cable and pulleys one drawer always remains open), Ka Cabinet relates to the influence of the Nile in Egyptian society and Tidal Bench was inspired by an early nineteenth century American Shaker communal dining-room bench in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Through all, there is a confident and challenging use of painterly effects.

Bramley-Moore remains interested in the subjects of "water" and "night", as romantic symbols for the cycles of nature. His skilful, horizontal brushwork of the last few years is still evident, and the viewer is, typically, alternatively lured into contemplation of quite enigmatic passages and then grounded by concrete references to cultural history. At one extreme they remind one of the whimsical, haptic markings of artists like Cy Twombly and at the other they are extremely strong willed. No doubt their success lies in Bramley-Moore's ability to maintain a precarious, engaged balance between these poles.

The poetic motif of the rise and fall of tides and the cycle of seasons and day/night has taken on an emblematic status in these works. Typical are the paintings Night Fishing and Ladder to Water. The trap of sentimentality is avoided simply because focussed intent is always apparent. Paradoxically, these works are beautiful but not really about beauty. Cupboard for 11, rue Larrey contains stunning painted sections which appear to relate to the seasons, but the point of their presence lies in the role of the artist (and viewer, by invitation) as observer/creature of nature versus agent of action.

The Chart contains a copy of Melville's Moby Dick, open to a page relating Ahab's endless plotting of tides, routes, feeding patterns, winds and so on. An analogy is drawn between the captain's mythic search and an artist's mapping of reality. Relentless logic is applied to inscrutable purpose. Tension between the rational and the irrational is also seen in Outremer (French for ultramarine).

The most innovative works, for me, are those that self-consciously swing between painting and sculpture. The ploy of using furniture to demonstrate the power of art to transform and question reality is clearest in the Duchampian cabinet. In this work the drawers literally slide in and out of the centre of an oil painting. This intrusion into the surfaces of paintings complements the theatricality of the free standing object, and as one cannot close all the drawers at once the work hovers formally in interesting territory. As furniture, it jars ones expectation, doubling and redoubling the ambiguity of reference to Duchamp.

Cycles of nature, the ups and downs of the politics of making artworks and day to day life all meld together in these objects in a kind of circadian scenario, relating anecdotal narrative and broad myth structures. One is left with the conviction that there are still things to say about the symbiotic relationship of people and n