Bradd Westmoreland has always had respect for art materials. To begin, he filled in up to the lines in his colouring books. At Kindergarten the care with which he painted was noted and finer brushes were bought for him to use. At age nine, he was taken by his parents upon invitation, to meet cartoonist, WEG (The Sun cartoonist) to show him Bradd's drawings. He noticed the control the boy had over the pen. WEG said, "Don't be a cartoonist, be an artist."
In 1988, Westmoreland saw Williamstown and Other Images - sixty-seven John Percival paintings at Gould Galleries and made a decision to paint, rather than draw, which up till then had occupied all his free time.
"I would check the ads in the Saturday Age to see what was on and my Dad would drive me to South Yarra galleries on Saturday mornings," Bradd recalls. Two of the strongest memories he has are of seeing a large Pulpit Rock painting by Arthur Boyd over the stair at the Australian Galleries (now collection of NGV) with fish-like sunbathers in a row along the bottom of the picture. That had a real impact. So did the exhibition of Percival drawings at Gould Galleries in 1989. Westmoreland's interests grew as he found Albert Tucker, and in recent years, Ken Whisson at Niagara Galleries.
Westmoreland was at the Victorian College of the Arts from1993 to 1995. He spent many hours in the library hiding away. For him the library was for 'looking at pictures'. He became familiar with current German painting; attracted to the sense of freedom which he thought was a bit punk! Appreciating the energy of that attitude which "I was attempting to employ at the same time. I was going to see a lot of bands at that time, which probably influenced my paintings."
At the VCA, Westmoreland's painting became figurative. "I was heavy-handed in the use of paint and slightly aggressive. I wanted the paintings to be strong. They should stand up for themselves, wherever they might be." Many were begun in bright, uncontrolled colour and finished with wiped swathes of dark tertiaries. One teacher said, "They looked like mud!"
A trip to the central desert was the highlight of third year and drove the desire to paint landscapes. "I feel optimistic when I project a thought or idea beyond the horizon at the beach. I felt the same in the desert."
In 1996, Westmoreland moved from Frankston to Fitzroy and painted, aged 21, for his first show. "I had a rock and roll attitude to painting. For the most part they held a repressed violence." At Fresh Gallery in Little Collins Street, sixteen paintings were shown. Twelve sold. Small ones $200 and 4 x 5ft ones were $500. A few weeks after, he left for Europe on the proceeds. On his first trip overseas, he looked at art. "The museums were incredible. They charged me up. I was knocked over by old master paintings. So many surprises." Highlights were the Prado, Louvre and National Gallery, London. There were many things he did not know about. This included the treatment of space in modern painting, Cezanne, cubist Braque and Picasso, late-Picasso and Matisse who cuts all corners and gets to the point, like Willem de Kooning said, "Matisse had no ism!"
The treatment of space in Westmoreland's paintings became a major concern: how an area of colour can indicate a vertical plane in the shallow distance; or how it could be twisted to hold its place in either the middle ground or foreground without having to change the tone or texture.
The paintings in the current group have their beginnings in the work he showed at Crossley and Scott, Melbourne each year from 2002-2006, Gallery 9, Sydney, 2006-2010 and Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, 2009. These paintings continued to employ the same beautiful materials: linen canvas in various grades on quality stretchers, the finest oil paints and the best brushes. There began a growing use of invented exteriors and interiors and landscapes.
Westmoreland continued his experimentation with drawing from life and painting figures. Earlier the trees in the landscapes suggested figures. Recently, they have become figures.
After a second visit to Paris in 2002, Westmoreland had a month at the museums out of season, where he looked at Venetian and big French history paintings, such as Gericault, David and Delacroix. Then to rooms of small archaeological artefacts where he explored early wood sculptures from Spain, and treated the Egyptian, Greek and Roman rooms as a project over seven or eight days. He also found in the Pavilion de Flora "objects I had previously seen at the Trocadero five years before. The newly arranged tribal art became my favourite. The clean, beautiful display brought those objects to life. Having spent time early on with Picasso's sculptures, I could see in the African things where he got his ideas from."
Back home, Westmoreland settled into the Northcote studio he still uses (ten years this April 2012). Big and private, there is nothing precious about the large, dusty space. West and south light, the afternoon light is direct. It is diffused in the mornings. This diversity of light throughout the day is very useful. The greys in his paintings are Northcote winter days and the warm light of summer helps bring contrasting effect to the atmosphere within the paintings.
The paintings in the current group again employ the same beautiful materials he has always used. Pre-primed linen canvas, the finest permanent paints, six tubes of colour; two reds, two blues and two yellows. A warm and cool version of each. "I use white to soften primary colours. Raw umber, which I love, is my real brown. I have only bought black a few times. My colours are often mixed on the canvas. I know a little about how to get the green I want. This also goes for violet and orange. Occasionally, if I want to cover a surface I will use a container of colour. There is never much waste of paint in the studio. If there is, it stays on the brush and they sit in turps and oil in jars, one each for green, red and blue. It is too hard to keep the yellow one yellow!" He uses pure turps and linseed oil as the medium to thin the paint. The oil sometimes sits for a long time until it becomes gluggy. "If the paint needs a body I will mix some of the standing oil with it."
In 2002, Paris and in 2005 a month in New York. Trips away are positive experiences for Westmoreland. On his return he welcomes something fresh happening. "Away, I can't paint and deliberately bottle experiences. They slowly, quite slowly, emerge in my work in one way or another."
This current group of paintings show the result of Westmoreland's travels in 2007. Starting in Venice, he saw at the Biennale how art is set up and presented to the world. The highlight was Giorgione's The tempesta, propped on an easel in a quiet corner of a small gallery in the Academia. Modest painting with a massive impact. It was five years since he had seen them in the Louvre and his interest in Venetian painting had grown. A day trip to Giotto in Padua was also a major visit. He travelled through Spain to the Prado. It was ten years since his last visit there. "Now I could see and understand the paintings with greater clarity." The Prado is a very big experience, a comprehensive and accessible history of art. Westmoreland concentrated on paintings where you feel you are included in the picture space. Veronese, Tintoretto, Titian, Ruben's copies of Titian. He also went to Toledo for El Greco's The burial of Count Orgaz. "You walk in past the postcards and there it is!"
Southern Spain gave him a first taste of Islamic architecture. Strange interiors, repressive; the Arab and Christian histories all mixed up. At Cordoba, a church within one of the biggest mosques in the Islamic world. He visited the many cathedrals, gardens and mosaics in each town. "I liked the abstract designs until I had seen too much of them!"
From Malaga by bus and slow ferry to Morocco, Westmoreland stayed in exotic hotels and drove for days into the northern Sahara.
December 2007, back in Australia, buzzing with images, figures surfaced with a vengeance, gesturing, pointing hands from the paintings, "Probably just as when we were constantly moving, in Southern Spain and Morocco, people were active, always with something to do, yet they also seemed to have much time to sit and gesture amongst themselves too. It wasn't deliberate to paint about the trip. Not at all. It was such a rich visual experience it simply entered and remained in my thinking." These paintings cross over, Venetian compositions mimicked in a different landscape.
Westmoreland is interested in difference; right or wrong, happy or sad. "We were rich, they were poor. After that trip I became a little obsessed with watching current affairs news reports on TV. The images presented to us by reporters of unimaginable war torn situations." These became indirectly tied in with the more intuitive images in his paintings.
"When I paint, the act of painting, the need to roll with the painting dictates what occurs on the canvas. My decisions about colour, the image itself, whatever I am drawing into the painting, when I am at my best, it's automatic."
The grand size of the paintings in this exhibition is necessary. The transformation of Westmoreland's work in these first mature period paintings (he is 37) calls for the expanded space to show off his fusion of dazzling colour, beautiful paint and interest in the play of light and shadow. In each painting the fractured space so ingeniously used, works on the eye, along with the intellect.
Ostensibly, these paintings are about daylight and moonlight. They slowly reveal that they are also about the many possibilities of painting.