Don Brown, artist, on the new moon.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
DB I thought for quite a long time about what I find beautiful, I suppose my ideas of beauty are constantly evolving and changing and I thought it would be nice to find something that remains continuously beautiful to me. It suddenly struck me that there’s that incredible moment when you’re walking through London and in the dark sky you suddenly notice that tiny fingernail in the sky, it takes your breath away to some extent. It also inspires hope, like a little version of spring every month. I wonder if there’s something biological about our love for the new moon because it signifies the return of the light: being able to see at night would have been incredibly important thousands of years ago.
GB So you think it’s universally beautiful?
DB That was uppermost in my mind when you asked me the question. There are thousands of objects that I find beautiful, but taste plays a big part. They come in and out of fashion in my mind. Also, one assumes that taste is incredibly personal, but with the moon in particular, I can’t imagine someone saying that they don’t like it.
GB Do you like to see the moon during the day?
DB I do but technically we don’t see the new moon during the day as it actually occurs in the middle of the day when the sun is reflecting on the moon and the earth at exactly the same time and so it would be invisible. I guess what I mean by the new moon is the first time you notice it after it hasn’t been around for a few days. For me, the most beautiful time is during dusk, and you’re suddenly aware of this almost invisible slither of silver. It takes you out of whatever dimension you happen to be in, driving along the A12 or something. It puts me into another state of mind.
GB Do you like to see things in moonlight?
DB Yes, that’s another part of why I chose it. There’s this optimism that the light is coming back at night but also there are those incredible moments in the later phase of the moon when you step out into a still night and everything is cast in black and white.
GB Your work looks like it’s bathed in moonlight.
DB That’s a lovely thing to hear. I haven’t really shown them but for the last couple of years I’ve been painting in black and white. I’ll take a black canvas and work almost exclusively in white. I thought it was a good way of approaching painting, stripping down and simplifying the process. I’ve allowed the process to develop in its own way, with lots of abstract details like fingers running through hair, letting it take me where it goes. But they do look very much like they are in the light of those nights we’re talking about.
GB Your work is so incredibly detailed and yet you’ve chosen an object that’s so far away that we can barely see it.
DB There’s the idea that artists are striving to make something beautiful but there’s something about a natural object that’s uncritically beautiful. It’s unauthored, it just exists. I almost chose an egg for that reason. I hope that some of my better works also have something approaching that inscrutable quality, but the moon undoubtedly does.
GB How do you feel about the fact we’ve been up there?
DB I’m quite ambivalent about that. In some ways, when I was younger it excited me, I loved the lunar module as an object that’s is so utterly stripped down with no room for decoration. But on the other hand, I find that the idea of people going to the moon slightly spoils the awe that it inspires in me. But that moment of apprehension of the moon from wherever I’m standing and the conceptual knowledge that I have about the moon are two completely separate things. There’s this moment of seeing the incredible crystal light that takes me away from whatever else I’m thinking about.
GB Would you go to the moon if you could?
DB No, I don’t think I would go, and I think the idea of commercial travel to the moon sullies my particular view. I’d have to choose a distant star as a beautiful object if people were up there.
GB Do you think that beauty got a bit lost in art over the past hundred years?
DB Yes, that’s why I like the idea of this project and why it seems so optimistic. In view of the state of the world right now, it’s really important to make things that draw attention to issues, but there are things beyond those issues that need to be kept in sight and balance, and beauty is surely one of them. Like when World War Two was raging and Churchill refused to cut funding to the National Gallery because, as he said, “Then what would we be fighting for?” I hope that story’s true.
GB Do you ever feel like artists are making a specific effort to not be beautiful?
DB Well I question that because Gauguin’s works probably looked so awkward in his day, but they became beautiful to many people over time. In the right light or under the right conditions anything can be beautiful, even a virus. It really is a question of perspective. With my own work, beauty is uppermost in my mind and I do take your point that’s it’s a seemingly unfashionable position to be taking. There is a need at certain times to distance ourselves from the prevailing ideals of beauty. Look at punk, for example. People thought they were making themselves as unattractive as possible, but now, after so many years, those kids look beautiful in Derek Ridgers’ pictures.
GB And is that the same kind of beauty as the moon?
DB There’s that notion of the sublime. There’s something I find a little startling about the moon, an element of trepidation. I distract myself all the time with various concerns and then there’s this thing just sitting there that can’t be colonised by culture. Staring out into space and being awed by its beauty does bring with it some trepidation and anxiousness and I wonder if something has to have that element to be truly beautiful. There is a mini epiphany every time that you look at the moon. A sentimental feeling towards an object is quite a different thing. Culture somehow distances us from the real beauty of things. Where I come from, there’s a beautiful beach. So, all this stuff grew up for people who went to appreciate the beach like arcades and casinos and now the beach seems to be ignored. How do you bring people back to the core of why they’re there, and see that beauty again?
GB How do you feel about random strangers in a museum looking at your art?
DB I don’t know. I hesitate to say anything about this, but yes it is something that I think about a lot. I’ve spent time this week taking my children to museums. We went to the British Museum about five times, learning about Hindu culture, and that reminded me of where I started. Looking at the Hindu sculptures of those amazing curved bodies and that simple truth that we love to look at these beautiful lithe young men and women. I think that we’ve always had an ambivalent approach to the human figure in art, certain religions ban it for example and yet on the other hand we have the pure materialism of the later Greeks – I’ve heard it said that whatever we look at we are searching out the lines of the human body – I guess for me it has always been a key component of art making, but of course it is a contentious subject and becoming more so.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
DB It’s a question of perspective, not just of mood. I’d say it’s that slight touch of trepidation, of inscrutability; it can’t be simply processed.