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Brian Blanchflower — Canopies, exhibition and catalogue essay

The tactile, free-hanging paintings of Brain Blanchflower’s Canopy series provoke contemplation of celestial expanses and unpictured energies that resonate without and within. Blanchflower describes this ongoing series, spanning more than 30 years, as a personal exploration of the origins of the universe: “It had always seemed to me, since experiencing the works of Constable, Turner and Palmer in the 1950’s, that the sky (or space) was the supreme subject matter for painting, allowing the medium its greatest freedom.”

The Drill Hall showed Brian Blanchflower – Canopies, curated by Terence Maloon and Tony Oates, in 2016. Ian McLean’s catalogue essay Canopy: Brian Blanchflower’s immanent sublime is reproduced here, accompanied by a selection of installation images. It is an essay that explores Blanchflower’s oeuvre in the light of the transcendental capacities of painterly language, grounded to earth and embodied by its very materiality.

Canopy: Brian Blanchflower’s immanent sublime
by Ian McLean

‘A wise man looks on himself as a citizen of the world; and when you ask him where his country lies, points, like Anaxagoras, with his finger to the heavens.’
— Bolingbroke (1716)1

‘If we call the sight of the starry heaven sublime, we must not found our estimate of it upon any concepts of worlds inhabited by rational beings, with the bright spots, which we see fi lling the space above us, as their suns … But we must take it, just as it strikes the eye, as a broad and all-embracing canopy: and it is merely under such a representation that we may posit the sublimity which the pure aesthetic judgement att ributes to this object.’
— Kant (1790)2

Graduating from the Brighton College of Art in 1961, Brian Blanchflower belongs to that generation of artists who had to find its way in the footsteps of Pollock, Newman and Rothko. He was also drawn to their European counterpart Asger Jorn, to the nineteenth-century visionary mystics and practitioners of the sublime William Blake and Samuel Palmer, and also that most empirical observer of sweeping skies, John Constable. Most important, however, were the Neolithic landscapes of southern England – those mysterious stone circles and megaliths, chalk carvings and burial mounds amongst which he had been raised. Their ancestrality had cast a spell on his consciousness. At art school he became interested in speculations that these geographical imprints of a lost age were nodes in a network of cosmic meridians, as if the countryside was connected by something akin to Aboriginal songlines. Intent on experiencing this ancestral presence more deeply, Blanchflower made several extended walking trips in southwest England and Wales. To feel the country’s underlying energy and being, rather than simply perceive its look, he took to drawing at night under the moonlight, becoming increasingly interested in the night sky as if there were some enigmatic correspondence between it and the earth below.

This was not as strange as it might seem, given the celestial reverberations of Neolithic land art and the starry aura of Palmer’s ‘twilight painted into the night’.3 ‘The whole point’ of these ancient megaliths, said Blanchflower, is ‘that they are there pointing up’4 to the sky, as if its jeweled halo encoded esoteric knowledge. In conceiving the stars as a canopy wrapped round the earth, Blanchflower envisaged them as a threshold between the known and unknown and thus the obscure vestige of ultimate truths shining their pale light from the beginning of time. This set him on that universal quest to fathom the sublime reaches of the heavens.

This was hardly a new quest. Art was originally made to probe such cosmological questions. In the modern age this perennial theme has been mainly addressed through the aesthetic idea of the sublime. It offered a way for artists to escape both the cultural strictures of the beautiful (taste) and the limits of naturalism – in order to comprehend a scale that was beyond human comprehension. ‘Sublime is the name given to what is absolutely great’5 – by which Kant meant it was beyond measure (quantification) or comparison and therefore unrepresentable: it ‘transcends every standard of sense’.6 Kant thus went further than earlier philosophers, arguing that the sublime could not even be found in ‘the things of nature’. Rather, it was produced in the infinity of the imagination.7 Thus the sublime (from the Latin sublimare, to raise up) is a thoroughly transcendental category. This established the fundamental conundrum of modern art: how to represent the unrepresentable; or how to posit the sublime in the aesthetic schemas or language of art?

Language is like the sublime in that it also is a transcendental operation: its systems of signifi cation are autonomous and lift its subject from mute existence into a cognitive realm of social meaning. While the poet or artist often understands her job as undoing or unlocking the ‘iron cage’ of language in order to free her subject from its representation, this ironic mode of art requires the artist to be master of the language she means to deconstruct.

Thus it is a game that can only be played within the transcendental operations of language. The sublime, however, is no ordinary subject, as it already transcends language: it always escapes representation. Language or art’s aesthetic schemas cannot hold it. The problem for the artist then, is not one of representation or its deconstruction, but of how to side-step its operations. For this reason many artists of Blanchflower’s generation initially sought to avoid aesthetic manoeuvres altogether, returning the making of art to its bare material practices before they hardened into signifi cation. Unless these practices were sufficiently labile, it was thought, the sublime would not take residence. This is why the mark-making in Blanchflower’s early paintings of the Canopy series retain an abject or undifferentiated quality, as if the blobs of paint refuse to morph into signs. His was an immanent sublime that held fast to the operations of its production.

Kant’s writing on the sublime was important to modern artists for another reason. In concluding that the sublime was to art what reason was to critical thought, he established for art an epistemology, and with it a disciplinary respectability. The sublime promised a universe of knowledge that only art could access. No wonder Blanchflower, like so many other artists since the late eighteenth century, took up the cause of the sublime. If Blanchflower initially abjured aesthetic operations, why did the development of his painting since the early 1980s, from its early painterly abject abstraction to the more minimal esoteric arrangements of the later work, appear to travel deeper and deeper into the aesthetic realm of formalism? Indeed, this development is easily (but mistakenly) identified with the teleological project of late modernism, which in utopian spirit sought a universal aesthetic language with which to represent the sublime.

Blanchflower’s journey as an artist began at the end of modernism – that is, at the endpoint of its teleology and the loss of faith in art’s aesthetic assurances. His entry point as an artist was postmodernism’s ontological questioning rather than modernism’s concerns with style or aesthetics. He sought to escape this one-way street by breaking out into the earth and sky. For example, The Four Squares (1965) – its four primary-coloured monochrome panels being a typical example of modernism’s endpoint – was later disassembled and dispersed into the countryside as Four Dimensions (1971). Much like the mirrors in Robert Smithson’s Mirror Displacement series, its constituent panels were placed into various natural settings and photographed, investing them with mystery and a certain gravitas. Like many emerging artists at this time, Blanchflower desired to start again at some zero point that took its compass from an ontological position prior to art. His questions were cosmological not aesthetic, and it is only from these questions that we can fully appreciate the achievement of his abstract series of paintings called Canopy.

By 1972, when Blanchflower migrated to Australia with his Australian wife, he had become deeply interested in the mysteries of space as both a metaphor and a literal window on those ultimate questions that underpin cosmological speculation. ‘Looking up at the magnificent night skies … confirmed my belief that the further we look out there, the further we are looking into ourselves – into our own past as well as the past of the whole physical Universe.’8 Not unexpectedly, in Australia as in England he found his beliefs confirmed in the most ancient rather than in modern art. ‘Looking long and hard’ at the art of his newly adopted country, ‘it was only in the rock-painting and land-art of the Aborigine’ that he recognised ‘any fully realised concept of wholeness [cosmos] – a deeply moving expression of the relationship of earth to sky and of humankind to both.’9

While stargazing left Blanchflower with a sense of awe, he was not searching for a transcendental experience beyond the mortal coil but for something immanent in the physical world, as if the dust fallen from the heavens contained in its molecular structure answers he sought.

Like Richard Long (b. 1945), who several years after him also walked the moors of southern England asking similar cosmological questions, he knew that to represent the landscape as Western artists had been doing for several centuries would occlude rather than make visible his subject. His quest challenged ‘the language of painting’ in which he had been trained: ‘I began [from 1972] to use any material to hand that seemed relevant’, including stones, salt crystals, hessian, paint, animal bones, fire, bitumen, PVC sheets, leather, honey and dirt. One consequence was that the ‘wide range of largely unmixed colour I had been using in London, began to seep away into the earth and sky. I was left with a residue of black, brown, grey and white.10 Another consequence is that this use of diff erent materials steered him away from painting and towards assemblages and installations, which became increasingly evident in his practice from the mid-1970s.

Instead of thinking in terms of formal relations, codes of representation and imagery, Blanchflower increasingly thought operationally. He compared his art to an antenna that receives signals from elsewhere and even else when – from primordial events in deep space – that required him to tune into the signal. He sought to concentrate energy in a particular area that tapped into this ancientness, and he looked for guidance in archaic land art, which he believed develops a resonance (force field or energy) between material, structure, site and viewer. Ancient land artworks were ceremonial sites, thus he also understood his practice as a type of action that calls the viewer into the circle of meaning, as if the artwork comes into being only when a participant hears the signal into which the artist has tuned: ‘it is very much to do with the interaction of the person [artist/viewer] and the site. That’s where the power comes into a thing.’11 Whatever the orchestra is playing, the concert only comes alive in the listener as an embodied event, as its chords resonate in the ear.

Blanchflower had become part of a new generation of artists who took to the desert and other remote sites to work with materials at hand including their own bodies – a trend that at the time Robert Pincus-Witt en dubbed Postminimalism.12 By the early 1980s Blanchflower’s paintings – an alchemical mix of various elemental materials impregnated on canvas, hessian or jute – were gaining some interest from a small number of contemporary art curators as a representative of this new trend, though the interest never built into sustained attention.13

While Postminimalism is primarily a sculptural practice, Blanchflower was a painter in search for a way to make paintings after the end of modernism’s aestheticising frame. His installations and assemblages generally centred around a large monochrome canvas – the archetype of late modernism – hung on the wall before which various objects were laid on the floor so that the whole assemblage looked like an altar. David Bromfield singled out Leedermeg (1979) as a turning point in this process, not just because of its performative format but more importantly because it introduced a new ‘slow “natural” rhythm’ to his painting, making it the site of an event: ‘He soaks raw materials in primers and pigments and slowly builds up an elaborate image over their surface.’14

Leedermeg was, in part, the culmination of community action against a freeway development in the inner Perth suburb of Leederville. The freeway’s construction had uncovered a solidified plug of tailings and other detritus that had been dumped into a mineshaft decades earlier. Too difficult to remove, it was left beside the road as if ‘an unrealised monument’ (it was later removed when the freeway was widened). This impressive abject pile of modernity’s excrement reminded Blanchflower of a Neolithic megalith. Declaring it ‘an important sacred object’, it became his muse. ‘I pass it almost every day and I have visited it on the occasions of the Summer and Winter Solistices and Equinoxes … several of my artworks are derived from it.’ Naming it Leedermeg, he made it the site of a ritualised dawn ceremony, with himself dressed in black and his wife in silver, each with a matching ladder. On the ladders they climbed to the top of this modern megalith and poured nine kilos of honey down its side as the sun rose catching the honey in the angled light. ‘Honey was chosen’, said Blanchflower, ‘because it was used in fertility rites at some of the ancient Megalithic sites in Europe.’ 15

The previous year Blanchflower had visited a stone circle at Kunturu, an Aboriginal sacred site on a salt lake in the western Gibson Desert. Kunturu, which means ‘curled up’, refers to the large serpentine ceremonial stone assemblage near the only permanent spring in the area. Its 437 blade-like stones (up to 60 cm high), like teeth in the salt bed, comprise an elongated spiral that twists out like a spring from a coiled centre.16 The stones formed a stage prop for painted initiates who not long ago had danced and sang the snake out of its waterhole. Rearing into the sky, it created the storm clouds from which fell the rain that replenished the earth.

Kunturu’s black stone arrangement on the vast fl at white encrusted salt directly inspired Blanchflower’s Homage to Kunturu, which was first exhibited in Perth in June 1982 and the next year in Tokyo in an exhibition of contemporary Australian artists. It comprised over 60 black vertical shards of rock like those at Kunturu. They stood in a row against a dark cott on cloth tacked horizontally onto a wall, while red dirt and more rocks were laid in symmetrical fashion upon a large dirty battered hessian cloth on the floor. This use of formal elements for suggestive performative effect was also evident in another major installation conceived at this time, Tursiops, which was shown at the Art Gallery of Western Australia in February 1982. If both these elaborate installations looked like an archaeological site in which remnants of ancient events were being unearthed and investigated, they could also be the stage for some esoteric ritual in which shamans call forth ancestral spirits. However, more important was the inherent ambivalence of these installations. Nothing was explicit. While appearing deeply meaningful, any didactic meaning or iconography was withheld, as if Blanchflower was deliberately mythologizing not de-mythologising. Homage to Kunturu thus appears as a vestige or trace of a hidden or even lost truth. In this way he mined the performative virtues of ritualised events for sublime effects that operate beyond language.

These two contemporaneous installations were another turning point for Blanchflower, as following them he re-focused on painting, firstly in the Nocturne series. According to Bromfield, Homage to Kunturu

marks the liberating realisation that the canvas is no longer in any sense a privileged site of representation of the world rather just another arena for the concentration of meaning within nature. From this time on Blanchflower tends to tack his paintings [canvases] directly to the wall rather than stretching them or framing them in any way.’17

From this point onwards the sublime, in Kant’s sense of ‘absolute greatness’, became the central subject of Blanchflower’s art. In 1985 some of the paintings he began in 1982 were re-worked to become the first of his Canopy series. Now numbering over 70 paintings, it is the principle vehicle by which Blanchflower sought to approach the sublime. Being beyond the sensory, the sublime cannot be pictured or represented. Turner pictured the most fiery sunsets but the flooding light that creates the sublime effects of his paintings is evocative rather than descriptive. The Canopy paintings might also be seen as evocative, but more like Palmer’s paintings they invoke or summon the sublime, as if it is a spirit to be called forth. The painting is a type of incantation in which the ancestral, in the form of the sublime, appears. It does not appear in the painting as an apparition or image, but takes full possession of it so that each is, like a holy icon, one and the same, each immanent in the other. In this respect the autonomy of the painting is complete: it references nothing but its own appearance.

More like a force field than elements of a signifying system, the paintings are akin to what Derrida called the nothing that is outside the text (a nothing that increasingly interested him in his later life) and thus outside language. This nothing is that chaos out of which order emerges, as if the order of language is a desublimation of a primordial stutter. Kant called the sublime an ‘aesthetic idea’, by which he meant it was the animating force of the mind’s cognitive operations. An aesthetic idea, he said, puts the ‘mind into a play’: it ‘induces thought … without [allowing] the possibility of any defi nite thought … i.e. concept … and which language, consequently, can never get quite on level terms with or render completely intelligible.’18

Thus the Canopy series returned even more deeply to what Blanchflower had initially fl ed: an aesthetic operation. Paradoxically, in seeking a way out of formalism Blanchflower’s paintings boomeranged back into its aesthetic logic. But the return was for ontological, not stylistic, reasons. Thus rather than moving away from the exemplary aestheticised space of painting, as it first appeared, the assemblages, installations and performances of the latter 1970s and early 1980s opened a way for him to move back into painting. Many artists at this time followed a similar pattern, but few returned to painting with the conviction and belief of Blanchflower.

In his installations of 1982 Blanchflower had finally found his subject. By shifting painting’s conventional verticality on the wall to the horizontal stage of the ground, he had – very much in the spirit of Informe19 – found a new way to conceive the aesthetic space of painting. Rosalind Krauss defined Informe as:

a matter of thinking the concept operationally, as a process of ‘alteration’, in which there are no essentialised or fixed terms, but only energies within a force field, energies that, for example, operate on the very words that mark the poles of that field in such a way as to make them incapable of holding fast the terms of any opposition.20

The success of Blanchflower’s paintings lies in the subtle shifts that occur across a spectrum of basic formal properties, from the textural to the chromatic and tonal. These shifts operate informally rather than formally, without any prescriptions – a never-ending exchange that never resolves or comes to rest in a final synthesis. These are slow paintings, lovingly nurtured into existence. The artist is not working to a plan but waiting for something unexpected – some new feeling – to appear from within the movements of form and light. When that particular movement or journey comes to a turning point, the ancestral is present and the painting is finished. Blanchflower calls it ‘a rather crucial point’,21 but it is just a pause in the perpetual passage of time. This pause or delay in which the unrepresentable slips into presentation is also a highly dangerous moment as its sublime formlessness is threatened with signification. To catch it in the materiality of its production is the most Blanchflower can hope for.

Further, each painting is like a fragment that gestures to a larger whole. Despite their size and apparent autonomy, the paintings exist collectively or architecturally, rather than as framed objects that take their meaning with them when lifted – like some portable commodity – from one wall to another. Thus in the exhibition we find ourselves between the paintings rather than gazing at them singly as if they were objects outside of us. Hence the exhibition must be walked as much as seen; its meaning depends on the light and angle from which you approach, making you an inextricable part of whatever aesthetic ideas come into play. In this way meaning accumulates; like a conversation it is layered. The experience has a temporality, a pace and rhythm, and even a sound – each painting is like an instrument in an orchestral pit we are free to walk through, as if our movement, striking different notes and chords as we move past, creates a temporal dimension to our experience of the work. This might be an aesthetic experience, but it is a fully embodied one and thus simultaneously cultural and natural.

Blanchflower’s insight was that the aesthetic idea returned art to life, not to art or culture, and thus not to the social life which so much radical art of the twentieth century has sought to embrace and critique, but to the natural life of bush-walking and star-gazing in which we come up against fundamental forces of the universe and the limits of human domination.22 The Canopy series demonstrates that art is an aesthetic idea, or what Kant calls ‘intuition’ as opposed to reason. If it is to be a welcoming home for the ancestral, it must take on the guise of nature – the creation of ‘a second nature out of the material supplied to it by actual nature.’23

A product of fine art must be recognised as art and not as nature. Nevertheless, the finality in its form must appear just as free from the constraint of arbitrary rules as if it were a product of nature. … Nature proved beautiful when it wore the appearance of art; and art can only be termed beautiful, where we are conscious of its being art, while yet it has the appearance of nature.24

Adorno put it this way: ‘The pure expression of artworks, freed from everything … even from everything so-called natural, converges with nature just as in Webern’s most authentic works the pure tone … reverses dialectically into a natural sound.’25 So too the pure tone of Blanchflower’s paintings converges into a natural light. The measure of this convergence is that one intuitively feels the painting’s greatness or sublimity, not because it is necessarily better or more likeable than other art, but because it expresses with conviction the mystery or secret of creation. In so doing it claims its immortality, its ability to recreate itself across the generations, to remain alive, not fixed in the moment if its original creation or beholden to the artist’s intention. This ultimately is what all great things share; their greatness is the aura of their coming-into-being, or continuous self-creation, or sustained contemporaneity – their perpetual, immanent sublimity.

Greatness puts us in the realm of the sublime not the beautiful. The sublime does not derive from the pleasing colours, graceful shadings and forms we universally admire in art and nature, but is something felt deep and viseral rather than merely seen. This is what Adorno meant when he wrote: ‘The “How beautiful!” at the sight of a landscape insults its mute language … nature can in a sense only be seen blindly’.26

‘Ultimately’, wrote Adorno, ‘aesthetic comportment is to be defined as the capacity to shudder, as if goose bumps were the first aesthetic image.’27 It is, he speculated, an afterimage of the ‘primordial shudder’ felt ‘at one time by human beings in their powerlessness against nature’.28 This bodily shudder before the sublime, which washes through our entire body like an orgasm, ‘is the act of being touched by the other’.29 It is, in the end, the subject of Blanchflower’s Canopy series. They are chromatic tremors of an invisible presence, like gravity waves from colliding black holes registered on some physicist’s instrument.

When I first encountered the Canopy paintings as a series in a survey exhibition at Curtin University in 2002, their sublimity – their greatness – threw me. It seemed to me that Blanchflower had missed the postmodern turn and its affair with the image, which was only compounded by the digital age then rapidly securing its hegemony. The idea of critique had replaced that of the sublime. I concluded – in an unpublished review – that the exhibition was ‘the final flowering of an idea that has outlived its usefulness’, but I also suggested that it might gain new relevance ‘as the idea of nature regains the awe and power it once had due to the ecological crisis and the increasing wonder biologists, physicists and astronomers discover there’.

With the recent emergence of new materialism in philosophy and art, largely in response to climate change, the latter now seems possible. Its erasures of the binaries by which reason operates, the digital world exists and the image claims its epistemological value, has given new relevance to the sublime, but as an immanent rather than transcendental category. The absolute entanglement of matter and meaning in the Canopy paintings has new ontological traction in artworld discourse, though I am not expecting Blanchflower to take much notice. He has long had his raison d’être and needs no other.

Professor Ian McLean
Senior Research Professor of Contemporary Art
University of Wollongong


Adorno, Theodore (1997), Aesthetic Theory, ed. Gretel Adorno, & Rolf Tiedemann trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: The Athlone Press).Bois, Yve-Alain and Rosalind Krauss (1997), Formless: A user’s guide (New York: Zone Books).

Bolingbroke, Lord (1967), ‘Reflections Upon Exile’, The Works of Lord Bolingbroke (vol. 1; London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd), 181–200.

Bromfield, David, with contributions by Bob Brighton, Anthony Bond and Brian

Blanchflower (1989), Brian Blanchflower Works 1961–1989 (Crawley: University of Western Australia).

Gould, Richard A., and Elizabeth B. Gould (1968), ‘Kunturu, an Aboriginal Sacred Site on Lake Moore, Western Australia’, American Museum Novitates, (2327, June 21), 1–17.

Kant, Immanuel (1952), The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Krauss, Rosalind (1996), ‘“Informe” without Conclusion’, October, 78 (Autumn), 89–105.

Pincus-Witt en, Robert (1978), Postminimalism (New York: Out of London Press).


1 Lord Bolingbroke, at 185.

2 Immanuel Kant, at 121–22.

3 Brian Blanchflower, in Bromfield et al, at 88.

4 Ibid., at 98.

5 Kant, at 94.

6 Ibid., at 98.

7 Ibid., at 97.

8 Blanchflower, in Bromfield et al, at 10.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., at 9–10.

11 Ibid., at 85.

12 Robert Pincus-Witten.

13 Anthony Bond, in Bromfield et al, at 76.

14 David Bromfield, in ibid., at 45.

15 Brian Blanchflower, in ibid., at 44.

16 Kunturu is likely a Kaalamaya (the now extinct language of the Kaprun people) word. Old men in the area revealed its meaning to archaeologists in 1968. See Gould and Gould.

17 Bromfield, in Bromfield, at 48.

18 Kant, at 175–76.

19 Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss.

20 Rosalind Krauss, ‘“Informe” without Conclusion’, at 98–99.

21 Blanchfl ower, in Bromfi eld, at 93.

22 Theodore Adorno, at 70.

23 Kant, at 176.

24 Ibid., at 166–67.

25 Adorno, at 79.

26 Ibid., at 69.

27 Ibid., at 331.

28 Ibid., at 79.

29 Ibid., at 331.

Install photos by Rob Little

The catalogue is available for purchase online here.

The Drill Hall Gallery acknowledges the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country.