In defence of David Bromley: The art of selling-out
As I sit down to write this piece, one of Australia’s most successful living artists, or 'sell-out' as some would provocatively argue, David Bromley premiers his latest collaboration with a 'feature documentary' entitled ‘Bromley: Light after Dark’ at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre.
The world Bromley inhabits is large like the man himself, full he will tell you of boundless possibilities. But the artist readily admits that it doesn’t always seem this way. There are voices that play inside his head, long-held demons that once led him down a dark road of addiction and paranoia. Bromley often imagined that people would cross the street to avoid him. In hindsight, he doesn't blame them.
And while his demons are nowdays delicately embraced as an integral part of his life-long narrative, they no longer define him - thanks in no small part to the love and enthusiasm for life shared with his wife Yuge and their young family.
But Bromley represents much more to our culture than just another story of triumph over adversary, as laudable as that is in this case. His art reaches beyond the confines of the artworld, seeming to creep into our daily lives, or more to the point pop up all over the place, adorning laneways and café walls, lining reclaimed buildings, staring at us from festive posters or lit across old pub exteriors.
To their admirers Bromley's paintings and sculptures are happy childlike images, celebrating innocence and beauty, and often shared histories. To others, mere mimicry of the Pop Art of artists like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, unashamed attempts to cash-in with repetitive, kitch imagery emblazoned across coffee mugs, t-shirts, bedlinen and even self-branded perfume at every opportunity.
David Bromley in his studio (2023) Photo: ABC
But to dismiss Bromley’s art as a brash exercise in making money (as at times I must regretfully admit to having done) is to misunderstand the broader role of art in our modern society, and Bromley’s art in particular.
Thirty-six years after his death, and more than fifty-six years after his rise as America's most famous Pop artist, Warhol remains an influential figure on the making and selling of art. As the similarly irrepressible artist Damien Hirst puts it, "Warhol really brought money into the equation. He made it acceptable for artists to think about money. In the world we live in today, money is a big issue. It's as big as love, maybe even bigger."
In a culture in thrall to advertising, marketing and celebrity, Warhol made art that mirrored that hyper-real world of commodification even as it critiqued it. His definition of the word artist was "someone who produces things that people don't need to have". He called his studio the Factory and his means of production defined the capitalist creed by which many successful younger artists now live. "Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art," he wrote. (Blake Gopnik, ‘Warhol’, Allen Lane, London 2020)
Today the co-existence of art and money is on full display at international art fairs and auction houses.
But for me, Bromley’s studio in the idyllic Victorian town of Daylesford provided a greater insight into how much the creative process has altered to accommodate the market.
Occupying two huge, hanger-like, rustic sheds on the outer eastern edge of the township Bromley was a few years back hosting at his studio a Sydney based artist-friend of mine, himself known for his demanding temperament.
On the day of my visit, Bromley emerged from among the piles of reclaimed furnishings, timber stacks, and old car bodies to warmly welcome me with a bracing handshake.
Bromley's studio was a factory of works in progress, paintings lining one wall, sculptures in various stages of completeness (including a magnificent larger-than-life stallion made from petrified wood), ornamental garden furniture strewn about and makeshift restorations that had progressed well with every good intention but had been abandoned for now for a new project.
David Bromley, 'Ally with Spring Blossoms' (2023). Photo: Bromley & Co
David Bromley, 'Valentine II' (2023). Photo: Bromley & Co
Bromley too had his assistants, shuffling large works from one place to another or out the door onto the back of waiting trucks. Bromley’s art is in high demand, being shipped all over the world. Despite the smell of dust and paint, it was very much a place being driven by the demands of the art market.
In the middle of all this mayhem sat a collection of worn sofas arranged to provide a space for family and friends to slow, sit and chat. In hindsight it was perhaps a time-saving thing to combine the business and the personal in the one place, as Bromley has so much going-on that time must be short.
Despite the air of frantic activity, Bromley's studio was an oddly relaxing place to be. It certainly didn’t smell of money. It was as far from being a showroom or pristine gallery as one could imagine.
David, Yuge and Keith in their Daylesford studio (2023). Photo: David Bromley
It struck me that Bromley’s work produced in a place such as this cannot be viewed fairly as a mercantile reflection of our material culture. It is not simply about making lots of money, although that bears no shame. It exuded the artist's warmth. Bromley’s bright and at times comic art in turn is not elitist, inaccessible or pretentious as a great deal of contemporary art can be.
Bromley’s art is made from back-breaking hard work, from highly emotion-charged ideas, fleeing the artist’s mind and finding a refuge in the various joyous art forms that stretched from end to end in front of me.
Suddenly the frenetic freeing up of studio space I witnessed made a whole lot more sense.
Like his art or loathe it, Bromley remains undoubtably a significant presence in Australian Contemporary Art and beyond.
'Bromley: Light after Dark' is screening at Palace Cinemas across Australia.
Main image: David and Yuge Bromley (2023)
Andrew McIlroy is an artist and writer, living and working in Melbourne, Australia