Brett McMahon’s eye of the needle and his art

TONAL: Brett McMahon at the University of Newcastle, where he is a painting lecturer, stands with some of his recent works.
TONAL: Brett McMahon at the University of Newcastle, where he is a painting lecturer, stands with some of his recent works.

“YOU have got to walk back through the eye of the needle to really discover who you are,” says Newcastle artist Brett McMahon.

He is describing the process of exploring early life experiences, those that come back to imbue his work. 

First there is the drawing, something which has been with him since childhood.

“I’ve always drawn. My uncle was a drawer,” McMahon said. “There is this drawing linage that goes through my father’s side of the family. 

“My son, Ariel, has it as well. He is a pen and ink drawer.” 

“I guess that’s why my work is predominately black and white, it’s all about that background of drawing.” 

There are other more obscure experiences that flow into the work – time spent in Indonesia’s dyeing factories. McMahon visited them while employed as an artist for surf company Kuta Lines.

But the most evident influence is his childhood coastal environment. 

McMahon grew up in Whitebridge and was a keen surfer at Redhead. At about 19, with out any formal art training, he set up an art studio in his parent’s backyard.  

“I can distinctly remember a time when I went ‘I’m really going to give this a go and really focus on this’”. 

“I felt like I really had to work hard, I had a lot of catching up to do and I was conceptually naive.

“I had to commit and develop work ethic around my work.

“I was lucky enough to have a couple of artists from Sydney take an interest in my work.” 

He moved to Sydney, by which time painting had become part of his practice. He was eventually signed to Ray Hughes Gallery. 

“They were very productive years. I was living in the city and the works were around city based subjects,” he said. “Surry Hills, Darlinghurst, Newtown, that was my world for all that time. 

“Things changed when I began to spend more time up here [Newcastle] and began to explore the landscape of when I was a kid.”

Revisiting the Awabakal Nature Reserve, Dudley and Redhead triggered an new appreciation.

“As an adult you realise how beautiful it is and what a special bit of coastal bush is there,” McMahon said. 

“And there was the rock platform which I never explored as a kid cause I was too busy looking at the surf. 

“Rocks were just something between me and the water.”

These themes and ideas are still developing within his current body of work and McMahon said there will be more works on these ideas to come. 

McMahon will bring an exhibition of new works Intertidal to Cooks Hill Galleries from May 4-28.