Stephen Bram: Nothing is more real than the abstract

“Many of the shapes seemed deliberately imprecise, and even those that most nearly represented architectural ruins or abandoned artefacts were of no style known from history. But commentators could point to a score of details that seemed to comprise a scene of grandiose desolation—and then, stepping back, could see once again a painting of plants and soil.”

— Gerald Murnane, The Plains

In his book The Plains, novelist Gerald Murnane reimagines an Australia turned topsy-turvy. The “plainsmen”, who live in “Inner Australia”, are cultured and genteel: they live on grand estates with private libraries and their own art galleries, and resist the crass mercantile culture of the coastline of “Outer Australia”. This is a world where culture is the most important thing in life, where philosophy is discussed at the bar and where landowners see it as their duty to employ aspiring young filmmakers and art historians. This is not a world that exists anywhere in reality, but it plays sufficiently at the depths of our minds to become one we come to recognise—a world of unspoken dreams and inverted histories.

For more than three decades Stephen Bram has been working at the limits of abstract painting. His world, like fellow Melburnian Murnane’s in The Plains, is turned upside down: the inner becomes the outer, the flat becomes the three-dimensional, and the stories we’ve long told ourselves about painting come undone.

In Bram’s case, the story is not about Australia but about The Story of Art. All his paintings, from the smallest of them of the early ‘90s to the largest of the 2010s, reimagine one of art history’s central conceits: that there is a difference between abstraction and representation. His paintings exist both on the canvas and also outside of them, representing figments of larger three-dimensional spaces.

The scale of his early paintings is one way of turning things upside down, leaving far more wall than painting. Staring through the window of Hamish McKay Gallery during New Zealand’s lockdown you saw just four paintings from the early-mid ‘90s, the largest of which was a diminutive 400mm high. Had the stir-crazy locked-down dealer forgotten how to hang paintings? No, he simply knew how to hang Bram’s.

These tiny canvases are covered in abstract forms in green, red, brown, black and cream. There are taut parallelograms and elongated diamonds with jagged edges. Elsewhere a thick red line meanders across the painting, connecting and dividing the other shapes. You naturally move close to these works, given their petiteness; you want to enter into their space and examine their shapes and colours. As you do, figure and ground begin to interchange.

On the level of abstraction, painters like Imi Knoebel and Helmut Federle come to mind—painters whose artworks are similarly sleek, yet have lost the utopianism of earlier generations of abstractionists. This is abstraction after abstraction lost its claims upon the “end of the history of art”, and each painter, perhaps Bram most of all, is still thinking about what comes next. Can abstraction ever move forward, or is it chasing its own tail from here on out—getting dizzier and dizzier as it does so?

Bram’s answer comes when, stepping back, these little paintings ‘switch’. Suddenly you’re no longer looking at abstracted shapes and subtle colours on the canvas surface, and instead you’re looking into and outside of the painting. An architectural space opens up, so that now the paintings exist in the tradition of Brunelleschi, Uccello and Mantegna rather than Malevich and Mondrian. Bram’s arrangement of shapes is in fact created according to the laws of two-point perspective, so that what we’re looking at is a segment of a larger field of perspectival vision.

The paintings’ vanishing points are placed outside of the canvas surface, so we are not shown the full space. But so ingrained in us are the laws of perspective that our minds fill in the missing space, and a painting like Untitled — (Two point perspective) from 1995 seems to depressurise, like an explosion in the mind’s eye, to fill the whole wall. No frames, for these paintings—they need as much space as Hamish McKay gives them in his gallery.

In his magnum opus art historian David Summers differentiates between “real space” (the book’s title) and “virtual space”. Real space is “the space we find ourselves sharing with other people and things,” while virtual space is “represented on a surface, space we ‘seem to see’”. “We always encounter a virtual space in a real space,” says Summers, and Bram’s paintings make us hyper-conscious of this spatio-temporal aspect of art. We’re forced to choose, when we look at these works: forced to choose how we look at the paintings, and in what “space” we do so. The paintings give us both possibilities, but our minds don’t allow us to see both at once.

Bram himself has drawn attention to the “real space” of his art. “All of my work should be seen in relation to its spatial context,” he said in a 2001 interview, and some of his other works have taken different routes to force abstraction into the space we find ourselves in. His 2001 solo show in Germany presented Oberföringer Straße 156, a three-dimensional attempt at the same ideas, forcing objects to act both as “specific objects” and to represent space outside themselves. Architectural interventions in the gallery space were constructed so that leaning walls would meet (theoretically) above and outside of the building itself—their “vanishing points” invisible, in other words. From these installations to his 30-odd years of painting within this narrow range of forms, Bram’s works add significantly to the possible directions of contemporary abstraction.

Neither Gerald Murnane’s nor Stephen Bram’s spaces really exist. Illusionistic and amorphous, the virtual spaces they construct (their plains) force us to reconsider the real spaces we inhabit—whether that’s a country itself or a white cube gallery in Wellington, New Zealand. There’s something particularly helpful about this, in pandemic times. In the monotony of lives reduced to a smaller-than-ever set of spaces and faces and colours and forms, seeing Bram’s punchy little paintings quarantined in the gallery window was like a burst of energy as they expanded far outside the confines of their canvases.

Giorgio Morandi’s often-quoted quip that “nothing is more abstract than reality” came to mind while viewing these four paintings, as their shapes began to bend and blur. Bram’s works seemed to retort, with a smile and a knowing nod: “true, and at the same time, nothing more real than the abstract.”