Anne Ryan on John Brack

Part of a series of new perspectives on portraiture commissioned for Archie Plus

John Brack

The telephone box

oil on canvas
Anonymous gift 2010. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program
© Helen Brack

This painting brings us claustrophobically close to a woman in a public telephone box. She is not dressed for the outside – such spiky hair clips are not normally on display. Constrained within a tight frame, eyes closed, oblivious to the rest of the world, she strains to speak into the mouthpiece.

Brack has painted a postwar urban neighbourhood with few trees and fewer amenities. It reflects the unvarnished reality of working-class Australian life in that period, when the private was often, necessarily, public. Today, COVID-era video calls intrude into our private spaces – enforced distance paradoxically bringing us into new intimacy with colleagues and friends.

Yet, while the burdens of everyday life in 2020 may be digitally shared, individual experience remains subjective and ultimately unknowable. That is the sober message of this tough yet brilliant portrait.

Anne Ryan, curator of Australian art and curator of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes 2020

View this work and more as part of the Gallery’s collection online