The other week a few of us drove over to the Brisbane studio of one Lance Bressow, a local painter who spent seven years in Florence studying under the inimitable Pietro Annigoni. Lance warmly welcomed us through his high, heavy wooden doors, a broad grin under his moustache, tirelessly greeting each new arrival with, ‘This is home!’ Home is, for Lance, a longish rectangular room, softly lit with only natural light from large, south-facing windows partly obscured by scraggly Australian bushes. The ceiling is high, and adjustable antique lamps hang on pulleys from the ceiling. The doors swing on ornate medieval hinges. The floor is covered in gloriously patterned green tiles, which extend into his paintings.
Infatuated with Annigoni as we are, we were positively yearning to hear anecdotes of Lance’s teacher during the sixties and seventies. A little sketch of his profile was pinned to a board within our view, a reworking of an old damaged drawing. Lance’s main inheritance from Annigoni, that passionate defender of drawing, however, is bound up in his materials: Lance uses only tempera, and when the weather cools down he’ll be inviting us to keep him company while he mixes egg and precious Italian pigment into luscious paint.
Most of his stories, then, revolve around bags of dirt from Sienna, and the intensities of orange or red in these sought-after browns. He spoke of going into Annigoni’s oft-frequented hardware store and, feeling cocky, asking for a bit of yellow ochre, only to learn that he was expected to have a preference out of the seven available yellow ochres. Other stories revolve around jazz—his punchlines are ever evasive, pilfered from a secondhand book of jazz anecdotes. He wanted us to come around specifically to see a painting he’d borrowed from a Brisbane school that he’d painted decades ago, in honour of his jazz-musician friend who was murdered by his lover’s jealous husband in his early twenties. The whole painting is wreathed in tragedy, the person who modelled for the body also winding up dead, the painting itself being mistreated and damaged and denied the light of day. Lance painted it in Florence—a young man, serious-faced, fingers laced around his gleaming saxophone, peering out from the abyss of a gaping black background. Lance is thrilled that he got to borrow a saxophone from the school to get a better glint to it, and busily explains to us the differences in modern and older instruments, caught up as ever in the mechanics of his painting. Newspaper clippings about the murder and subsequent trial are pasted to the back of the painting.
A large, theatrical Joan Sutherland sits opposite the jazz musician, a cascade of textures and patterns. Woven rugs recede into the background via layers of glazing, and the beautiful heavy drapes are hanging right next to us in the studio, a recurrent pattern through a number of his works. The artist can only talk about the hands, and how they’re not quite right, but our eyes devour the crisp patterns that engulf her. This painting has been years in the making, but Lance won’t give it up until it’s right—he might not get the opportunity to ‘fix’ it as he has the musician.
The smaller portraits most take my fancy. Lovely, fair-skinned ladies with masses of dark hair stare sternly out of black caverns, their gazes obscured by Venetian masks in a subversion of the portrait genre. Where colours shine through, they are deep, vivid and jewel-like, reds and greens and purples, arrived at through glazes. Gold-encrusted hands extend out of the darkness like the saxophone.
Lance, ever hospitable, serves us coffee with chicory before seeing us off, eager to get back to his work.