Trevor “Turbo” Brown and company

Vivid and arresting paintings of Australian wildlife are the hallmark of an artist known mononymously as Turbo. Born Trevor Brown (1967–2017) in Mildura, he took up painting in his mid‑thirties after he had relocated to Melbourne. He rapidly gained critical and commercial attention for works using a quick and direct application of pure colour, bursting with raw energy, and featuring a varied cast of native fauna. So exclusive—obsessive, even—was his portrayal of animals that there arose a kind of origin story explaining his single‑mindedness: “Uncle Herb [P]atten, the man he loves as a father, once asked Brown why he only painted animals. He replied that when he was fifteen and living on the Mildura streets and the Murray River bank, the animals were his only friends.” Other explanations Turbo gave for his choice of subject matter included, “Animals are my friends. They come to me in my dreams” and “When I paint, I feel like I’m in the Dreamtime and can see all the animals that live there.”

A point of entry to analysing Turbo’s work is suggested by Barnett Newman’s famous one‑liner from a paper at an art conference in 1952, “Aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for birds.” Newman’s joke didn’t only circumscribe his concerns as an artist; it also reinforced two millennia of Western understanding about the limited capabilities of animals. From Aristotle to Descartes, Eurocentric systems of knowledge deny animals language, thought and consciousness and deprive them of subjectivity. Newman knew his listeners would smirk at the thought of birds pondering ornithology because they, like he, would be certain of animals’ incapacity for self‑reflection. 

Given the two opposing camps of humans and animals, Newman placed artists on the same side as the animals. This is where Turbo also firmly located himself, attributing his animals subjectivity, language and thought—deriving this approach from his Aboriginal heritage. In contrast with Western philosophy, Indigenous ways of knowing emphasise that consciousness permeates the animate and inanimate world. By ascribing human characteristics to elements of nature, the art and storytelling of hunter‑gatherer cultures embodies a different ethical relationship to animals from the Western one. The “animal turn” recently taken in Western thought is a logical—if belated—response to the crisis evolutionary theory has posed for humanism. By contrast, Aboriginal wisdom has always understood that humans descend from animal ancestors. 

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