Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Speaking with Denise Brown

Can you tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up and where you studied art?

I grew up in Hawkesbury Upton, the highest village in the Cotswold Hills in South-West England, rich in Roman and Saxon settlements. Not much further afield are areas known for their ancient “land art”; the White Horse, Stonehenge, Avebury Stone Circle and Silbury Hill amongst many others. It is old country and a place bearing the layered histories of a long series of peoples.

Growing up in these surroundings, you become aware of the tides of change which constantly wash over human societies with the passage of time and the influx of new cultures. Living amongst such evidence of change brings home the importance of adaptability to the ever-changing “now”. It has led me to be flexible in my use of styles and media to suit my current concept.

My family were artisans and something of “outsiders” and so I was taught from an early age to be honest and to always strive to achieve one’s best because self belief is vitally important when society as a whole regards you with suspicion. The small, self contained world of the minority has little room for passengers. One needs to be both self-sufficient and beyond suspicion to achieve acceptance beyond the grudging.

I first studied art at Bristol Polytechnic, moving on to achieve a BA (Hons) in Three Dimensional Design, Wood, Metal, Ceramics and Glass at The Metropolitan University of Manchester. My experience during my course at Manchester has been fundamental to my understanding of materials and their properties and potential, leading to a broad ability to bring together apparently contradictory media such as the 3D pieces from my Emotional Tides series made from hand carved marble and fabricated steel.

Following my Degree my art practice evolved into working as a goldsmith during the evenings whilst earning a steady income as a patternmaker in industry. This industrial experience has been invaluable in enabling me to work on numerous projects and concepts simultaneously and to stringent deadlines.

Some years after migrating to Western Australia I enrolled in the Advanced Diploma in Applied Environmental Art and Design at the then Swan TAFE, graduating in 2009. During the course I was privileged to be mentored by such established artists as Peter Dailey, Stuart Elliot, Mary Dunin and others. Both my 2D work and my conceptual skills developed extensively during this period, as a result of the many positive influences.

Tell us a little about the kind of work you make?

I tend to work in series and multiples, conceptually built from my interest in the human psyche; the way we mentally interact with each other and the world around us; our ability to manipulate what our senses receive into information more palatable to our own ideas and logic centres, no matter how far stretched from reality that it may become.

I like to work on multiple concepts simultaneously. I try to achieve a spread of projects with at least one under way which has been fully developed conceptually, requiring only the physical manifestation of the works, balancing this with others where I am not fully in control of the outcomes, letting the concept lead me where it will. Others may spend years or even decades in gestation at a conceptual stage, requiring repeated reformulation. These tend to develop in quantum leaps, usually when I am engaged in other works of a repetitive nature allowing my mind to wander in sometimes unfamiliar territory.

You seem to work in a range of mediums, what is your favourite? And are there any you haven’t tried yet that you would like to?

Emotional Tides, Denise Brown.
My work is not usually about a specific medium and so I don’t have a favourite as such. Having said that, I was recently invited into a show where the concept did derive from the medium and found that working in this way was just as enthralling as my usual approach of picking the medium to fit the concept. It forced me to step out of my comfort zone and pushed me in new directions.

I do have favourite techniques however. I do like to carve. I find the act of carving in any medium relaxing and mediative. I also like to work on a medium to large scale because it is a physically more holistic experience and one can lose oneself in the action of making.

I also thoroughly enjoy the interaction needed to successfully work in oils; the ability to manipulate and play with the material and the variety of application techniques that one can develop. The whole experience is very tactile. Even the smell is intoxicating.

What are you working on at the moment?

I tend to work on half a dozen series at a time which all feed off each other in one way or another, this also allows me to change between mediums and keep interested and focused.

At the moment I am developing several bodies of work. One is all sculptural series for a solo exhibition in July this year at the Heathcote Museum & Gallery in Melville. The concept explores my early experiences as a dyslexic in a world that did not, at the time, widely recognise or acknowledge the condition, and examines the “outsideness” arising from the inability to communicate, whether as a result of a physiological condition (a lack of specific synaptic development) or that arising from cultural and linguistic differences within a migrant society such as Australia.

I am also working on a series of large paintings in oil depicting the figure and representing that figure’s personal history and psychology through the surrounding imagery. I see these works as being a development of portraiture but on a deeper emotional level than mere superficial likeness.

In addition, there is a series of ceramic sculptures concerned with the need for the primitive in the technical age and its manifestations and a further series of sculptures and oil and drawing works concerned with the mind in a state of coma.

Soft Power, Denise Brown.
I love the title Soft Power, can you tell us about the concepts behind that body of work?

The title Soft Power derives from my continuing amazement at the species of soft fungi that happily force their way through the road surface or even through concrete. There is also a fascination, in a similar vein, that water and time and tree roots can dismantle mountains, let alone the strongest man-made structures. Discovering these phenomena was like watching bumble-bees fly when I was a child, an act that seems to be totally contradictory to physical reality. I used the phrase soft-power to describe these subtle but immensely powerful forces to myself. In more recent times I discovered that Soft Power had become a political catchphrase to describe the diplomatic approach to foreign affairs as used by, for example, the Obama administration in dealings with the Middle East, in contrast to the militaristic “solutions” practiced by former leaders that had clearly not worked.

The works in my Soft Power series are designed to evoke contemplation of the potential of soft and slow but persistent and patient force.

You are a superb craftsperson, I’m always in awe at your attention to detail; even the backs of your work are beautiful! And you often hand-craft things that are normally mass manufactured like the dice pieces and custom made boxes to hold your work when it is not being displayed. What is the importance of the handmade to you?

I have pondered this question myself and I think it’s because the core of my work is concerned with either an individual or group of individual minds, so subconsciously I feel that each component needs to be unique in its own small way. Otherwise the essence of the works becomes mechanical and not organic as it should be.

I’ve noticed dice or dice like patterns appear in a lot of your work, what is the significance of these?

To me all life starts and ends with chance. There is so many more possibilities that don’t converge than the one that does, in every moment of every day, that I find the chance or probability of anything ‘being’ intoxicating. Many years ago I read a novel called ‘The Dice Man’ by Luke Rinehart, in which the protagonist gradually delegates more and more responsibility for his decisions to the throw of a die. The idea of someone leading their life by the results of chance, at the time, seemed crazy but it got me thinking about all the chances we take in life without narrowing the probabilities down to just six.

The die itself appeared in my work after a momentous chance decision that I and a friend made. We discussed possible outcomes but we both individually took the same chance and got very different life altering outcomes. This has inspired multiple works depicting dice which will eventually become a series called Die-Sect.

We were talking in your studio recently about the marble and steel sculpture series, Emotional Tides, you told me it was important when you made them that the steel cubes were hollow, even though it wasn’t completely obvious to the viewer. I thought this was interesting because at the time I had imagined they were hollow, perhaps because some appear to be bobbing on the waves. Others are on stilts and I keep thinking of them as little one room houses trying to keep above the water. Those forms also appear in paintings – can you tell me about them and why are they hollow?

The series of paintings, sculptures and drawing that you refer to came directly from personal interaction with a couple of different people. It was only once I had completed half the works that I realized the images were coming from my childhood through my subconscious reaction to recently passed dialogues.

When I was a very young child my mother worked on the land with others of my family and myself and my cousins would spend time in safe areas near them. These areas were often small wooded circles in the centres of large patchworks of ploughed fields, where we kids were safe from the tractors and other farm machinery working nearby. Later, as a teenager, I would play in the local woods and fields with my friends and in the centre of these fields were circles of woods that during the summer months contained the crow-scaring guns. These areas, we were taught, were very dangerous and to be kept well clear of, so we did just that. It wasn’t until I was painting the images in my head that I realized that the safe areas and the crow gun islands were one and the same.

So in answer to your question the stilted boxes represent these islands of safety and danger. They need to be hollow in my mind so that they can perform their roles as protector or predator.

Do you have any current or upcoming shows?

Yes, I am exhibiting at the moment in the joint show with Gallery East and Midland Junction Art Centre called, ‘Between the Sheets’.

I will also have works in a collaborative show between visual artist and text artists, the art/text/clearinghouse project by Perdita Philips and showing at the Perth Centre for Photography, opening on the 9th of February.

I have been invited into an exhibition by Kate Parker, at Mundaring Arts Centre in April, which is based around the idea of location and how it manifests in ones work.

My fourth solo exhibition will be held in July this year at the Heathcote Museum & Gallery in Melville.

How can people find out more about your work?

Directly via my e-mail at denisevbrown[at] or through Mundaring Arts Centre, Artsource or Facebook.

If all goes to plan I am intending to have my own website by the end of this year.

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