Toadstools sporting sow snouts; butterflies with human heads; alated, beetle-bodied, Barbie-doll-visaged mannequins: such are the fanciful productions of postmodernist plastician Deborah Brown, a pop surrealist with allegorical aims. The world of Brownian creation is a fusion of earnest artistic purpose and the pixilated fantasia of Bottom’s dream. Beneath the sideshow spectacle of bug husbandry and animal-vegetable grafts lurk hidden depths - close scrutiny makes plain that the cutesy-poo slickness of Brown’s totemic, fetishistic artifacts conceals both moral dimension and cryptic import and belies a complex declension of ingredients…
Brown’s early work routinely consisted of assemblages of toy and doll parts, mannequin heads, costume jewelry, hair extensions and other stock-in-trade of glamour merchants used to form composite creatures wearing mocking masks designed to deride the materialism and commodification suffusing consumer culture and the insatiable vanity and ego-hunger of contemporary society. Now, Brown has introduced a new body of work which continues in the same vein. Formerly concentrating mostly on tabletop objects crafted on a more modest, bijou scale, Brown later began to adopt a number of larger-than-human pieces which project a sense of imposing, official, monument-like heft associated with the sorts of statues and sculptures encountered in a public park.
Unlike marble busts of civic dignitaries mounted on granite pillars, however, Brown’s creations are better described as amalgamations of scavenged limbs and appendages, and of accessories and ornaments cannibalized from the inventory of the local taxidermist, toy shop and wig supply and articulated into a menagerie of the improbable. At the same time as they are anthropomorphized, Brown’s nonesuch cooties – which she calls “hybrids” - are oddly de-humanized. Arrogantly strutting their stuff in an elfin, puckish parade, they are stiff, robotic, strangely neutered, all glassy eyes and ceramic smiles, dumbly staring and coyly grinning in a weird blend of sassiness and vapidity. A playful irony enfolds these poseurs, their pride and pretenses; there is something warped about the mixture of mischief, mockery and menace they exude. But all of this is not with mean or twisted spirit...
The fundamental thrust of the work is to expose the illusion we live within. Brown’s motivation lies in the desire to question the futility of our worldly pursuits, in servitude to our vanity and ego. What interests Brown most is posing the question: how solid is our ground that we think we walk upon and the world that we’ve constructed to help us believe its real? Can we look beyond and see deeper into where our most vital connection rests? The underlying and easily hidden dimension of the work is its direct link to the spiritual. Brown seeks to address the roller coaster we’ve unwittingly, or not, subscribed to ride upon, to reveal its arrogance and cheap thrills as a method to awakening. “If we can peel back the layers of deceit either imposed societally or personally, then what we find is a humble and beautiful love which interconnects us with God and all life”.
Many of Brown’s symbols are insectine in aspect. Insects, because of their perceived lowly, even contemptible status in the hierarchy of species, and because of their lurid and meretricious appearance. They add yet another layer to Brown’s sardonic view by summoning the fact that insects far outnumber humans and may well survive us and replace us.
With this curious visual vocabulary Brown strives to codify a wide range of themes and meanings: the question of identity – of who we are or think we are - and of our place in nature; the primacy of the animal economy and the implications of mutation and hybridization which are the result of man’s tampering with nature; the correlation or schism between nature and artifice; the representation of consumer culture as a surrogate for or simulacrum of nature; the perverting effects of universal commodification; the traditional depiction of monsters – gargoyles, heraldic beasts, and other mythological creatures – in art to symbolize human attributes and evoke human fears and aspirations; the consideration of human life as a series of phases and transitions underscored by the awareness of mortality and the ephemerality of existence. The spontaneous appeal and beguiling charm of Brown’s subtle inventions may suavely distract the viewer from the fable-like narrative underpinning her broader ambition: to posit nothing less than a new, postmodern mythology.
Mushrooms and Mirrors
Among the recurring motifs in Brown’s oeuvre is the mushroom. Legendary since ancient times as a portal to other worlds, the prolific fungus is ubiquitous in all but polar climate zones, and has always figured prominently in the folklore of the fantastic and as a key fixture in the abode of faerie. Besides individual mushrooms featuring incongruous appendages such as pig snouts, goat horns, horsetails, and bird beaks, Brown has fashioned populous groupings of the umbrella-shaped growth. These lumbering, outsized, fibreglass forms loom over the observer in order to place him in proper scale and perspective. Adding to the grotesquerie are gaily painted caps and stalks fused on vintage female mannequin legs in a walking position. According to Brown, “The mushrooms are all peering at their reflections in various mirrors as they 'go about their day’.”
An adjunct installation fashioned by Brown consists of a forest of mirrors where over a hundred assorted vintage mirrors are attached to the tips of real tree branches that meld into outstretched human arms bracketed and protruding from the floors, walls and ceilings so that when the viewer enters the installation, there is no escape from the reflections. As a result, the viewer is swallowed, willing or not, by an almost suffocating envelope of fractured self-portraiture and its by-products - self-examination and auto-confrontation. Gold beetles scattered on the branches and onto some of the mirrors as well as a pathway lined with human hair round out the presentation. The installation explores the fragmented relationship we have with ourselves as well as echoing gross aggrandizements and exaggerations of primal ego. Vanity, narcissism, self-absorption, glorification, and magnification – these are among the many attributes inextricably associated with mirrors. So too are magic, and the notion of transparency as a gateway to other planes. For Brown, the mirror is a medium of shadow and substance whose most salient function is to serve as a reminder of mortality and the ephemerality of existence.
Another stock figure in Brown’s image-lexicon is the decoy. One installation under development involves a grouping of dozens of life-like pigeon decoys arranged in typical ground feeding position, picking up pearls and other symbols of wealth and vanity. Display of the fake avians en masse alludes to groupthink and the herd instinct, to population mechanics and mass behavior of all kinds. Any human “pigeons” falling prey to the deception presented by the decoys’ glamorous camouflage and manipulated by the mimicry impulse to join these hapless, ersatz creatures might as well be joining a drove of lemmings headed towards a cliff. Besides illuminating the conundrum of the difficulty of differentiating the natural from the factitious in an era of abstruse science and advanced technology, Brown’s decontextualized decoys call into question man’s stewardship of nature and suggest the existence of furtive, undetectable presences that hint at ulterior realities and undermine accepted limits of the “natural” and the threshold of the known.
Altars and Shrines
Among Brown’s sculptural arrangements suggestive of altars or shrines is Vanity’s End, a larger-than-life-sized, kidney-shaped vanity table supported by legs that resemble those of a newborn foal struggling to balance and about to topple over. Live reindeer moss covers table, mirror and stool as if emerging to devour them from some unknown source. Tiny ladybirds, butterflies and beetles rest on the moss, hinting that nature has reclaimed this quintessential altar of ego and adornment.
In another recent piece, Nest, a human baby in a bird’s nest wriggles helplessly on its back cradled by a circular crib thatched with twigs. Nest speaks of both man’s inseparability from nature and his perennial quest to subjugate it, and begs the question of who’ll gain the upper hand. Against man’s incursions, alterations, and predations, nature fights back through adaptation, albeit sometimes maladaptation. Pan is the deity presiding over this nativity scene, which is also a shrine to the false gods of man’s own making – pride, ambition, greed. Confuting the sacred and the profane, Nest contrasts the innocence of a human neonate with the incipient lures and feints, snares and deceptions which will all too soon rear their heads in the form of those same man-made divinities.
Permeating Brown’s corpus is a pervasive sense of error and accident in mankind’s interactions with nature; a sense of perversion, of “unnatural selection”, and of an upturning of the normal order of things. This sense of transgression and aberration is perhaps best expressed by Brown’s fibreglass insect-humanoid and animal-botanical hybrids - denizens of a God-forsaken Galapagos with damage and warpage enough to make Darwin dizzy. Typical of these creatures is The Beetle, a giant stag beetle replica with a shiny black case and luxuriant blonde locks billowing from the sides of its thorax, exemplifying the primitive idea that ingestion results in incorporation of the qualities of the thing ingested. Mushroom with Goat Horns, Ears and Goatee is another of Brown’s fabulous mongrels. As the artist herself puts it, “This mushroom, which is one of four in a series, entices us to enter an alternate reality, in which it is unclear where the mushroom ends and the goat begins, or who is morphing into what.” Combining kitsch, deliberate falsity and undisguised artificiality, the sculptor coyly places her coterie of freakish ambassadors front and center as a wry commentary on the dangers of genetic manipulation and man’s newly discovered Frankensteinian power over the building blocks of life.
Brown’s fantastic cross-fertilizations come across as disarming, loveable monsters, impish, puckish sprites that defy the beholder to say which is the weed and which is the flower. Perpetuating the series of lepidopters, coloeopters, arachnids and ephemerids fabricated from fiberglass are the Butterflies and the Ladybugs. These feature the grossly exaggerated, human-flesh-coloured bodies of insects fitted with simulacra of mandibles, vibrissa, and scales and fused with impeccably coiffed mannequin heads highlighted with gold accents and decorative strings of pearls.
Though they strike one as fugitives of dream, escapees from laboratory experiments gone haywire, or refugees from the Island of Dr. Moreau, the occupants of Brown’s cryptic bestiary somehow work as intended and, however implausibly, exert a paradoxical, sphinxlike power. They might be likened to so many goofy jacks-in-the-box with the gravity of oracular presences.
Brown’s entomological and mycological anomalies and all her other twilight and limbo beings may indeed seem specimens of science gone awry, or evolutionary quirks and vagaries – mishaps which should have remained lost amidst the vortices and helices of evolutionary oblivion, or be consigned outright to perdition but, even so, they represent a serious anthropological slant on ego versus ecosystem.
The effect is startling and disorienting, like being about to take a bite from a purple lollipop until you see the face of Rasputin embossed on its flesh, or lifting to your lips a teacup from which you are about to sip until you see it is covered in fur.
In Meadow, the viewer is confronted by a female torso entirely assimilated by moss and insects. Insects mock accepted notions of beauty and identity and here, as with Brown’s ironic baby in a bird’s nest, the construction is a simile for the ascendancy of nature over man, or vice versa.
Insect invasion is applied differently in Bees, where a v-shaped cluster of the buzzing honey-vintners forms a perfect pubic wig for the mons veneris of a shapely female pelvis. Originating from hidden hives ordinarily segregated from civilization’s precincts, bees are nevertheless always there, ever at the ready to swarm, to engulf, to envelop, like a wild overgrowth of jungle vines ready to swallow up a Mayan temple. Just as a blanket of moss enfolding a human body illustrates the idea of nature reclaiming its own, so too does this handful of bees imply not only natural processes of dissolution, disintegration, and decay, but intimates a cosmic perspective carrying the cognizance that the humblest of creatures can eclipse the mightiest and proudest works of man, and resolve them again to the elements.
Humans and the environments they inhabit are engaged in a never-ending battle for supremacy and the spirit of contest or cooperation – parasitism or symbiosis – is constantly subject to subversion. Brown manages to package her meditations on this subject in a quaint, elfin-pagan-animist sensibility; at once saucy, shocking, raffish, and disconcerting, the insolence of Brown’s approach does not detract from such serious ancillary concerns as her investigation of the interpenetration of nature and ulterior realms.
Beneath the starry-eyed impudence and seeming frivolity of Brown’s anthropomorphized creations lies a wicked, cerebral satire. By mimicking seductive conventions in contemporary consumer culture, she draws in the viewer and simulates a new natural order. While maintaining an ongoing dialogue about the relationship between art and nature, and between art and artifice, Brown’s aesthetic is ultimately a metaphysical exercise, inasmuch as it represents an investigation of our constructed reality. Brown counterpoises provocative exponents in a symbolic language simultaneously emblematic and enigmatic. The question is: are the messages they spell out cautionary fantasies or fateful premonitions?
B. R. Gilbert