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An Analysis of Christie Brown's work at the Kingsgate
The title of Christie Brown's exhibition is taken from her most recent piece 'Entre Chien et Loup' (2003), which she refers to as work in progress. Brown explains that this French saying, which describes the sense of being in a twilight zone between the last daylight and dusk, is used in this context as a metaphor for her own situation as she develops new work.
'Entre Chien et Loup' shows a group of three white, female figures gradually transforming from a wolf/dog into a human being (fig.1). The mythical story, which is central to the narrative in Brown's work, focuses here on metamorphosis. According to Onians, in Roman times the wolf was associated with the god Mars, combining images of fierceness with fertility, and became a symbol of power 2. Brown is interested in Carl Gustav Jung's concept where the primitive or animal world epitomises our instincts and collective unconsciousness, which correlates to the psychic properties, often lost to modern man 3. The integration of the lost or unconscious 'primitive' side is for Jung an essential element for his method of psychoanalysis. The dialogue between polarities such as between the conscious and unconscious can be sensed as a constant current in this exhibition and therefore it may not be a coincidence that the head of the third figure of the group is the place representing the transition from man to animal.
A close look reveals that the head of this 'half-human, half-animal figure' is almost 'stuck on'; the prominent seams around the neck create the impression that the body and the head of this creature are two separate entities in contrast to the heads of the other two figures of this group, which are joined seamlessly to the body (fig.2). As none of these betray any animal features the non-integrated head conveys the impression that the transition in the third figure has progressed further towards the animal state of being. It echoes Brown's feelings that we have a strange relationship to our body, which appears less integrated in our existence than in that of animals. Thus the absence of the animal features in the more human figures of the group could be interpreted as the loss of our consciousness of our body and instinct. And, as we locate consciousness mostly in our head, the head of the sculpture gains a distinct meaning.
Brown differentiates between the central part of the body, the limbs, and the head. The torso is identified as the actual body part, containing all the inner organs. She describes her division of the body as not always a conscious one, but as something influenced by her method of moulding the figures in separate parts. However, the head is, according to Brown, an area of interest that she focuses on more and more and this becomes evident in her current show. Heads were already featured in the piece 'Heads from the Glyptotek' (sic) in the exhibition at Wapping 'Fragments of Narrative', (2000) 4. But in this show the head appears to be more important than the rest of the figure and in two large pieces 'Ex Votos-Men and Women' (sic) (2003) and 'The Problems of Communications' (2003) the head plays the central part of the work. Christie Brown associates the head with the carrying of all senses and emotions. It also stands for identity and our ability to communicate and engage with people, an aspect, which becomes very explicit in the 'The Problems of Communications' (fig.3). In 'Ex Votos – Men and Women' (2003) the heads contain the shards of past and of uncompleted figures (fig.4). The strong archaeological reference of the piece is emphasised by the fragmented heads filled with fired ceramic pieces. Although Christie Brown stresses that we can learn many historical details from shards in archaeological finds, here the pieces are too abstract to tell us about any particular form or history. It is the combination of these shards with the head, which renders them into symbols of lost memory, history and 'Gedankengut' (body of thought) 5.
Christie Brown uses press moulds for her figures and the clay is layered into the mould. The layering of the clay slabs into the mould creates seams and cracks on the outside of the figure. These seams and the joints of the individual parts demonstrate how the figure is made, a feature that is important to Brown. But, furthermore, they also give information about how the figure could be undone as the seams act like openings, fissures or cracks, particularly when looking at the sculptures such as 'Prometheus' (1999), also shown in 'Fragments of Narrative', where dark colour rubbed into the seams heightens the illusion of an opening and depths (fig. 5 & 6). In this respect the structural constitution symbolises the psychological constitution of the figure, which can be perceived in these sculptures as very fragile and vulnerable.
One detects similar lines on the bodies of 'Entre Chien et Loup' except here they look like pulsating nerve fibres under the skin (fig.7). They are no longer fissures and a white layer of liquid clay seals the surface. Furthermore, unlike the figures in 'Fragment of Narrative', which hold themselves in very arresting positions, these sculptures (particularly the first one) appear to gain gravity and almost stride out. It seems that the life detected under the skin marks, after all, the start of a transition or integration of 'the primitive' and the unconscious or the power of the wolf, which animates the sculpture.
2. The Body and Sculpture
The discovery of the body within Brown's sculptures appears initially as a contradiction in itself. Brown points out that although she looks at the human body, particularly in her extensive life drawings, she does not make a body. The physicality of sculpture is distinctly different for Brown, as she thinks of sculpture as essentially mimetic and hence one step removed from the body of flesh and blood. She classifies the sensual character of sculpture as something hard like stone. In this sense the figures of 'Fragments of Narrative' emerge as clones or copies of the mythical personalities to which their titles refer. This impression is enforced by the applied method of moulding or casting the figures and the very noticeable edges and joints between the body and the limbs, turning the postures of the figures into stiff and awkward positions (fig.8). This all emphasises the aspect of being an artefact and the non-individuality of the particular sculpture and creates the illusion that they might be made of stone.
Yet the material used seems to contradict the unmoved facial and body language of these almost robot like figures; in particular, the brick clay used for some figures of 'Fragments of Narrative' or for the two pieces called 'Head' from the 'Glyptotek' expresses corporal qualities such as flesh and skin. The burnt out inclusions of the brick clay mark the skin like scars and the clay slabs rolled in grog evoke the sensation of the flayed body and raw pain and so rendering the clone into a sentient being (fig.8 & 9). The theme of the flayed body recurs in the newer piece 'Ex Votos-Insignificance' (2003) (fig.10). The red terracotta coated with red iron powder of the two wall mounted pieces evokes tactile sensations of flesh and its colour is immediately associated with that of blood. Furthermore, this impression is supported by the way the clay is layered (fig.11), suggesting muscle and sinuous tissue and images such as the anatomical wax models of the horizontally laid out body parts of Clemente Susini (1804). This impression is also supported by her explorative drawings for this piece, looking at the muscular 'strata' of the human body. The horizontal positioning of the two figures of this piece re-enacts the dramatic scenes of public dissections practised in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. As the top figure is turned from the horizontal ninety degrees towards us and the lower figure is presented in a side elevation we gain the impression of simultaneously looking down on the body from a high point and viewing it at eye level thus creating an illusion for the onlooker of witnessing 'the taking apart' of the figure/body in the operating theatre. By displaying the figure on a horizontal plane it is, as Linda Nochlin points out, pushed in to 'the realm of the object' 6, opposed to the vertical plane which stands for 'the plane of Pregnanz... the hanging together or coherence of form' 7. Thus we are confronted with the disparities of the sentient being and the object or the body and the sculpture, the complete and incomplete figure.
Given that the inspiration for this piece was generated from particular rock strata and that the preliminary idea was to reflect the hardness and intransience of rock, it is interesting to note that the ceramic material altered the expression of the piece as, according to Brown, it speaks more about the soft interior of the body. Stone and marble are very traditional materials for figurative sculpture. Hegel perceived the qualities of stone as qualities expressing permanence and as an important aspect of the expression of the harmony between body and spirit within sculpture 8. In this material context 'Ex Votos-Insignificance' and Brown's other ceramic sculptures say more about being temporary and fragile, therefore being more closely related to the physical realm than that of the spirit. One gains the impression that the ceramic material becomes a synonym for the body and therefore an important carrier of the expression of Brown's sculptures.
Brown perceives in clay the cross over between the flesh and skin qualities of the body and the characteristics of sculpture. This can be sensed in her handling of the material as the individual clay slabs are overlapped like skin. It leads to the supposition that an important intrinsic quality or meaning of the ceramic material is that it epitomises the material of the body and is experienced as such when handled. It is not only the various equivalent states of consistency such as liquid for the bodily fluids, softness for flesh or the dried state for bone that might suggest this interpretation; there are also the repeated myths of origins in many cultures, where man is fashioned from earth, clay or dust that confirm this close link. These myths and metaphors of origin are often quoted in Brown's work 'Fragments of Narrative'.
3. The Material of Origin and of the Body
Brown's definition of clay as a prime material from which the earth is made contains strong alchemistic connotations. Here the term prima materia describes the unknown substance, the mother of all elements and created things, it is part of man and hair and blood. An illustration by Mylius in Philosophia Reformata (1622), depicts the earth as prima materia , a woman standing inside the terrestrial sphere, breastfeeding the son of the philosophers 9. The prima materia is clearly conceived to be the nourishing and also generating medium like the body of a woman. The implication that clay, dust or earth as prime material is the matter of origin becomes a vital aspect for Brown's work, as now the metaphor of the material supports the mythical content of her pieces. Furthermore, Christie Brown comprehends the ceramic medium as a link from the present to the past. It is not only universal in its physical occurrence but also it contains the universal conditions or make up of mankind. Brown regards the old myths as narratives, which reflect, like modern soap operas, archetypical human concerns and behaviours. So the material of the personal tragedy and the medium of the individual body/figure turn into universal conditions and structures of human existence, shaping the particular figure in a universal way, as Brown's figures are similarly shaped by the use of plaster moulds.
Materials and their meaning are a crucial point of interest in Brown's work. Brown is an artist in residence at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology where she experiences many different materials used in Egyptian sculpture such as wax, bronze or plaster and clay. She feels that all these materials connect to the past although clay is still the key material. Nevertheless, two pieces of the exhibition, 'Frail Child Head' (2000) and 'Resource Torso' (2002) are cast in bronze (fig.12). When comparing these two pieces with her ceramic sculptures her own perception of the two materials becomes significant. While she conceives ceramic as soft, warm (particular the red clay) and fragile, Brown considers bronze as a cold and tough material. This has on the one hand practical advantages, as the artist feels that her ceramic work is just too vulnerable to be placed outside, but on the other hand the different material changes the expression and places the pieces (whose plaster casts were taken from the fired ceramic models) into a different context and mark another creative departure point.
The core, subjective content of Brown's work is based on feelings of attachment, trauma and loss, where pain is expressed by her manipulation of the clay but also by the quality and colour of the material itself. Although Brown's figures are not conceived as bodies they can be definitely sensed as bodies. The bronze cast of the torso retains all the markings, seams and textures of the ceramic material it has been cast from, but there is a sensation that this piece of sculpture is one more step removed from the human body than the ceramic sculptures. One main difference here is the black patina, which immediately creates a different impression and partly obliterates the texture, so it can only be read close up. But even to the eye the torso feels harder and less fleshy. It may contain all the characteristics of the body, but it no longer is the body and becomes something else. The importance of the material for the expression of sculpture is demonstrated by the various eighteenth and nineteenth century échorchés made in wax and in bronze. When comparing wax échorchés such as the 'Standing Male' by Antonio Citarelli (1825) 10 with the bronze échorché of a standing man by Jean-Antoine Houdon (1792) 11 one experiences the wax model of the body as much closer to the physical reality of the subject. Used as anatomical demonstration the wax model is much more representational and evokes a distinct awareness in the viewer of his/her own body. The bronze échorché is equally modelled in detail as the wax one but the hard material transcends the initial concern of anatomical representation into a different meaning. Within the wax model one can still sense the original idea of anatomy to disclose the 'divine structure' of God's creation and to 'know thyself'' 12 while the bronze statue leaves and rises above these universal conditions of the vulnerable man and, according to Kemp and Wallace, serves more as a heroic statue and sought-after collector's piece 13. The main difference in the expression is the vulnerability of the body conceived in the wax model and the closed impenetrable surface of the bronze model. Although both échorchés concentrate on the display of the muscle structure, the wax appears to share material similarities with clay and to be a more open body than the bronze one. And it is this characteristic which alters the expression of 'Resource Torso', changing it into an armour of the human body and moving it onto the outside of the figure.
4. Between the Inside and the Outside
The deliberate openings of the figures of 'Fragments of Narrative' have an expressive function in making each one look like an empty shell. What could be conceived there would be, according to Brown, the darkness of her message about trauma and loss. Based on this context one gains the impression that Brown has turned the figure inside out, displaying on the exterior the normally unseen psychological hurt and experiences caused by the loss of our mythical part, which seems to be hidden in the inscrutable internal darkness. Her use of metal for the torso illustrates that the body has grown another layer (or crust if one stays with the imagery of injury), to whose outside these markings seem to migrate. But most importantly the interior darkness is now the dominating colour of the piece or even has become the piece as the solidity of the interior blackness is taken up by the patina, and this solidity appears to be consistent with the hardness of the metal as equally the warmth of the red colour is consistent with the brittleness or softness of the ceramic material. There is the feeling of a constant dialogue between inside and outside, open and closed, and vulnerability and invulnerability.
It is also a constant moving between two states as indicated in 'Entre Chien et Loup'. The skin of white paint in 'Entre Chien et Loup' and also used in 'Problems of Communications' is one step removed from the inner body, sealing it but making it less impenetrable than the metal. The white layer or slip applied on the head of 'Problems of Communications' prevents us from seeing the faint traces left from the making on the terracotta heads of the piece, which look like small wounds. The reflectiveness of the white colour and the sealed surface of the clay give these heads the expression of being emotionally slightly more detached in comparison with the other part of the installation, from which more feelings appear to emanate (fig13 & 14). The acrylic cover placed over each group equally acts like a seal and heightens the difficulties of the interaction. According to Brown this symbolises the vacuum in which each of these two groups exist. Attachment and detachment seem to be the prevalent emotional states as suggested by the open clay body and the sealed clay body.
5. The Interaction with the Material – Confluence of the Polarities
From primal matter or the massa confusa the philosopher's stone is borne, thus bringing enlightenment and consciousness 14. But this birth needs a transforming substance and in alchemy this is the argentum vivum or Mercurius , named after the Roman god Mercury or Greek Hermes, the god of revelation 15. This 'secret essence' or 'spirit substance' changes the base metal into noble metals, from 'the imperfect state into the perfect state' 16. The spirit substance – what we might think of as the 'idea' – is the essential part of the process. The material becomes a symbol for what is latent but still in an unordered, chaotic state. The spirit transforms the base material into what is noble, ordered and conscious material. The relationship between these two elements is not an easy one to comprehend, as it becomes evident that the one cannot be without the other, only together, it appears, can the perfect state be achieved. Relating this to the making of figurative sculpture, Hegel characterises this relationship as the spirit finding a physical certainty through the human body 17. And these opposites, the aspects of the spiritual and of the sensuality, must be unified and reconciled within the production of art 18.
When Christie Brown speaks about her relationship with clay, it is evident that there is tension between a desire for control and a willingness to go with the material. Brown maintains that the work originates principally from her ideas. But there are moments, such as those described when making 'Ex Votos-Insignificance', when the material turns the expression of the piece around and demonstrates the interdependency between the artist, material and process. Brown feels that this aspect is very important and acknowledges that the material can give totally new aspects to an idea. She portrays the encounter with the material as a bodily one, involving more than just her hands. Her feeling that the separation between mind and body is abolished when making the sculptures defines the process as a situation where consciousness and unconsciousness, or the spiritual and the sensual, conflate.
Her sensing of a physical knowledge of the medium could be best explained with Merleau-Ponty's concepts of the intentional arc and the maximum grip. These two modes describe how, firstly, acquired knowledge is stored in our bodies as 'disposition' according to a particular situation and, secondly, how our skilful action is motivated by our striving to be in equilibrium with the situation, 19. The individual piece of art may be finished, but the experience of the making is stored within the artist's body and will be activated with the start of the next work. Although Brown's figures are represented as fragmented and made in parts the whole of the process is not detached or separated but fluid and ongoing. Therefore each artwork and its expression are connected to the previous one, so that the fragmented narrative of the individual piece becomes more and more complete through the tales of future pieces. At the same time the artistic process can no longer be regarded as something to produce something 'finished'. And so Christie Brown's figures become more like 'essays' on a particular experience, they no longer only look incomplete but they are incomplete or unfinished in the same sense that man keeps developing, even over centuries, adjusting mind and body to new environments and challenges.
6. Completing the Fragmented Figure
The plaster moulds started as a technical solution but gained more and more a metaphorical association. For Christie Brown they represent repetition, trauma and cloning. The inherent fragmentation of the human body through the applied process becomes a main means of expression in Brown's work. The fragmentation of her work becomes particularly poignant within the context of the Classical myths. Linda Nochlin illustrates through the example of Henry Füseli's drawing 'the Artist overwhelmed by the Grandeur of Antique Ruins' (1778–79) that the segments of Classical sculpture were perceived as symbols of a lost culture 20. The detailed depiction of the larger-than-life-size foot and hand portray the body parts of what was once a heroic sculpture, to which the artist's figure stands in a sharp and almost diminutive contrast. What is shown here is not only the mourning for the loss of the past heroic and ideal times but also, according to Nochlin, the construction of the 'essence of representational modernism' 21. Hence Brown's figures are not only symbols for the loss of the Classical myths as shown in 'Fragments of Narrative' or merely resurrected heroes of a past ideal time but become a metaphor for the feeling of modern and post-modern man if one looks at her work alongside that of contemporary artists such as the Chapman brothers, Marc Quinn, Doug Jeck or Cindy Sherman's 'Untitled #250' (1992) 22. Brown's sculptures reflect Jung's theory about the collective unconscious and of the lost contact to these ancient times, rendering our psychological make-up incomplete. Additionally the intrinsic tendency of unfired and fired ceramic material to disintegrate and to fragment, such as in Brown's 'Ex Votos-Men and Women', turns clay in that sense into a 'modern' or 'post- modern' material.
Nochlin discovers a constructive element in this loss, as it needs to be replaced with new utopian ideas 23. By referring to her pieces as an exvoto , offerings for healing or gifts for a cure, Brown indicates that there is a chance of reversing the tragedy and loss. The restorative element is not perceived in aesthetic terms but in the action of the ritual. Although this allusion of body parts as offerings heightens our awareness of the mimetic aspect of the sculpture, simultaneously we are investing the figure with psychic powers. Thus the fragmented figure becomes a sign for healing and in a sense the disjointed body regains completeness, the limbs become re-attached. Hegel corroborates this sensation as he concludes that we can recognise in the single body part the whole of the figure 24. Brown's individual sculptures may not represent, in the Hegelian sense, the unity of spirit and the sensual, the 'deep sense of contentment, rest and harmony within self'' 25 or the integration as defined by Jung; they do, however, express the psychological and spiritual necessity of being complete.
Using shards from previously rejected figures in 'Ex Votos-Men and Women', Brown recycles old ideas but also old feelings in a new context (fig.15 & 16). The archaeological analogy of the piece symbolises the burial and the rediscovery of the past. Uncovering historical artefacts means that they receive another life again, but it is a life within a changed structure of interpretation and so this piece signposts that the acute pain sensed in 'Fragments of Narrative' can now move on to a different level. The same brick clay is used for some figures of 'Fragments of Narrative,' the heads and these shards still share the same marks with these sculptures. However, the metaphor of the head and the abstract shapes of the small parts signal that the fragmentation is no longer connected to the body as in previous pieces but is now much more a mental problem. The recycled body parts within the cranium indicate that the loss is experienced with a different capacity and intensity.
By becoming a bear or here a wolf, Claude Levi-Strauss (Brown is quite familiar with his concepts) states that ancient man identified himself with the qualities represented by that particular animal and the totemic use of this imagery may be read as a correlation to his/her position within society 26. When Christie Brown explains that she feels like being between two worlds, she means not only those suggested in mythological terms. She is searching for different environments and contexts as, for instance, particular museums to show her work in, leaving the familiar ground of the ceramics world. Translating the meaning of the wolf as perceived in Roman times it signifies that the twilight zone may not feel comfortable but that there is also some power sensed. It encourages Brown to explore further the integration of non-ceramic material such as the willow in 'Entre Chien et Loup' and stride into the unknown, exposing her still vulnerable work in progress to the public.
(Click on the end note number to return to the appropriate place in the article)
1 The review is based on an interview with the artist at the Kingsgate Gallery, London, 10 October 2003.
2 Richard Broxton Onians, The Origins of European Thought , Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p.471.
3 Carl Gustav Jung, von Franz, M. – L., Freeman, John, (editors), (1978), Man and his Symbols , London, Picador published by Pan Books Ltd, 1978, p.30.
4 Christie Brown, Fragments of Narrative at the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Spring 2000, (Catalogue)
5 Translation of the author.
6 Linda Nochlin, The Body in Pieces , Great Britain, Thames and Hudson, 1994, pp.21–22.
7 Rosalind Krauss cited in Nochlin, The Body in Pieces, p.21.
8 G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen ueber die Aesthetic II , Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag, 1999, p.443, translation by the author.
9 Mylius, cited in Carl Gustav Jung, translated by R.F.C.Hull, Psychology and Alchemy , London, Routledge, 1993, p.321.
10 Cited in Martin Kemp, Marina Wallace, (2000), Spectacular Bodies , Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press, 2000, p.51.
11 Cited in Kemp and Wallace, Spectacular Bodies, p.82.
12 Kemp and Wallace, Spectacular Bodies , p.11, p.13.
13 Kemp and Wallace, Spectacular Bodies , p.83.
14 Jung, Psychology and Alchemy , pp.317–325.
15 Jung, Psychology and Alchemy , p.132.
16 Jung, Psychology and Alchemy , p.297.
17 Hegel, Vorlesungen ueber die Aesthetic II , p.368.
18 G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen ueber die Aesthetic I, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp Verlag.1986, p.62, translation by the author
19 Hubert L. Dreyfus, Stuart E. Dreyfus, The Challenge of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Embodiment for Cognitive Science ', in: Gail Weiss, Honi Fern Haber, (Editors), (1999), Perspectives on Embodiment – TheIintersections of Nature and Culture , New York, Routledge, 1999, p.103, p.113.
20 Nochlin, The Body in Pieces , p.7.
21 Nochlin, The Body in Pieces, p.8.
22 Cited in Nochlin, The Body in Pieces, p.54.
23 Nochlin, The Body in Pieces , p.8.
24 Hegel, Vorlesungen ueber die Aesthetic II , p.381.
25 Stephen Houlgate, Freedom, Truth and History – An Introduction to Hegel's Philosophy , London and New York, Routledge, 1991, p.141.
26 Claude Levi-Strauss, cited in Terence Hawkes, Structuralism and Semiotics, London, Routledge, 1991, pp.51–53.
|Between the Dog and the Wolf Issue 5