Jemima Brown

Making do with making do…
(on some half-truths in sculpture and other surfaces in the work of Jemima Brown), Adrian Rifkin, 2011

Once upon a time art writers, philosophers and critics used to talk a great deal about truth in painting, and they did so with fascination and urgency, concentrating on issues such as old shoes (were they, or were they not Vincent van Gogh’s own); or the possible location of meaning – the inside and the outside of the frame, and so forth. Such concerns were, in the first place, to do with the kinds of truth available to or proceeding from philosophy, and the matter of how philosophy might address itself to art without falling into error; which, on the contrary, is something that art does very well.

That is to say, it can fall into a part correspondence with the world, to things seen, to things known and things felt or almost felt; and this falling is neither more nor less than a kind of half-truth or part-truthfulness. In Isobel, a 2009 work by Jemima Brown, one confronts a fallen face, as if strangled by a green scarf, and a torso crushed by a feather-light folding table which cannot be the reason for there being but one leg, nor for its being twisted out of joint; nor, for that matter, for its lurid, fluorescent striped knee-sock and cheap and shiny pump. Strangely nothing has been lost and nothing added; nothing has happened, there has been no shattering event, no seismic moment; this is as far as the artist got, and stopped, and left us with a figure. With her, the artist, there is a principle – but not a rule – of conjunction, superposition, lateral and vertical inversion, combination of materials, expansion and reduction within and between what we once called ‘media’, which works the possibilities of the image to the point at which it almost tells a story or almost speaks a truth.

And all of that, which is but a fragmentary account of this one image, and then only as I catch it from one passing glance, or a single viewpoint, is the form of a gesture; of giving something up to be seen which risks any error. Any error, provided that the inside and the outside of the frame shall remain indistinct; and that the principle will never add up more than sum of its effects as we come across them, either in the one work itself, or in the set of works that make an installation.

If I mentioned these thorny questions of philosophy just now, it’s because of the way in which Jemima Brown’s work so carelessly sets them aside, rather as if they had never been posed. I raised them before they could be lost again, for when I look at a number of these works: Eve, Faye Kong, Thedealisoff, Steal her Style or Screentests, I am nagged by an insistent question sounding like this: ‘and then … and then?’, that entails me in the figure and sets me aside from it all at once.

Oddly, at the time thinkers were so concerned with truth in painting, we never heard much said about truth in sculpture, nor in installation, though there was a great deal about sculpture’s having come to inhabit an expanded field – the spaces of great earthworks and land art, the cut through a building that would expose its structures as something new; and this field became populated with installations, objects and concepts of all sorts on an heroic scale. It covered mid-Western deserts and Kassel Documentas alike.

But what if, all along, there had always been this neglected half-truth? Which – all along – had been the adequate truth of a certain way of making objects, works, some of which we should call sculpture or installation, amongst which Louise Bourgeois, for example? This is something that vexes me when I look at what has been made by Jemima Brown, a disconcerting question about her work in itself, and other things that I have seen and how I came to discover them in the first place; vexing for the ways in which her work offers a frame of its own, which is already dissolute, and in this dissolution dissolves the frames of what I have already seen. It does this in a little screen calling out to me from half-under Eve’s skirt, the flapping eyelid and rolling eyes of Steal her Style, the strangely appropriate rhyming between the mannequin’s abject leg in Faye Kong, and film star’s painted armpit that rise up against one another – and which is also a disjunction in the movements of the artist’s hand as it energises different substances and conjoins them in the moment’s space. In Starlets and Other Stories this Faye Kong and her furry other, this little object of disgraceful and mendacious desire, are watched over by a wall paper screen, which protects them from the unsteadiness of the space of their ‘installation’ – a term to which we might cling in our bewitched discomfort.

And it is indeed to this heroic and historic expanded field of sculpture that, I guess, Jemima Brown’s work belongs. But that its airy yet troubling domesticity, and the suffocating vastness of cyber space which it invokes with the Facebook paintings, intensify, constrict and domesticate expansion in a single set of gestures. Brown’s work is a work of the great indoors, as vast as Hollywood B movies, as musty as the thrift shop and the ruins of consumer cultures that she accumulates, not to adorn her models, but to bring them into their living death of failed glamour and of expropriated beauty. We know that Lemon Haired Lady on her absurd and parodic Brancusi-plinth is a reduction – a third of a reality if we guess right, fated never to fruitlessly blink like the faces of the Screentests, but consoled with a pedestal-body drawn to her from a different realm of sculpture and which can also wear her clothes. In Brown’s work the falseness of the prosthetic becomes a condition of its chance at truthfulness.
Yes, her work it is full enough of old shoes to put an army of philosophers to work discussing their authenticity, as well as many other worn and discarded garments, as well as paintings and wall papers and video screens and projections.

Yes, a badly fitting turquoise stiletto, bright and garish, looks like the proper adornment for a purple fishnet knee sock on Georgina’s damaged prosthetic leg, in Georgina and the Dragons of 2009, a factitious kind of truth if you like, an arbitrary but thought through gesture of some more or less appropriate a fiction. But the truth of the matter as we see it, see the body lying on the floor, is that the figure is nothing but prosthetic, though which element supports or stands in for which is something of an enigma – victim of some process of ‘her’ making; creation, if you like, as what is always and already prosthetic … no less than the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib. Brown’s Eve has, untypically, two whole legs; though to compensate for the accident, this lack of a lack in her being made, she has a screen that makes the space between them that of the birth of a different piece of art. Faye Kong spaces painting and sculpture, in and out of the frame, a space of an impractical and uncertain truth de-framed. The portraits comfort the electronic inauthenticity of their origin with a nonchalant virtuosity.

I am turning in circles now – for Brown’s work, much more than a series of images, is a set of spaces in which the image unexpectedly occurs; it is the ruination of the field, and I need to step carefully around it, around it and once again around.