trevor brown interview by alicia allen, 2003 - conducted by email - unpublshed - intended for a book on the
trend of artists using childhood images (ryden, mizuno, murakami. nara...)
work, which frequently depicts children and dolls in adult
situations, could be characterized as dangerous. Dangerous
professionally, as it is a threat to your commercial viability.
Dangerous personally, as it has resulted in threats against
you. But more notably, your work is dangerous culturally,
as it threatens the media-made construct of childhood. Modern
media (particularly Western media) perpetuates the notion
that childhood is a period of pristine innocence and deserved
indulgence. Your work challenges this concept. Why? What is
your definition of childhood?
it is true to say my work is dangerous on many levels. I think
i have now learnt that my adopted subject matter is plain
commercial suicide. I'm always going to be cheated of any
real success, for better or worse. But i suppose that is the
choice i made: i'm interested in art and not motivated by
money. The personal dangers i (foolishly?) rarely think about.
I do sometimes receive what can be regarded as threats but
i generally find these to be ridiculously inane or bigoted.
No cause for alarm. They merely serve to strengthen my own
resolve to continue as i'm doing. I must be getting close
to some 'truth' or some other thing they'd prefer left unknown
if people are roused enough to want to repress me. So i want
to know what it is? The actual content of my paintings is
relatively chaste. I could easily make them far more extreme
and shocking. So it must be the ideas and their own associations
that are feared. I am of course aware that these few outspoken
voices are, to a greater or lesser extent, representative
of wider, media-generated, opinions. The notion, as you said,
of childhood being a period of pristine innocence - which
absolutely must be 'protected' (the oppressor's favoured word)
from any notions that do not comply with that fallacy. Yes,
i am out to challenge that. It is exactly this hypocrisy that
agitates me and mostly fuels my work. Does everyone really
have such short memories? We were all children once. We all
stamped on ants and pulled legs of spiders. Innocence had
little to do with it. We are only born innocent - the rest
of life is spent deliberately and systematically destroying
that. We each know very well what being a child is all about.
It's a time of curiosity. Testing the limitations imposed
on us. A time of exploration and learning. Even today's hysteric
moralists must also have surely discovered, well below the
age of eighteen, that touching their private parts felt good,
contrary to the nebulous warnings of eternal damnation or
whatever. The desired myth of children as non-sexual beings
is a blatant lie.
of the dolls in your work are vintage issue (produced during
your childhood), yet their surroundings are decidedly modern
- stark, industrial or clinical in nature. This juxtaposition
disrupts any inclinations towards nostalgia and leads viewers
away from sentimentality. How is this aspect of your visual
language related to your vision of childhood?
remember any particular dolls from my childhood (if only for
the fact i'm not female and had no interest in dolls - that
and a poor memory) but looking at dolls now i find that those
produced in the 60's/70's have the most appeal for me. I actually
try to paint non-specific stereotypical dolls. Partly they
are drawn from actual dolls and partly invented - ie. using
my mind's image of what a doll is, which probably would have
been formed by dolls seen in my own childhood. There's no
strong connection, i'm aware of, between the dolls and toys
i paint now and my own childhood. No bittersweet longing for
a lost era. Hence that absence of sentimentality comes across
in the paintings? The child iconography (and banal backgrounds
etc) is adopted for more equivocal effect.
create fine art, which is a high status activity, but you
contrarily appropriate the iconography of sex and play, which
are traditionally considered low-status activities. This uneasy
co-existence of high and low is further echoed in your depictions
of sexualised girls and dolls, which at once embody high (victimized
innocence) and low (complicit worldliness). Is your work intended
to erode the long-standing barriers between high and low culture,
or is it dependent upon them?
know as to if my work has ever been distinguished as fine
art, to be honest. I do take what i do relatively earnestly
and my own frame of mind is that of a fine artist i guess.
This serious attitude in regard to my work has never really
been reflected in magazines though. Generally i am ignored,
or at best belittled, by all the mainstream press. To me,
at present, it would be unthinkable for a major art magazine
to even mention me, let alone run an article on my work. I'd
dearly love to see the downfall of the divisions between high
and low art and culture but i'm sadly not, nor will ever be,
in the position of being a subverter from within. There's
too much propping up the brick wall of conservation around
high art. Even acknowledged fine artists who do use low art
elements often seem at pains to maintain a lofty elitism regarding
their position as fine artists and their use of such imagery.
If i'm having any such insurgent effect as an outsider, that's
great of course! But really i don't think i really want to
be a part of any of it, i'm proudly independent.
approach art not unlike a child at play, breaking rules, ignoring
them or creating new ones as you go along. I sense that you
approach enthusiastically, seeking pleasure or release. But
more than this, you approach seeking to communicate through
toys and paint that which is difficult to articulate. In 1998,
you remarked, "I believe my work has 'something to say'
- but exactly what i am not prepared or unable to say."
(Suture, vol 1, 1998). How has working toward a message, rather
than from a message, enabled you to preserve the playfulness
in your work.
no real identifiable goal (or 'message') and avoiding making
any concrete statements of intent naturally frees me to do
as i want without caring too much. I'm not consciously breaking
all the rules in an intentional manner (i'm actually acutely
aware of legal restraints) but i do attempt to unburden myself
of much of the usual objectionable art baggage. I get the
impression that most aspiring artists regard gallery exhibition
opening reception parties as the be-all and end-all of their
existence. Yuck! I feel restricted even thinking of myself
as an artist. I want to work intuitively. Yes, i want to have
fun too. The major drawback of this licentious behaviour is
that i lose artistic respect. 'Art' must have a message. Play
is not allowed to be art. You have to play *their* game! So
i suppose i'm actually a scientist not an artist? I'm experimenting
on the masses (particularly the art world and the information
media?) and myself. Haha!
depictions of dolls and children branded with barcodes seem
to critique postmodern society's voracious appetite for the
"cute". How does your artistic appropriation of
cuteness (through iconic representations of young girls, dolls
and toys) factor into the acceptance of your work by the general
public, by the fine arts establishment? How is cuteness a
commodity, or conversely a liability, in the world of postmodern
thinking, while reading this question, that it would be a
good question for my wife (a very successful teddy bear artist
in japan). The 'cute factor' is a highly persuasive (almost
essential?) element in japan in regard to marketing and consumer
acceptability. You cannot escape it here, you are bombarded
with it 24-7, it's brainwashing, so i inevitably got sucked
into it. I've no idea now of what percentage of my work is
a comment on that and what percentage is happy submissive
immersion in it. At first i did have a clearer vision and
an awareness of 'discovering' an artistic path adopting and
merging the Japanese propensity for cute with my own less
savoury inclinations. And it was set upon with hopes of wider
acceptance (survival instinct!). But i don't think that ever
really happened in my case! My work isn't cute enough? Too
tainted. Cute has to be more pure for commercial acceptance.
And i believe in your implied suggestion that the cute factor
is a potential liability as far as the fine arts establishment
is concerned. Perhaps now that there are several notable artists
exploring cute themes, and doubtless more following, the cracks
into the snooty art establishment etc can be widened. If a
trend is spotted those in positions of power will want to
exploit it. The merits of this are, needless to say, equally
seem to have a keen interest in medical play, as evidenced
in 'Medical Fun' (Pan Exotica / Editions Treville, 2001).
In that collection, damaged, dismembered and dissected dolls
were recurrent motifs. Children often break their toys in
an effort to discover how they function. Are your paintings
of broken dolls then indicative of a desire to understand
the female form from the inside out.
I like the allusion. Both the doll as female analogy and myself
as a frustrated child attempting to understand things (by
breaking them apart). And as a boy the hardest thing to understand
in this world is a girl! But I am not sure how much i am going
to admit to this being true. There's also the possibility
it could be indicative of repressed sadism. A psychologist's
field day! I take delight in the ambiguity. I believe i'm
pretty well adjusted though ...maybe? I think, actually, the
underlying theme of many of my paintings is fragility and
vulnerability. Partly this is an expression of my own 'coming
to terms' with such mortal issues. I'm actually quite petrified
of hospitals and blood etc. My fetishistic medical obsession
is paradoxical, even to myself.
in part to the accessibility of your work through the internet
and commercial outlets, you've cultivated a lush crop of young
fans. Do you believe that your most youthful admirers comprehend
your artistic perspective?
much matter to me whether they are reading all kinds of deep
insightful implications into my work or merely view it as
eye candy. Everyone will find their own reason for liking
(or loathing) my work. I can only attempt to control how it's
presented to avoid any trivialisation and undesirable associations.
I occasionally get girls as young as thirteen or fourteen
writing to say they love my work. That actually makes me more
happy than hearing from older guys where i start to worry
what exactly their focus of appeal is. My youngest most obsessed
fan, i know of, is a pretty little nine year old girl in Italy.
As a frequent visitor to the Mondo Bizzarro gallery and bookshop
in Bologna with her parents, she always made a beeline to
my books. They tried to wean her away with Mark Ryden images
but she wasn't interested. She could tell the difference between
a Trevor Brown painting and a Mark Ryden! She was amazing.
I'd love to understand what she seeing in my work and how
it relates to her world (and why Mark's work failed to hit
that same button for her).
Alphabet' (Pan Exotica / Editions Treville, 1999) is your
parody of a children's alphabet book primer. Such books were
historically imbued with socio-political subtext intended
to introduce children to the adult world. What real world
lessons did you hope to impart through 'My Alphabet'.
child reading 'My Alphabet' would be jolted into the adult
world rather more directly and abruptly. Ha!, Trevor Brown
books are no more subversive than real children's books! I
was watching the face of the aforementioned young girl while
she was leafing through a copy of, not 'My Alphabet' but my
previous book 'Forbidden Fruit' (which probably contains more
explicit works), but she remained completely inscrutable,
blank but captivated, not betraying any sign of shock or disgust.
I suspect she is quite a rare exception but we do tend to
overly adopt the velvet gloves in regard to children nowadays.
Older children's stories and nursery rhymes (also rhymes invented
by children) are littered with violence and other frightful
things. 'My Alphabet' was written with some inclination of
the head in acknowledgement of that trait. The humour of the
text and the paintings were kept uniformly black. The real
world lessons to be learnt are i guess the same as in any
other of my works: no assertive personal message but throwing
(often closed) things open to other possibilities of cognisanse.
Things are not either black or white.
art and play can prove educational. In fact, many theorists
equate the two. Baudelaire asserted that, "The toy is
the child's earliest initiation into art, or rather it is
his first concrete example of art." Do you recall your
earliest toys or forms of play? How did they shape the artist
that you grew to be?
is terrible. I do vaguely remember being most contented playing
with the construction toys Lego and Meccano. No obvious relation
to my life now as an artist? But even now i can't look at
such toys in a toy shop with a feeling of longing. Nowadays,
however, most of the sets seem geared toward making a single
toy. I cherish my old boxes of neatly organised bits that
you could build into something, brake apart and rebuilt into
something else, only limited by your imagination. In that
creative respect it was art.
wife, Konomi, makes teddy bears and has a sizeable doll collection.
You seem to share her enthusiasm for toys. If you have a collection
of your own, what need does it fulfil and which items are
tend to be an avid collector of things. I used to keep obsessive
scrapbooks and now the computer has taken over in assuaging
and abetting my appetite for accumulating images and information.
I am quite pedantic. If i become interested in a certain musician
i have to obtain every single recording that that artist has
made. This does fall short of 'at whatever cost' though. I'm
not a collector obsessed with rarity value and the market
value of things. I don't collect art. I feel dumbfounded seeing
Konomi spend over $1000 on vintage Barbie dolls - to me they
are just bits of old plastic. I collected 'Susie Sad Eyes'
dolls for a while. I was instantly attracted to this sixties
Keane-esque doll after finding one at a doll show. Like a
child i stared at my new purchase for ages. Konomi mocked
me but in the end she grew to love them too. Now i have a
shelfful, and found a perfect condition original boxed one,
that collection has been consummated. My ongoing collection
is nurse and medical-related dolls. Having dolls around does
inspire my art of course.
you could recover one toy that you lost in your childhood,
what would it be? If you could recover one personal attribute,
what would that be?
actually remember it myself but my parents told me about a
soft toy rabbit i had when i was small, that i was inseparable
from and always held by the neck. Gradually the neck grew
longer and thinner until the head was attached to the body
only by a string! I'd love to see that again. I can't think
of any lost attributes to recover. Even things like youth
and vitality seem less appealing than the forthcoming pleasure
of being a cantankerous world-weary old eccentric.
an adult male, your interest in dolls is suspect, whether
justly or not. The doll is after all an idealized female
form that defies further objectification. If not in childhood,
then specifically when did you become interested in dolls?
And what, apart from artistic inspiration, is the nature
of your interest?
question to answer! Did anyone ever ask Bellmer this? I don't
think there was any sudden catalytic turning point, the interest
was always there, but it was after moving to Japan i became
more open about it (less ashamed about it) and indulged in
it more. As you say, an adult male being attracted to dolls
is sure to be regarded as suspect but, of course, i am not
looking at dolls in quite the same way as a young girl. Well,
perhaps partly i am conscious of how girls relate to dolls
and harbour a feminine empathy. But i'll admit my own preoccupation
with dolls is largely perverse. I guess i'll also concede
that it's a cheat as far as my art is concerned as dolls guarantee
some kind of emotional response. The symbolic nature of dolls
cannot be ignored. My fascination is multi-levelled. On one
level it is simply the visual appeal - that idealised perfect
beauty. The sinister aura of dolls, particularly coupled with
their inherent innocence as children's toys, another major
magnetic attraction. Some other undefinable psychological
thing about possession too maybe. If it was easy to put into
words i wouldn't have to paint!
I imagine your medical obsession is, like some
forms of play, a means of confronting what is threatening
in a secure environment. Through your work, you exercise
godlike control over the fragile and vulnerable women in your
paintings. You are thus figuratively (albeit temporarily)
removed from the role of mortal. Do your concerns about
mortality manifest themselves in other areas of your life
or your art?
in Tokyo with frequent earthquakes you are constantly reminded
of your own mortality. It's something i actually want to avoid
facing. I'm weak. So i'm not completely convinced my own art
is an admirable head-on confrontation with fears and insecurities.
Not a conscious one anyway. Producing art does make me feel
more powerful though. Art definitely is a wondrous detached
immortal realm you can escape to, hide in and play god in.
I'll gingerly fetishise fears, aestheticise anxieties and
otherwise manipulate things while the euphoria lasts. But
i'm all too aware that once exposed to the real world it's
quickly contestable and destructible. I can fully understand
why Darger didn't show anyone what he was up to. We don't
need to question his sanity. I think, shamefully, i lack the
courage and am too shy to fully exploit the power and 'freedom'
that art allows. Despite all evidence to the contrary, i like
to feel safe. I'm a baby.