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RESTORING THE MALICE TO WONDERLAND:
TREVOR BROWN AT THE BUNKAMURA GALLERY

 

By C.B. LIDDELL

TOKYO, 29 APRIL 2010 — Tokyo-based artist Trevor Brown has made a name for himself with paintings that blend the cute and the macabre, and which play with Lolita imagery. So, it was probably only a matter of time before he got round to mining that rich vein of visual imagery and parasexual fascination represented by Alice in Wonderland. His recent exhibition, Time for Alice, at Tokyo’s prominent Bunkamura Gallery (31 March - April 11) showcased thirty mainly new paintings that take Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic as their starting point and add a welcome twist.


Trevor Brown: Down the Rabbit Hole
Oil on canvas, 50 x 73cm, Apr. 2009
Photo courtesy of Bunkamura Gallery

"From the start I set a target of thirty paintings," the slightly reclusive Brown explains by e-mail, his preferred method of communication even though we had met and chatted earlier at the gallery. "I used a few old works which sorta fit the theme to meet my secondary target of completing it by the end of 2009."

The fact that Tim Burton’s version of the same tale is in the theatres this spring is merely a coincidence — both projects have been in preparation for a number of years — although Brown is keen to point out that the Burton misses the whole point by using an adult to play Alice.

"I really hate the fact Tim Burton used a woman to play Alice, then, in my cynical view, realizing no one would believe she was a ten year old girl, he concocted a story about Alice returning to wonderland ten years later (or whatever) – and of course it was always going to be a ‘Johnny Depp in Wonderland’ film and highly commercial Disney fodder. Despite that, I still look forward to seeing it. His (tripped out) visual sense is always very good, even if he is selling out."


Trevor Brown: Bong Bug, 2009
Oil on canvas, 53 x 65cm
Photo courtesy of Bunkamura Gallery

Some might say the same about Brown, who gained notoriety for his often unnerving imagery of young girls in sexually suggestive poses or apparently bruised and brutalized. His most famous series of paintings, entitled Li’l Miss Sticky Kiss (exhibited and also published in book form in 2004), shows a "loli-cosplay heroine" with a swollen black eye in a variety of costumes, including the much fetishized guises of nurse and high school girl — along with a swastika-emblazoned S&M mistress. Alongside these works, the Alice paintings — with a few exceptions – seem a tad sweeter and, dare I say, family friendly. Just as well perhaps, as the Bunkamura Gallery is a glass-fronted venue easily accessible to the general public.


Trevor Brown: Green Tea Party, 2008
Oil on canvas, 80 x 65cm
Photo courtesy of Bunkamura Gallery

Some works, like the charming Green Tea Party or the psychedelic Bong Bug, lack the strong parasexual overtones of much of his earlier work. Indeed, apart from the small leather bondage gimp dormouse tucked away in a corner of the former work and the druggy vibe of the other, these could both be ideal decoration for a kindergarten.

"I suppose I did feel an obligation to do the Mad Hatter's tea party, and, perhaps inevitably, I'm a bit unhappy with that painting," he expresses regretfully. "I was pandering too much — not Trevor Brown enough!"

Another work Humpty at first has a similar overly saccharine feel. A beautifully painted Alice hugs the eponymous egg man in what could be an updated tribute to Alice’s original illustrator Sir John Tenniel. It is only when you look closer that you notice the slightly disturbing aspects.


Trevor Brown: Humpty, 2008
Oil on canvas, 50 x 61cm
Photo courtesy of Bunkamura Gallery

"It’s kinda innocuous and cute looking," Brown comments. "The gallery evidently thought it was inoffensive enough to use for the post card – but it's one of the more perverse images, with the grotesque lecherous Humpty leering at Alice, with the hint of a bulge down his trousers."

The positioning of the pictures at the exhibition was partly decided by how overtly shocking they would be to the uninitiated. Cuter works like "Humpty" were placed closer to the door, while more obviously shocking works — Malice in Wonderland (a little girl tip-toeing on a field of penises) and Dumpty (the same egg man as before turned into a sadomasochistic pincushion by a dominatrix Alice) — were hung further inside the gallery.

"I thoughtfully placed Malice in Wonderland toward the far end of the gallery, with some of the other more ‘adult’ images, so that anyone who had wandered into the gallery ‘by mistake’ would have had time to leave — but the first pair of little girls who arrived were racing far ahead of their mothers viewing the paintings and dolls — and they stopped at the one painting before ‘Malice in Wonderland’ — which was Dumpty and in which they appeared to take an especial surreptitious delight in, pointing to dumpty’s face and giggling — I was anxious to see how they’d react to the next painting — but, as their parents caught up with them, they walked straight past it with no discernible reaction …from either the girls or their mothers!"


Trevor Brown: Dumpty, 2008
Oil on canvas, 60 x 72cm
Photo courtesy of Bunkamura Gallery

This reaction may sound surprising, but the ‘innocence’ of women — of any age — is often overrated by the male sex, and although Brown, as a man, clearly shares this chivalrous olde worlde delicacy with regard to the fair sex, as an artist he doesn’t. A case in point is the diptych represented by Humpty and Dumpty. The first work subverts the childhood notion of a benign universe. What the little girl takes to be a lovable, cuddly character is revealed to be something of a sexual predator. Here the girl is the naïve innocent who is liable to be corrupted and violated, in other words the rather Victorian male-centric view of women as sweet little things who need to be, ahem, ‘protected.’ Dumpty, however, shows the other side of the coin. Now it is the male’s more focused and almost ‘innocent’ desire for sexual gratification that has placed him at the mercy of the female, who is revealed to be far from innocent and whose sexuality always has another — and, in this case, darker — agenda.

But ambiguity like this is something that people often feel uncomfortable with, leading to reductionist attempts to damn Brown as some simple-minded pervert. Brown is very familiar with this reaction.

"The brain short-circuits on the conflicting signals," he explains. "So, rather than try to work it out themselves, they’ll go along with someone else’s suitably pre-packaged opinion — the knee-jerk ‘feel good’ sicko/pedo accusation being the obvious lazy favorite. Safety in numbers! Much better than having to form their own response and possibly concluding there might be more to it than that."


Trevor Brown: Caterpillar Garden, 2009
Oil on canvas, 53 x 65cm
Photo courtesy of Bunkamura Gallery

For the viewer mature enough to advance beyond the hysteria and moral outrage there is much to be discerned in Brown’s work. These include the enhanced aesthetic effects of juxtaposing opposites, explorations of female passive-aggressive power, elements of Continental surrealism (Dali and Bataille), traditional British vulgar humor (Viz comic and the seaside postcards of Donald McGill spring to mind) and an interest in human fragility. But cultivating ambiguity for its own sake is also important.

"You want to make people think or affect them," Brown explains. "To that end I do consciously make my work ambiguous and open to misinterpretation, deliberately sending out conflicting messages."

C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes on culture for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun newspaper. He last interviewed the Jazz pianist and composer Chick Corea for Culturekiosque.com.

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