Meaning generated by the visual image can speak with many tongues and indeed the artist’s intentions can be timorous and malleable.
Pat Brassington is one of Australia’s most respected photo-artists. The deceptively simple juxtapositions found in her delicate but disconcerting images set up strange associations that capture the imagination without necessarily resolving into a clearly identifiable idea. In this, she is exploring and exploiting the legacies of Surrealism, while subtly subverting those (primarily masculine) traditions with a clearly feminine and feminist inflection. There is a wistful humour in the work, but there is also a pervasive, almost childlike, perversity.
It is perhaps the apparent simplicity of these images that holds the key to their effect. The source material, which might be an old knitting pattern or a family photograph, carries with it to the final work a certain uncomplicated, wholesome quality that becomes delicately polluted through the juxtaposition with anomalous and ambiguous shapes and stains. The resulting image suggests a glimpse of something off limits; forbidden and foreboding; sensed but never quite grasped or fully apprehended. The work could be said to be ‘uncanny’, a term used by the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) to describe a psychologically disconcerting blend of the familiar and the alien, often found in dreams.
Pat Brassington has a significant reputation with works held in all of the leading state and national public collections in Australia and featured regularly in exhibitions overseas. In 2004, she was one of only half a dozen Australian artists selected by the international artistic director, Isabel Carlos, for her Sydney Biennale entitled ‘On Reason and Emotion’.
Meanwhile, in her hometown of Hobart, Pat Brassington is held in the highest regard as both artist and arbiter. Not that it is easy to elicit an opinion; but, when given, people take note. Readily supportive of others, especially younger and emerging artists, she is respected by all, loved by many and, always, just a little mysterious…
Alasdair: Although you have lived all your life in Tasmania your work seems to me remarkably international – even European – in feel. Is that a conscious thing?
Pat: My practice isn’t centred on a sense of place in any literal way. I don’t deal with ‘Australianness’. If there is a European look or feel about my work perhaps it’s because I’m attracted to Anglo-European ideas, theories, histories.
One of those histories is Surrealism, which arose in a very different time and context from today. What draws you to the surreal in the 21st century?
Well, edifices like the church and the state that were targeted by Surrealists then are again under scrutiny by many artists now. It’s probably just that the tactics employed differ by degree. My engagement, or more aptly, my intrigue with Surrealism has been centred on the politics of desire and the unconscious. I am ambivalent though.
Have you always been drawn to the darker, more complex and disquieting aspects of the imagination?
I was born with a frown on my face and I often have had to contend with people making observations of that sort. I remember back in the 1980s being asked if I could ‘see a light at the end of the tunnel?’ Maybe there is some truth in the quote from [Karl] Marx: “All the traditions of the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Do you think the dark and disquieting is simply a translation or distillation of the bleak nightmare of life, or does it offer something of a useful imaginative counterpoint?
Nightmares we live with. I guess it’s a matter of how we deal with them. What fuels them. How we process them. How we make them go away. What we may learn from them. I never cease to be amazed by the sheer audacity of images recalled from a dream.
When I was exhibiting your work in Taiwan the young female gallery staff in the museum were convinced you must be one of the youngest artists in the show because your work struck them as playful and dark in a way they felt was of their own generation.
That is very pleasing feedback because, having worked in an art school gallery, I have had a ready dialogue with students and artists, often much younger than myself. These conversations and friendships are important for me and if some of this shows in my work that’s fine.
Was art a big thing when you were growing up?
My parents weren’t much interested in art but they were not discouraging either. I would often hear “where does she get it from?” My paternal great-grandfather had been an accomplished stonemason and one of my cousins, who was considered to be a good drawer, went on to become a sculptor.
I was labelled a daydreamer but one day I woke up. Everything came into sharp focus. I became acutely aware of the real nature of my domestic environment and, somewhat removed from home, the precarious international political climate and the doubts it raised about the future may have been a factor. I’m referring specifically here to the mid-to-late 1950s.
I became serious-minded about art during my high-school days – it was my favourite subject. I think it was around that time I began to harbour a secret ambition to become an artist. I wanted to go on to art school, but my family’s economic circumstances got in the way and I had to find a job.
That must have been frustrating?
In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t go to art school at an early age. I went through the usual pattern for girls at the time. Worked for a few years, married and had two children. Any art activity was very much in the background, but in the early 1970s exposure to (and, subsequently, interest in) feminist politics gave me the impetus I needed to resume my education. I completed my HSC [Higher School Certificate] part-time and applied to go to art school. After sitting an entry test I was encouraged to attend the printmaking and photography studios. I recall feeling a bit disappointed because I thought that painting was de rigueur. Once again, in retrospect, I’m glad I was where I was.
Finding your own voice can be a path of false starts and stops but when you get an inkling of what you can do and can say it is sort of liberating.
Where do you find the constituent images for your collages?
It varies. I recycle a lot of material from my own photographic archive. As a work develops, a specific requirement may arise and I will then hunt around for a suitable object or for bits and pieces. I have used my own body parts quite frequently.
© Pat Brassington two untitled images from the series ‘Cambridge Road’ 2007
Your work over the past decade or so seems to divide into two types: the ambiguous collage works and the more performative pieces. Do you see those as distinct approaches, moving from one to the other, or as aspects of the same project?
In my mind, they are aspects of the same project. But the performative pieces are pretty much based on the original negative and the relationship between figure and background is as you would expect. However, with the collages there is the opportunity to upset expectations, so the figure–ground is often disrupted.
Is it hard to start a new work?
My starts are slow. They can be triggered by past work, but with the understanding that a body of work develops over an extended period and there is interplay between various images. While developing a body of work I continually make small sketch prints and pin them up. Then I live with this evolving array of images for weeks and months.
I reject much more than I keep.
How do you feel when you begin a work?
Making work is a tricky business. It’s a personal commitment to everything and to nothing. This tightrope you walk starts close to the ground and goes up and up. On completion of a body of work you are committed and uncertain in equal parts, and, of course, chances of a fall are frightening.
How does it feel when the work gets its first public showing?
When I’m making work I tend to be very insular. I rarely discuss it or show it to people – maybe because I’m protecting myself and the images. I think I become almost apologetic! So, when the time comes to put work on public display I grit my teeth. I’m nervous. I know that my work doesn’t appeal to everybody, but I don’t make excuses and I don’t compromise. When I get a positive reaction, of course, I’m pleased.
What I like about your work is the way you elicit a beguiling sense of the homely with apparent overtures of charm, but quickly raise in the imagination the spectre of a darker and somewhat unnatural sexuality and, in the more recent works, death or the potential for violence. I guess I like to be disturbed … led outside my comfort zone.
It seems to me that this mix of homely and unnatural is an example of Sigmund Freud’s ‘uncanny’, but, on a more individual level. How does it function for you in your artwork?
That development we’ve been talking about – across a number of artworks over an extended period of time – means I maintain a continuing dialogue with the images and sometimes between the images. But my intent, in terms of content and meaning, can alter in the course of making. Generally speaking, meaning generated by the visual image can speak with many tongues and indeed the artist’s intentions can be timorous and malleable. In discussing one’s ongoing methods it can be counterproductive to pin down specific concerns or to venture towards prescription.
Having said that, I acknowledge my interest in some of Freud’s writings. They have even influenced my view of the ‘people-world’. But, without debunking your interesting observation about Freud’s depiction of the uncanny, I would have to say it has not consciously been my intention to use it.
As for the rest, I welcome tensions from various sources for their capacity to animate content and to grip the viewer. Clarification about the shape of new work emerges during the making process. It’s important to entertain possibilities and not shut them off: to be prepared for an extended state of uncertainty.
But, no more theory!
And if you weren’t an artist what would you be, do you reckon?
Lead singer in a rock and roll band!
What would the band be called?
Twenty-five percent off.
Patricia Brassington was born in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1942. Early in the 1980s, she studied printmaking and photography at the Tasmanian School of Art. She has exhibited widely in Australia and overseas. Her work is held in many public collections including the National Gallery of Australia; the Art Gallery of New South Wales; Queensland Art Gallery; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney; the National Gallery of Victoria; the Art Gallery of Western Australia; and Cologne Museum of Contemporary Art, Germany. She was the recipient of the prestigious Monash Gallery of Art Bowness Photography Prize in 2013, and, in 2017, she was awarded the inaugural Don MacFarlane Prize, which recognises the work of a senior Australian artist and their ongoing commitment to leadership in the visual arts. She lives and works in Hobart, Tasmania.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the September 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.