Rachel Ashenden talks to artist Nell Brookfield about how her evocative paintings’ capture the strange in the quotidian and unleash the animalistic in the human.
An astute observer of everyday encounters, Nell Brookfield (born 1994) paints evocative scenes using an Edvard Munch-inspired palette. Her cunning approach to composition and cropping spotlights strange aspects of the quotidian which may otherwise go unnoticed. Symbols run through her burgeoning body of work, including unconventional meals, animalistic alter-egos and highly intricate depictions of hair and fur.
‘I approach surfaces and texture with the question “what does this feel like?’ as opposed to “what does this look like?”’, Brookfield informs me. Delightfully, this was born out a technique she experimented with during lockdown, in which she used touch as a tool of observation and drew self-portraits in response to feeling her own face. She elaborates: ‘My hope is that the viewer will have an urge to reach out and stroke the surface of the painting, or imagine what it might be like to exist within the work’. The extraordinary textures of her paintings are patiently achieved by a slow process of building up thin layers of paint. Accessory (2022) epitomises this technique. Accessory originated from a subway sketch Brookfield made of a small dog in a handbag, its dense coat as luxurious as its owner’s fur coat.
Sometimes bordering on the stuff of nightmares, Brookfield’s meticulously detailed paintings often emerge from her subconscious. She tells me that the fragmented depiction of human figures mimics the torment of waking up from a vivid dream and being unable to place the faces and struggling to piece together what happened throughout the day. ‘These works offer the viewer a section of what could be a larger work’, she adds, tempting me to consider the identity of the subject beyond the confines of the canvas.
Brimming with drama, Brookfield’s paintings stage tension between the subject and viewer. Sometimes the viewer is positioned as an intruder, interrupting a difficult phone call or a moment of intimacy. Layered in her approach, Brookfield titles her paintings with biting humour; Good Grief (2022), for instance, is an exclamation at the sight of the viewer who has stepped into a private scene.
While human faces are rarely represented in Brookfield’s paintings, the motif of the dog reappears boldly and frequently, like an alter-ego. The dog reminds me of Dorothea Tanning’s beloved Katchina, a Tibetan Lhasa Apso with a ‘human dimension’ (quoted from a 1977 interview). Citing Tanning and Paula Rego as a source of influence, Brookfield calls on the dog as a device to emphasise human taboos and rituals. In her painting, When the Knife Hits the Plate, Scream (2022), Brookfield upends the human suppression of animalistic instincts: unbeknownst to the person, the teal blue dog steals some of the cake before it’s sliced. Emphasised by the unconventional title, the scene is chaotic; the unruly double-tiered sponge is seemingly made from spaghetti, and the swirling flames of the candles are dangerously close to the person’s waxy red hands. Frozen like a tableau vivant, this painting leaves me wondering: what horrors would occur if the knife did hit the plate? I am poised, ready to scream.
‘I am finding stories in the details of books, dreams, museums, and so on’, Brookfield concludes. Interpretations of her multifaceted works are endless, which is why I want to end on an indulgent analysis of Layering (2022). I can’t help but compare it to Ithell Colquhoun’s painting Scylla (1938), which draws upon the Homeric myth about the water-dwelling femme-fatale who destroyed seafarers. Whether Brookfield intended it or not, Layering presents me with a double image, akin to Scylla. At first glance I am confronted with a man’s chest, a matryoshka doll of textured layers: a necktie, a shirt, a cardigan and a house coat. Then the script is flipped, and I cannot get the illusion of feminine legs out of my head. Playful bubbles float along the surface of the canvas, which transport me to Colquhoun’s bath tub. Justifiably, Brookfield enjoys this devil’s advocate approach to building a picture; apparently viewers are evenly divided in their interpretations as to whether Layering represents a man’s chest or a woman’s legs.
Whilst I was all too ready to label her work as surreal, Brookfield corrects me: her paintings are ‘very much rooted in reality’. In a formative moment in her artistic practice, she looked to the surrealists to find permission to fully embrace the weirdness of her work. She collects the bizarre in the most mundane of human conventions and rituals, and turns them into these utterly captivating paintings. I urge you to spend time interpreting them too.
This feature is a slightly edited version originally published on Rachel Ashenden’s newsletter, Interior Scroll, which features more art reviews, interviews, profiles and reflections. You can also find out more about Nell Brookfield’s work via her website.
Feature image: Nell Brookfield’s Beer Fear, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.