Deborah Brown, “Careful What You Wish For” at Jason Vass Gallery
By Sydney Walters
Through December 17th
This fall, Jason Vass presents an inclusive look into the work of Deborah Brown, a practicing artist in the United Kingdom and an MFA graduate of UC Irvine. Since first being shown in the 1990’s, Brown brings innovation into sexual discourse. Photographs and sculptures of her body mutate into beings fantastic and ambiguously erotic. Her photographs especially demonstrate her commitment to mutation. Not Too Close shows Brown’s exposed breasts with tiny pink tentacles circling her areola. Likewise, Something’s Fishy is another close up photograph of her nipple lined with fish scales. In Still Interested? another nipple is wreathed with animal fur. Contrary to expectation, the tentacles, scales, fur and even the bees nestling in her pubic region in You Might Get Stung, are not the result of Photoshop. Brown’s commitment to shifting perception begins with tangible manipulations.
A craftswoman at heart, it is no wonder her photographs are supplements to her sculptural exhibit. On the back wall of the gallery, small vintage boxes sit arranged on a shelf. In them, Brown has sculpted vulvas, bellybuttons, open mouths, nipples and various erotic zones to fit perfectly in each compartment. They are displayed with their lids lifted or removed so as to peer in to each Our Little Secret. But one can imagine them in a private home where the owner steals a peek at his or her leisure.
Brown has mastered the art of narrative titles. Her titles guide a conversation about the work that expands their interpretation. The titles also drive home her pointed sarcasm, irony, humor and in some cases, tragedy. She names a seven-foot tall cedar phallus My Man. A smaller My Man cast in resin stands erect at just sixteen inches. Facing these “men”, five leather horse yokes hang on the wall. Made of metal, wood and cowhide, the yokes are bound at the ends and stuffed with padding to evoke vaginal imagery. This group called Where Do We Go From Here? suggests that female sexuality has been bridled for utilitarian purposes rather than a release of pleasure. The rustic composition of the yokes on the wall brings to mind a trophy-hunting wall. This is an example of Brown’s undercurrent of tragedy. Where Do We Go From Here? Nowhere.
In the center of the room, Do I Fulfill Your Expectations is reminiscent of Janine Antoni’s Gnaw. For the creation of Gnaw, Antoni chewed chocolate and lard to mold empty chocolate containers and lipstick tubes. Although Brown crafts a different kind of vessel, a wood and leather case shaped like a vagina, she has placed large pieces of chocolate, some with bites taken out of them in and around the pink vessel. While Antoni comments on the regurgitation of exuberance, Brown also considers waste but in regards to sexual degradation.
On the show cards for Careful What You Wish For is a graphic of a vagina erupting with flames. During a performance piece at the opening, a piñata (You Might Get Burned) mimics the form of the flaming vagina and was beaten with a penis shaped bat (Bat Out of Heaven). Once the piñata was ripped, candy red hots poured from the opening onto the floor. In Wanna Ride? a semi-truck door and exhaust pipe are mounted onto the gallery wall. A flaming vagina is airbrushed on the side of the door. Here, Brown loops in a tribe usually outside of contemporary art conversation: trucker culture. Depictions of trucks and truck drivers are akin with motorcycle gangs: they are cowboys on highways. And cowboys pack a heavy Apollo ego. By branding a distinctly female image on a trucker’s door, Brown advances the woman into a male dominated arena.
These subversive vaginas do not stay in the gallery. Temporary tattoos bearing the same image are available at the door. In offering takeaway tattoos rather than takeaway cards, Brown gives audiences access to both a medium and image ripe with rebellion. By inviting participants into an intimate underground, she invites discourse about sexuality and it’s messy entanglements to occur beyond the gallery.