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“There was an earthquake in Wellington. It was the only earthquake I’ve ever felt intensely. I had to go stand in the doorway. Then my mirror, which was perched against my wall on top of my dresser, not hung up or anything, fell down and smashed right next to me. It was the only thing that fell down. I just knew right then, I had to make a painting called Vibrating Room. It was about an earthquake, initially. If the mirror hadn’t broken, there wouldn’t have been this frame: I saw the painting that was going to be inside that frame.”
Looking at a painting like Vibrating Room, you feel like you’ve just stumbled in on a scene, uninvited. But you can’t pull your eyes away. You wonder about the person with their back turned to you, their face obscured. A potted aloe vera reaches out wildly, animate. Out the window, a night sky pulses with a mysterious phosphorescence. Blood spills from a picture on the wall, descending into the ‘real’ space of the vibrating room. You sense there is a secret being told, only you can’t hear the words. A candid moment has been captured. The passage of time is frozen and yet nothing stays still. The moment is languid in its movement; atoms reverberate within the walls, the ceiling, the carpet. It is an earthquake played on repeat.
This is the world of Georgette Brown, an artist experimenting in any creative realm she can catch hold of. She’s also my sister. As early as I can remember Georgette has been an artist. By this I mean that she has dedicated her life to art, with an obsessive, almost religious, reverence. Across the years, Georgette has given me drawers full of about twenty-two collaged birthday cards and maybe one hundred scraps of paper adorned with creatures wishing me a good day. I also have a few sketchbooks of my own, scattered with shitty replicas I tried to do of Georgette’s drawings when I was a kid.
A few weeks ago, I recorded a conversation Georgette and I had on an empty basketball court as the sun was going down. Evening birds and the hum of traffic resonate in the background of this recording. Because Georgette’s art is so familiar to me, I wanted to take a step back. Huddled together on the asphalt, Georgette and I spoke for forty-one minutes, as I attempted a glimpse of the world through her eyes…
Why do you make art?
Really, it’s… a lifestyle! Yes, it’s art, but it’s also my therapy, my communication, and my obsession. At this point, I do buy parts of my own materials (like paints—I haven’t found a way around that yet), but I mostly like to work with materials I find at the op-shop or on the street or what I’ve collected throughout my life and then rework that. It is art, but it’s also very practical for me. Such as making my own clothes. I’m about to bring into being a body of patchwork clothing made out of the scraps of fabrics I already have, to stave off my desire to buy clothes. I can’t imagine doing life without using the materials around me and creating from them. I guess art is my way of dealing with all the data that comes at me everyday, and then how I reinterpret that in my own way.
All the information I catalogue through my senses.
Tell me about ‘cataloguing’?
Like anyone else I am constantly receiving loads of information and then a natural cataloguing of what I deem most interesting occurs. This can happen anywhere and at any time. And to be honest, I spend a lot of time in the internet, where I do a lot of cataloguing. I get super inspired when someone has a flame inside them.
A flame inside them?
Yeah, that’s just the way I think about it when I perceive someone to be totally ignited. When you can see that someone is activated at that moment, their energy is infectious.
Speaking of flames, I feel like your art depicts both utopias and dystopias…
Yeah, I think I get typecast (maybe aptly so) as making only utopic art. But I don’t even think that much about the words ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’ anymore. Because I think they’re almost irrelevant now? I feel like we live in something that’s in between. A piece I feel hangs perfectly in the balance is The Surveillance of Visions…
Totally. That piece seems really sinister to me, like a reflection of creepy political monitoring, such as GCSB. When I look at The Surveillance of Visions, I see a character essentially minding their own business, attempting a freedom of expression, and then I glimpse the cameras lurking in the corners of the frame…
True, but also if you look closely you’ll see a large rainbow serpent looking straight into the camera as if to say, “I can see you, too. There are parts of me you cannot have and you cannot surveil.” The rainbow serpent is a recurring motif in my work that represents a culmination of dreams and visions. It’s very intentional that it’s the one staring down the camera, and not the human (which represents me). Because I feel strongly that for the most part, dreams and visions are something that are still ours, even when everything else is taken from us.
So are you painting that ‘in between’ space?
Well, it’s not even that wild what I’m trying to depict. I don’t have a garden personally, but most of my art revolves around people with plants, co-existing with flora and fauna. And when I’m drawing decay it’s because decay is a necessary part of nature. If I were making dystopias, those same plants that I’m depicting in my utopias would be poisoned and suffocated from pollution in the soil. All the earthworms I love to draw would be dead. All the bees would be gone. These kinds of images are a lot more common in my sketchbooks, but haven’t yet made it into the art I share publically, as I am still trying to work out what it means.
Like an apathetic response to this ‘climate chaos’?
Yeah, I don’t want to be apathetic. And I don’t want to glorify destruction. Because when I’m painting something, I am trying to glorify it in a way, by putting it in a frame. But then, I guess you can find beauty in things that are ugly. Like an oil spill—that looks glorious, but its effects are devastating.
Can I talk to you about worms?
Yeah! What about worms?
Well, worms and other things that are smaller than us are often overlooked. Worms are perceived as gross. But worms, fungi, and mycelium, for example, are very exciting. They are just as important as humans. I feel this pull to be gardening and farming. That’s art as well. I currently feel quite disconnected from the dirt.
And yet there are so many references to dirt, worms, fungi, and mycelium in your art. Is this your own form of escapism? Like imaginary gardening?
I just want to depict scenes of empowered people. Scenes that show people responding to what we’ve got here. I love fantasy and escapism but I’m much more interested in this soil, this reality. Even when I’m drawing my dreams, it’s still about this dirt.
On that note of empowered people, your art is often sexually explicit. I get a real sense of freedom in one’s sensuality and sexual expression. Images like dripping wet fingers, a person masturbating in front of a webcam, entwined bodies, mouths parted in untouchable ecstasy… can you elaborate on the sexual nature of your work?
I’ve always been sexually open. As a kid, I would talk to everyone about sex. Then I went to Catholic school when I was young, kind of by my own choice, maybe as my first performance art? Because Catholicism is sometimes very theatrical. The parochial schools I attended were ultra-conservative…
So that environment made you want to rebel?
Yeah, for example, our sex education class in high school involved showing us slides of STDS—really graphic stuff. I remember the day. It was a slideshow in the school library. But those images just felt so far removed from anything I was already experiencing at that point in time. I was already happy with my sexuality. Those slides didn’t teach me anything. They didn’t even put fear in me. And then there were the mandatory videos of abortions in my “morality” class. Or, like how a friend of mine couldn’t masturbate for years because they were told that God was watching them. You shouldn’t be taught that.
So are you trying to normalise sex and nudity in your art?
I just don’t think sex should be big a deal, as long as it’s consensual. In the past, humans would be the biggest features of my artwork; plants and animals were secondary. Now, humans are often the smallest bit of the painting. I’m trying to create an ecosystem. And sex is a natural part of that. It’s no big deal.
This is the moment when something in my mind clicks into place. I realise Georgette’s art is an ecosystem in and of itself. When she finds a scrap of fabric on the street, when she pauses to observe each leaf of a kōwhai tree in all its varying shades of brown and green and yellow, when she frames a painting from that which used to hold the broken mirror, to that point in time when these serendipitous findings meld in artworks that fizz with life. Georgette’s art is a process through which every element becomes important, interconnected. A resurrection of the discarded and decayed. An act of finding beauty in the ugly. A sanctuary in the forbidden. Georgette takes these pieces of our “in between” world to lift them up. Perhaps this is the secret being told in a painting like Vibrating Room.