The thrilling thing about Halloween is the sense that the normal rules and taboos of everyday life are temporarily suspended. We can dress up as witches, zombies or ghouls; don black capes and fake fangs; walk around with makeup simulating death, disfigurement or demonic possession; and, with a sense of playfulness and irony, give vent to our deeper natures, hidden fears, secret desires and even neglected spirituality.
Having stepped out of the narrow codes of judgment and behavior that we use to circumscribe ourselves, it is also possible to approach areas of experience that we perhaps normally wouldn’t — like the work of one of the most controversial, misunderstood, yet talented artists in Japan, exiled English painter Trevor Brown.
Brown’s paintings of funny, cute, but sinister doll-like creatures, lolitas and teddy bears inhabiting a bizarre world of medical, masochistic and macabre imagery seem to emanate from a perpetual Halloween twilight zone, where innocence is inextricably enmeshed with — but never fully corrupted by — evil.
Yet even though this fascinating cocktail is an addictive passion for Brown’s fans, who religiously buy his paintings and books, it is definitely not everybody’s cup of tea. Over the years, the artist has received death threats and been accused of everything from pedophilia to Nazism, via Satanism and sadism. Reflecting the hysteria that Brown sometimes attracts, one reviewer said, “The toilet bowl inside this artist’s brain is overflowing with blood culled from a massive fetish orgy starring a horde of underage Japanese goth sluts for whom the more freakish, unimaginable terrain of human behavior is the norm.”
“Discussion of my work always falls into opposing fractions, those who love it and those who hate it,” Brown says. "There’s little middle ground, unless you get someone saying they’re indifferent to it as an intended insult.”
Provokes strong negative reactions
In today’s climate of political correctness and other overactive puritanisms, it is easy to see why Brown’s art — despite its obvious saccharine charm — provokes strongly negative reactions. Perhaps 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, high school girl, and SM mistress. What makes it worse for Brown’s critics is that the artist has no compunction in providing them further ammunition by emblazoning a large swastika on the SM mistress’ costume, to go with her peaked cap and concentration-camp Doberman, before provocatively entitling the piece "Nazis are Sexy." The humor and the irony, quite obvious to most sensible British people, could easily be missed by others.
“My interest in the swastika is purely for its aesthetic beauty and the fact it pisses people off to a curiously disproportional extent,” Brown explains, before muddying the waters with exactly the kind of comments guaranteed to jerk yet more chains. “It’s supposed to be a good luck symbol, folks. Calm down. It’s still banned in Germany. What’s the point? Seems they — and who are ‘they’ now? — want it kept front page news forever. But it’s history now, generations old. So old that we get all these rampant revisionist theories trying to tell us the photos of piles of concentration camp corpses were done in Photoshop.”
Although occasionally shocking, this kind of middle-finger-raised attitude is redolent of the punk ethos of late-’70s Britain, where Brown came of age. This mindset has also led him into designing record covers for a diverse range of very un-middle-of-the-road musicians, including G.G. Allin, Coil, John Zorn, Whitehouse, and Deicide.
Completing the critics’ negative image of Brown is the fact that, since 1994, he has lived and worked in Japan, a country known for its easygoing attitude or indifference to certain unusual types of sexuality, be it tentacle porn, pedophilic manga, or shibari rope bondage. The implication in all this is that somebody like Brown is here because he wouldn’t be tolerated in his native England. But, of course, this is nonsense, as proved by Turner Prize-nominated British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose work routinely features naked children and Nazi iconography. If Brown is an exile in Japan, it is by choice.
Fell in love with all things Japanese
“I was working as a freelance commercial artist for advertising agencies mainly, but thanks to England’s bad economy that work had almost reached a full stop,” he recalls of the period preceding his move. “I had some artistic aspirations of my own which were already getting more attention in Japan — a CD cover or two and articles in a fetish/SM magazine — than could ever possibly be imagined in England. I was in love with all things Japanese. So, with a Japanese girlfriend holding my hand, I left my home country. I had no big expectations, though. It was a leap into the unknown.”
Now married to that same girl, Brown is comfortable here and generally approves of the live-and-let-live attitude he has encountered.
“The Japanese mind-your-own-business disposition is so great they’ll walk past someone lying on the ground bleeding to death,” he says. “But generally it’s mostly admirable I think.”
The attraction is mutual. Although most of his paintings are still sold to Western buyers, Brown has gained popularity in Japan far beyond the dreams of most Western artists working here. This is expressed in book sales, illustrations for magazines and CD covers for local musicians. What is the secret of his success?
“I don’t really know many other gaijin artists,” he answers. “But I suspect there could be an unseen number of aspiring artists struggling to be ‘big in Japan.’ Despite the poor economy, Japan still retains a sort of prestigious trendiness. I’ve never tried hard at attempting to appeal to the Japanese, which might be a mistake many artists make, but have just tried to stay my Western self, and let the influence of being in Japan naturally seep into my work. Thus it became tainted by kawaii.”
While the Japanese seem comfortable with having Brown in their midst, elsewhere it’s a different story. Opposition to his art remains strong. He agrees that this is partly because it is so easy to understand his work in the wrong way rather than to just be fashionably mystified by it, as happens with other contemporary art.
“The brain short-circuits on the conflicting signals,” he says. “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.”
For the viewer mature enough to advance beyond the hysteria and moral outrage, there are a number of interesting strands 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 (think the seaside postcards of Donald McGill) and an interest in human fragility filtered through J.G. Ballard’s novel "Crash." 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.”
Such ambiguity extends to the figures in his paintings — the ages of the girls are unspecified or they may simply be dolls. This means that any pedophilic reading ultimately depends on the viewer choosing to see things this way, an act revealing more about them than the artist. Brown points this out with regards to "Li’l Miss Sticky Kiss," whose black eye, it is often assumed, is evidence of child abuse.
“Who said she was a victim of child abuse?” Brown asks. “How do people immediately come to that conclusion? They are making the sinister associations, not me — yet I get the blame for them! There could be countless innocent reasons how she came to have a black eye. Kids are prone to accidents and injuries of one sort or another. No one would think twice about a child with grazed knees or even a broken arm. Also, the images are just dressing-up, make-belief — cosplay! She’s variously a nurse, a punk, a witch, a cowgirl, a soldier. Wouldn’t it be likely that the black eye is pretend too?”
But, putting art and its multifaceted interpretation to one side, what are Brown’s own attitudes to sex? Is he, in fact, the sort of person you’d be insane to let near your children — a kind of Tsutomu Miyazaki with a paintbrush?
“In person, I’m way more conservatively normal, boring and conventional than the Trevor Brown, art ogre,” he responds. “I’m not even particularly sexually attracted to children at all. Well, physically, not until around the age of 14, but even then intellectual immaturity would make them fall short of desirability for me, although 14-year-old female fans that have written to me haven’t sounded exactly stupid. I love 18-year-olds who look 12! The way things are going, it won’t be long before that is illegal too! It’s utterly ridiculous setting the age of consent, etc, at 18 and anything below that is ‘child abuse’ territory. Girls are most sexually ripe at around 17 — my wife said this! — and they are no longer kids at that age, so they shouldn’t be treated as such. I don’t have solutions, but clearly we just need a little common sense to prevail here, unlikely as that is.”
Asked his views on a wide range of sexual behavior, Brown makes it clear that he stands for the principle of consent and the autonomy of the individual.
“Homosexuality and SM practices are variously legal or illegal depending on where you are carrying out such acts on the globe. I think most would accept them as healthy fair-play if consensual for all involved parties. Outside parties dictating what you can and cannot do in the privacy of your own home should just not be involved at all. Bestiality and necrophilia are fair game for art, but in the real world probably cross the taboo line because of the issue of consent.”
Brown’s belief that the individual should decide what he or she likes artistically, does sexually, or simply thinks, rather than having it prescribed by interfering busybodies, swims against the tide of the times. In the West, increasing social diversity is leading to less and less tolerance for anything that might be regarded as offensive by any one particular group. Those in authority are also increasingly prone to respond to groundless rumors and anonymous accusations, as Brown has found out to his detriment.
“I’ve been banned, for life, by Paypal because some person complained to them about my work,” he says. “They immediately without warning closed my account and pocketed my sizable funds for six months. They deemed my work to be pornography involving minors. When I tried to dispute this libelous accusation, they snapped back: ‘This matter is considered closed. Any further correspondence about this issue will go unanswered.’ How nice of them! Judge, jury and executioner!”
In the face of such opposition, it’s very much to Brown’s credit that he has stuck to his guns, painting what he feels inspired to, rather than bowing to convention.
“I’m no art martyr,” he says with a note of stoic self-deprecation. “I’m not even sure if I’m an outcast by choice. I do what I do. And, despite my negativity, I do happen to have a belief in myself and [the] strength of conviction to follow my own artistic ideas against popular opinion. So while the weather is fine, I’ll continue to skate on thin ice for your delight or derision.”
Two of Trevor Brown’s latest works can be seen at the “Neo Japan Aestheticism Declaration” exhibit at Span Art Gallery, through Octr 31.
Span Art Gallery Neo Japan Aestheticism Declaration. Various media. Until Oct 31, free. 2-2-18 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-5524-3060. Open Mon-Sat 11 a.m. -7 p.m., closed Sun. Nearest station: Yurakucho. Map. Directions. www.span-art.co.jp
The artist is also preparing an exhibition of paintings based on the theme of “Alice in Wonderland” for display next year. Brown’s website is http://pileup.com/babyart.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today