Since Joy Wolfenden Brown last exhibited at Beaux Arts she has won the National Open Art competition and been short-listed for the Threadneedle Prize. It is no surprise to see her gaining recognition at a national level for the quiet, understated strength of her work. In an age where artwork sometimes appears to attract attention by any means necessary, these works are not only a breath of fresh air, they are breathtakingly good.
Underpinned at times by what often seems a naïve simplicity, they somehow skirt the trap of sentimentality, and use spontaneity to maximum effect, conveying an emotive and unfettered atmosphere of intimacy and delicacy. The paintings are almost all of adolescent girls, for the most part sitting in a kind of quizzical repose. With experience in working as an art therapist with troubled teenagers, she seems to be able to use the obscurity of this period of a girl’s development to point up the tenuous nature of identity itself. Most of her shy protagonists seem unsure; hands are clenched, slippered feet point inwards, the postures are stiff, and yet the paintings are gentle, not sentimental, not twee, but managing somehow to be sincere, candid and what is more, kind.
These are works where small details matter – bookcases on the periphery of paintings suggest a new world order of adulthood; a lace curtain flutters in the breeze; the painted figures are never sure about their jewellery, a new dress or a hair-do. The young woman-to-be understands the fleeting beating heart of the small bird. Hair fixed in a clip, a crooked parting or a wisp out of place, add to the feeling of unease with self, and the lack of sophistication to prevent this being hidden. Diaphanous material mirrors the open nature of the adolescent characters. On the other hand, the works which feature younger children (and often animals) have an air of tenderness being learned. They lighten the mood and highlight the prosaic comedy or absurdity of everyday life. Touched by melancholy and mystery, yet moving and joyful, these paintings share some of the evocative solitude in Shani Rhys-James’ painting. The frank yet unfathomable facial expressions of the pubescent sitters put one in mind of the work of Jennifer McRae. Yet the delicate joy of works featuring younger children (and their pets) cannot help but call to mind the particular genius of Ben Hartley.
So why ‘Home’? Joy herself explains it best:
“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back…”
‘Painting seems to come when I shed myself of expectation or planning and, as T.S. Eliot put it “wait without thought (for you are not ready for thought’). It is rather a case of being there. This year, small shy pictures have pushed their way to the forefront of the larger works. A sense of home and all that home might encompass seems to have been at the centre of this year’s paintings.
Often restless nomadic images have found figures setting out or arriving, crossing between sea and land, at a bridge or calling out to gather the missing back together. Sometimes at odds or at home on their land, setting out to build a makeshift den in the woods, settling in by the warmth of a fire, claiming the day and an ordinary life. The portraits hang like a family album; familiar and similar faces but each with their own stories.
The paintings have come about at a time of transition in my own home, with family who are growing up and moving on. Also amidst a backdrop of restless movement and searching in our wider world which, albeit unconsciously, cannot help but echo in the heart alongside the soul’s own deep longing for home.’
“In destitution, even of feeling or purpose, a human being is more hauntingly human and vulnerable to kindness because there is a sense that things should be otherwise, and then the thought of what is wanting and what alleviation would be, and how the soul could be at ease, restored. At home.” – Marilynne Robinson