Pat Brassington is mining the unconscious

Skewed body parts; allusions to genitalia, sex and violence; tinges of the fleshiest pink; a girl with a lightbulb for a head. Since the 1980s Pat Brassington’s images have entranced the psyche of contemporary Australian art. The photo-media artist’s staged, crafted scenes evoke something complicated, quietened, even repressed, in human nature, with her works often linked to psychoanalysis, feminism and surrealism.

With a new solo exhibition at ARC ONE Gallery, Brassington, now 82 years old, talks about first studying art in her thirties, and her early encounters with feminist texts through a wives’ book club. She also talks about her feelings on living and working in Hobart, the role of psychoanalysis in explaining her work, and what it means to mine the unconscious.

Pat Brassington, Camouflage, 2010, Pigment Print , edition of 8 + 2 A/P, 55 x 80 cm. Courtesy of the artist and ARC ONE.

Tiarney Miekus: It’s often noted that you studied art as a “mature age” student, first studying in your mid-thirties in 1976. What were you doing before that time?

Pat Brassington: I was a housewife and mother living in an outer beachside suburb on Hobart’s eastern shore, alongside many other women in a similar situation—meaning we all had to retire from our respective employment after having children. There was no such thing as maternity leave then. We craved some form of intellectual engagement, so an all-female book club and a babysitting club was formed. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, first published in the early 60s, was on the book club reading list. I read it when I was around 30. Friedan’s research for the book had concluded that there was widespread discontent among women in the United States despite living in material comfort and being married with children. Don’t get me wrong—there were joyful and meaningful times being a mother. But speaking for myself, I knew I had unfinished business to attend to.

I’m glad my dreams about going to art school, or as it was then, the art department of the Hobart Tech College, at the age of 16 going on 17, were dashed because of my parent’s dire economic situation. I had to get a job and start paying my parent’s rent instead. I say I’m glad because the art department at HTC was, I believed, in a time-warp in so many ways, and the situation didn’t improve until the Tasmanian School of Art emerged in 1963.

TM: The narrative I read most about your work was that during the late 1970s, you came across feminist and psychoanalytic theory and that greatly informed your practice—things like The Feminine Mystique, and then texts that went even further. But I don’t really believe any woman understands feminism from theory alone—the theory resonates with or explains something already felt or lived. What resonated for you?

PB: I would certainly acknowledge that my temperament and life experiences have influenced how I respond to or interpret “being in the world” and I had feelings of dissatisfaction long before reading The Feminine Mystique, but I really didn’t know how to confront this. What I did feel, in a nutshell, was disempowered and divorced from myself and my aspirations. I mean I was just conforming to the norms and the mores that existed at the time. Making the decision as a 33-year-old mum to continue my higher school education with the aim of applying for entry to art school was a pretty bold step to take in the mid-70s. That definitely resonated with me.

Pat Brassington, Heart’s Blood, 2017, 90 x 65 cm. Courtesy of the artist and ARC ONE.

TM: As a woman photo media artist, and living and working in Hobart, particularly early in your career, did you ever feel marginalised by gender, artistic medium or geography?

PB: The first couple of years at art school was tough going at times. Female students over 30 were a rarity and we were tagged as dabblers who wouldn’t last the distance. As for artistic medium—that, or they, were imposed on you according to your performance during the first-year foundation course. I had hoped in year two to graduate to the painting department, but no, it was printmaking and photography departments for me. This proved to be a bumpy ride sometimes as my enthusiasm for one or the other fluctuated but it actually wasn’t a bad marriage in the end. I commenced postgrad studies in 1982, about two years after completing an undergraduate degree, and photography was my chosen media.

Living on an island certainly has had an effect on me. The feeling of being surrounded by water is either strangely comforting or discomforting at times. Of course, past ghosts linger and being the butt of cruel jokes was demeaning. If you are hinting at the ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ phenomena [some critics have aligned Brassington’s work with the nature and isolation of Tasmania as Gothic] I can’t easily dismiss that, but I guess I’m a bit sceptical.

I recall vividly a conversation I had with a group of established artist friends who suggested I would stagnate here unless I broadened my horizons and travelled overseas. This was in the late 70s. I was having none of that. I was, you could say, fiercely proud of where I lived—the terrain, the skies and the air had always been a solace for me. Of course, this offended me because I took it as a criticism of both me personally and the island on which I had always lived. I don’t know if pride is a good virtue but my retort was, “I don’t feel the need to go anywhere. The world will come to me.” Or words to that effect. Crikey!

TM: Earlier in your work was a tendency toward black-and-white imagery, and later came tints of pink and flesh. You once said, “It’s not my intention to feminise the image by using pink. It’s nastier than that. Pink smothers.” Why is it nasty? Why does it smother?

PB: My earlier work was mostly analogue black-and-white photography but there was something quite appealing to me about vintage hand tinted photographs. There was something a bit awry about them. I would sometimes try tinting my images too. Food colouring seemed to produce the best results. When given the opportunity to start printing digitally I took to colourising, via Photoshop, any black-and-white images I scanned instead.

I have my reasons for suggesting that pink smothers, maybe more readily digested if I substitute smother with say “silences or suppresses or traps”. Pink for girls, blue for boys. I’ve said before I don’t calculate colour, I feel it. It’s not a pretty pink I seek—it’s a meaty pinkishness I’m after, like the colour of the fluid that runs through our veins.

“… The idea was to evoke a canal, an opening for transport to another world.”

TM: In your depiction of bodies or body parts, you seem to capture mainly the female body. Is that correct, and do you ever think of depicting male bodies, or would that radically alter the work and intentions?

PB: That’s not strictly speaking true. I used a male model consistently during the 80s and 90s and still utilise masculine-like anatomical parts quite often. And even if you reversed the question, I don’t think I could give a definitive answer because I’m not sure.

TM: You’ve talked in a few interviews about being interested in “beauty and its antitheses”. Is your interest in beauty about beauty itself, or beauty only as it’s complicated by more unsettling imagery and sensations?

PB: I try to avoid binary thinking but it’s hard to shrug off. We are so attuned to using a compare/contrast framework when weighing up the pros and cons of any given situation and surely all sensual predilections are subjective, unless for example a medical condition skews things.

I’m interested in beauty from the perspective of one who derives pleasure from experiencing beautiful things while also acknowledging that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. So it follows that my musings on the aesthetics of beauty is intuitive. I don’t know, but maybe my work hovers in a sort of liminal space, or more aptly a tense, friction-laden arena between the beautiful and the ugly—or as Freud would have it, an uncanny space, I think.

Pat Brassington, All in a dream, 2020, pigment print, edition of 6 + 2AP, 115 x 168 cm. Courtesy the artist and ARC ONE.

TM: A lot gets written about your interest in psychoanalysis and surrealism. In a text for your solo exhibition at ACCA in 2012, you said, “I have long been interested in psychoanalysis and have been intrigued also by strategies used by some Surrealists. If I add these influences to my own life experience I come as close as I can to providing a rationale for my images of fantasy.” Did you mean that your thinking and ideas for images came first, and psychoanalysis and surrealism provided a way for you to explain your imagery? Or that the theory influenced your imagery?

PB: The former, and I’m sure I’m not the only artist who baulks when asked, “What is your art about?” Some will sidestep the question, but if you are enrolled in say a postgraduate degree at an art school you can’t get away with saying my art is about the human condition.

I didn’t mind art theory but it came after the fact of intuitively making artwork in the first place. It was commentators and curators who contextualised my work within one theoretical arena or another, most notably the uncanny—that is a concern with events in which repressed material returns in ways that disrupt aesthetic norms. I think I’m reasonably comfortable with that. I have a particular image on my lounge room wall that reminds me of this every day.

TM: Can I ask what the image is?

PB: It’s called Sago Child, 1994. It’s a loose interpretation of a dream I had when I was about four years old.

TM: Have you gone through psychoanalysis yourself?

PB: No, I haven’t, unless my attempts to analyse my images and they me is akin to exchanges between an analyst and analysand.

“If we acknowledge that we “hide” behind masks then it’s reasonable to assume we are curious about what is deemed necessary to conceal.”

TM: In so many of your works there are allusions to genitalia, eroticism, sexual violence—but never the act itself, only the bodily evocation of it. Two of the most famous examples of other artists who do this are filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch—who I read are both influences for you—where the sexual or perverse is both apparent and latent at the same time. What’s so powerful about that?

PB: Not so sure about Alfred Hitchcock but David Lynch, yes. I’ll mention an early scene from his film Blue Velvet where the camera isolates a patch of grass then zooms in close-up to expose a severed human ear crawling with ants. I believe the idea was to evoke a canal, an opening for transport to another world. I mention this because I used to say that I likened myself to an excavator, an archaeologist scratching away under the surface of things.

A motif that often pops up in my images is of someone engaged in some kind of investigative activity, getting below the surface, chipping away at a barrier, so to speak. Mining the subconscious. That’s pretty powerful stuff, don’t you think?

TM: I do, but I guess I’m curious what you find so powerful, why that excavation is meaningful—even if not in relation to your own work, but seeing it in other artists?

PB: If we acknowledge that we “hide” behind masks then it’s reasonable to assume we are curious about what is deemed necessary to conceal. But to try and answer your question I’ll need to defer to Freud and his views on the importance of the sublimation process. He believed that anything arising in the mind from birth doesn’t really go away, that the mind contains in its present state all the states it passed through to reach the present, so we are open to all thoughts and feelings and desires available in the world. Hence unseemly, harmful thoughts or actions need to be sublimated.

I don’t believe my work is explicitly invested in Freudian ideas but two contemporary American multimedia artists Mike Kelley, now deceased, and Paul McCarthy immediately spring to mind. McCarthy has indicated that some of his performative work, albeit unconsciously, depict private, forgotten or repressed memories. Kelley on the other hand initially baulked at the idea that his work, particularly the stuffed animals and stained blanket installations, depicted child abuse—but then changed his mind and embraced trauma as a subject to be investigated. And it would be remiss of me not to mention Louise Bourgeois.

Pat Brassington
ARC ONE Gallery

19 June—20 July

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Interview Words by Tiarney Miekus