Don Brown – Don vs.Yoko

Why does he do it? Viewers, friends, collectors and art critics have all asked Don Brown this question. Each day he works on sculptures of his wife Yoko, usually in the same media, often in apparently similar poses, never varying his subject matter or changing his model. Given the proximity that they share in their lives, what would make him sculpt her again and again, year after year, with such consistency and tenacity? Is it something in her that cannot be captured, prompting him to try so relentlessly? Or is it about adding or subtracting something from her image, less capturing than transforming, adapting or recreating?


These questions are both particular and general, since they are about artistic creativity and production itself. It is as if Brown has created a minimal laboratory in which to explore them: one artist, one model, one medium. Indeed, his departure from the bustle of London to a quiet and rather isolated home and studio in the countryside only reinforces this: he renders the experimental conditions even more precise, stripping away so many of the distractions that might hinder his enquiries. There is a seriousness here that Brown is well-known for pursuing.


In this laboratory, if the identity of artist, model and medium are clear, it is less obvious what exactly is being sculpted. The obvious answer that it is Yoko is not entirely satisfactory. Describing the progression of his work, Brown evokes a series of images of classical sculpture. First of all was a herm, with all the signs of its material source as rock; then there was a body, imperfect and expressive; and then there was an ideal figure, its surface unbroken and its musculature erased. What had started out as raw material had taken on a column shape, then transformed into a human figure and then become an ideal, by definition inhuman, a perfect figure. This sequence fascinated Brown. It brought out both the potential of human creativity and the passage from the human to the ideal, which involved a kind of mortification. Ideal forms, after all, can never be found in the real world.


Brown’s work traces this sequence but inflects it in a curious way, neither replaying nor mimicking it. The starting point was not a herm but his own image, a sculpture of himself that he felt was not quite right. It was from this initial place that the sculptures of Yoko began to multiply, an efflorescence that begun at the source point of his own image. Just as there was an incompleteness or imperfection in this first image, so the subsequent series aimed to correct it, to create what Brown called “the perfect surface”. “I was looking”, he says, “for something against which everything else could be measured”, a kind of standard or base, in the mathematical sense. So far, there is certainly a parallel with the series of classical sculptures. Yet there was only one problem with this project: Yoko herself.


As we follow the sequence of works, a tension emerges with greater and greater clarity. The stone solidifies, yet the model doesn’t. However she is frozen, she resists and slips away, sometimes subtly and sometimes quite brazenly. There is a battle going on between the gaze of the sculptor and how this gaze is received by the model. Rather than accepting it passively, and making herself simply the bearer of this gaze, mortified and frozen, she plays with it, sending it back, exaggerating it, refusing it, returning it, like an excess that cannot be contained in the image.


In some of these works, Yoko seems shy and reserved from the front, submitting to the viewer’s gaze, yet as we move around the sculpture, the perspective shifts. No longer a shy adolescent, the pose suggests a more direct sexuality, the slightly arched back both testing and provoking. In other works, Yoko seems awkward, unsure of how to stand or position herself. She looks down nervously at her shoes, her sexuality emphasised by the naked torso and slip. We sense her in the act of thinking, questioning how her body might look, both to others and to the others included in herself. This unease seems to embody the question of how to receive the gaze directed at her, and it belies the composure of some of the other sculptures.


Just as the classical sculptures ended in ideal non-human forms, Brown is exploring the effects of the gaze, its tendency to mortify, to render uniform and lifeless. The more he looks, the more Yoko poses, and we can understand the pose as essentially a response to rather than simply an effect of the gaze directed at her. Her poses show that she is engaged in a relation with the look of the viewer – or artist – as if posing itself were the subject of the works. She is experimenting with what it means to be looked at, what it means to be expected to be sculpted, seen, photographed, painted: in other words, what it means to be an object of someone else’s gaze. She isn’t just caught unawares, captured spontaneously, but situated in very precise frames which involve her response to that gaze, whether she accepts it, invites it, contests it, obstructs it, welcomes it, embraces it or denies it.


This is a sequence that does not lead to mortification, but to its opposite, as we see in works such as [p.8], which wittily and startlingly upturns the convergence of the classical series. Now, we are literally deprived of the image of his model. After seeing so many sculptures of Yoko, here we encounter what seems to be a sculpture of Yoko covered in a sheet, like a child playing at ghosts. The humorous effect is nuanced by it’s position in the series: isn’t Brown suggesting that if we search for perfection, for the ideal, for pure surface and bounded figures, why not follow this desire to its logical consequence, which would be the absence of the person?


The details of the body progressively foreclosed from the classical series now return : here at last are all the folds and pleats that we might expect to find in real flesh, yet marking not the body but its shroud. If many of Brown’ sculptures show a body with an almost pure surface, now the creases, eddies and elevations that we would expect to perceive there materialise on the veil, making of it even more of a body than it’s model. This attention to another, secondary surface is clear also in works like Yoko XXI, in which the absence of discontinuity on the musculature and skin appears in the folds of the clothes she is wearing. Her gaze is challenging, returning that of the viewer firmly and dispassionately.


These works invite us to look at the other sculptures in a different way. Brown is playing with a homology between the two images, that of a female body and that of a veil or covering surface. Is our perception of the female body – for both men and women – driven by a wish to make it bounded, clean and unbroken? Psychologists have shown by studying retinal movement that even when viewers look at a landscape, they are still seeking out the closed curves and bounded lines of the human body. The world becomes interesting for us in proportion to how much of the body we put there and then repress. If there is no body in the world, then there’s no reason to look, as we find in some cases of autism.


The veil here indexes both a covering put onto something unused and connected to death – think of the furniture covers in the homes of the deceased – but also the life that is present in ghosts themselves, who, precisely, are not dead: they keep coming back until something allows them to find a peaceful rest. This odd space between life and death haunts Brown’s work, and it becomes increasingly humorous. In Yoko XIII, she is arranged uncomfortably, slipping off a chair, in Yoko XIII her hair covers over her eyes and in Yoko XIII she is simply no longer there as a figure but simply as a partial object, a convex organic form, as if this had actually replaced here.


As we look at these works in a series, we have a sense that Yoko is fighting back: first moulding herself to the viewer’s gaze, a perfect unbroken surface, and then getting antsy: she fidgets, she shifts, she returns the gaze, her hair or wig covers her eyes, she folds her arms, she wears vast sunglasses that obscure her eyes yet mimic the predatory gaze of the viewer. In fact, she does everything except maintain the pose that we find in many of the earlier works. She refuses to be contained, and it is perhaps Brown’s very use of the visual language of containment in the earlier works that make her refusal so moving, intriguing and powerful.


Likewise, as the series continues, the unbroken surfaces start to dissolve. In [p.23], the skin is dappled and smeared, unfinished in a Rodinesque way, yet less with the sense that the body is emerging from the stone than that the body is made of unfinished stuff, rippled and uneven, a truer reflection of the experience of the body and of the effects of sexuality, which always breaks surfaces and undoes images.


The convex body part in XIII even suggests that what we are really trying to look at, perhaps, is not a whole person or body, but a strange fragment: that we have to go beyond the illusion of a complete figure to understand something about what pushes and pulls us in the visual field. This curious shape is breast, buttocks, mouth and sex all at once, fundamentally an aperture that a bounding surface is pulled into, just as the gaze is sucked towards what it cannot see. These sculptures embody a vector, a directed movement around a hole, that perhaps function as an interpretation of Brown’s more obviously figurative works. They are the hermeneutics of the Yoko sculptures.


The submerged body of Yoko in XIII emphasises this even further, her lower parts now encased in a symmetrical stone case, a poignant incarnation of containment and mortification but also a challenge to the viewer, as if to send the message that this is what the very act of viewing might be doing. It is as if Brown is interpreting and questioning his own work, as we see beautifully in [p.27], where the image itself consists of three almost identical sculptures of Yoko. Rather than making each piece in a series, here the piece is a series, as if the iteration of a woman were itself an operation on her. Brown is playfully analysing himself here, since the iteration is nothing less than the structure of his earlier work.


Freud pointed out that we tend to multiply the image of a woman when something in that image cannot be readily processed or apprehended. Brown’s work is a dramatisation of that process, where the gaze attempts to complete and unify, and the model fights back. This battle involves both a direct challenge to the viewer, as we have seen, where Yoko slips away from the containing gaze, but also a more subtle challenge, in her turning inwards, her gradual closing of the eyes and focus on what feels like her own thoughts, which means, of course, not the thoughts of someone else.


In works like VIII, there is a feeling of an impending movement, as if she is about to dive into space or jump. It is the calmness before a high dive, a kind of composure which can easily be mistaken for an objectification. She is concentrating, perhaps fiercely, perhaps in a more measured way, and it is here that Brown’s sculptures show so poignantly how, while dealing ostensibly with surface, they in fact explore a more inner experience, as we sense that the model’s gaze is directed not outward but inward.


As she both challenges the external, objectifying gaze of the artist and viewer and introduces us to a meditation on her own, internal space, these works explore what Brown calls “a new kind of beauty”. If he had started out with his own image and tried to perfect this with an image brought in from the outside, he found out soon enough that as he worked to find an image “that would fit the bill”, something new emerged. This would neither be a copy of some original idea nor an appropriation or capture of his model. Rather than taking Brown’s works one by one, we should see them here as a series, a sequence that this catalogue brings out so crisply and unequivocally. Within this, we see neither the ideal image that Don initially aspired towards nor an objectification of Yoko but a perpetual and fruitful friction between them: neither Don nor Yoko but Don vs.Yoko.