It’s been a while since I last did a 100 Works of Art post, so it’s probably worth looking at the first post in the series to get an idea of what I’m talking about. I’m not discussing art as an objective reviewer because that’s impossible, and I’m trying not to think of things in academic or contextual terms, but instead talk about works of art which mean something to me personally, works of art which have connected to me in some way, regardless of how they have been received by anyone else.
16. Asobimasho – Medical Fun, Trevor Brown (2001)
There are ugly, bad sketches in the sketchbooks I persist in keeping which testify a love for Trevor Brown’s work dating back to at least 2002/3. I was surprised and oddly touched when my unfathomably terrible tribute to one of his pieces turned up on his blog with comments to the effect that it was endearing rather than just “bloody awful”, and a part of me had to be suppressed so that I didn’t gibber while turning up to claim the dubious honour of being the culprit.
The picture in question wasn’t this one: I once made a habit of trawling his Babyart website to see if it had been updated, and one of the paintings served as an interesting reference point for a character portrait I manifestly failed at. This is I think to a certain generation of his fans one of the more iconic of Trevor Brown’s works, although not the most iconic.
To understand why I hold this picture in such fondness I think I need to talk about psychological needs. One of the reasons horror movies continue to do good business is because people enjoy being scared. Or rather, we enjoy a controlled scare and the feeling of relief that accompanies it when we are assured by our senses and rationale that the threat is not real. Endorphins abound, we may well laugh immediately afterwards, and an affirmation of being truly alive occurs with the adrenaline rush fear produces. Different people go about getting it in different ways: some people are into extreme sports, but after getting my foot stuck in a hole half-way down a 90 ft cliff in Cheddar Gorge when I was 16 I am not keen on revisiting abseiling and the like.
There is the slower version of the jump-scare, which is creeping-horror, and which I personally prefer. The kind of fear one is supposed to get from a ghost story (and can’t very easily if one, like me, has never believed in ghosts), which leaves the hairs on the back of one’s neck standing up or an uneasy sense of hyper-alertness sloshing around in the glands. The archetype of the creepy little girl is one well-embedded in the cultural consciousness by now, and for some the rapt expression on her face and the slightly sexualised pose which is an immediate call-back to pornography is enough to set off the skin-crawling creeps.
For me there are additional factors, the first of which has become a fad on Tumblr, and presumably elsewhere on the internet too: pastel goth & soft grunge. I’m fascinated, largely because it creeps me out so thoroughly. Mashed up amid greying mattresses and desaturated, video-tape footage, alongside the odd picture of a severed penis (because it is the internet) are faded pink symbols of dead girlhoods, tragic little symbols of past innocence. Of course, the hotly-contested (and oft-derided, and poorly-delineated) subcultures outlined above are far from the first or even first female-led to use girlhood toys to talk about “lost innocence”, but thinking about what was prevalent in my adolescence, the tone is different: I was won over by china dolls (which I’d never owned) with the goths and Barbies (ditto) with Riot Grrl. Riot Grrl especially was always angrier, more brash, brightly-coloured and furious, like a 90s comic book rebelling at the grim grey misery of the 80s. This is more like the grey misery of the 80s lying over the top of that hot pink anger.
The colour of faded pink plastic left abandoned by the roadside dovetails perfectly with medical pink here, just enough to appear “feminine” in the traditional coding of the colour, girl-like and youthful, and like the central figure, completely inappropriate in its settings.
The incongruity is as much to blame for the creepiness as the remainder of the picture. There is a specific horizontal in this beautifully laid out, unnervingly centred image: scroll from the top of this post down, and you’ll find it. Above that horizontal, the image is cutesy and simple: a little girl in a nurse’s outfit squatting in a corner and gazing with slightly sleepy interest at the viewing. The horizontal falls just above the lowest fold of her skirts and the upmost loop of a black rubber steth.
Below that line the picture is something else: the background of antiseptic, faded-childhood pink doesn’t change, but there’s a flash of underwear, and an array of medical instruments including, one notices, a black vibrator and a ball-gag. Below the horizontal the picture is warped away from innocence and into threats. Whether she’s inviting the use of the instruments on her or intending to use them on someone else is unclear: the position suggests invitation, her face gives nothing away, and while the instruments are pointed towards her, she is dressed in ambiguously doctor-or-nurse-like clothing.
The absence of action within the picture strengthens the sense of threat: the ambiguity of the direction of the threat and the face-off between innocent and perverse creates tension, and that sickly pink and the drooping eyelids, to me at least, make the whole thing feel queasy and alarming at that same ghost-story level.