Review: What’s Holding Me Back? By Emma Brown

Emma Brown – What’s Holding Me Back?
Emma Brown – What’s Holding Me Back?

What’s Holding Me Back? By Emma Brown – A Review
at The Gallery at Bank Quay House. Friday 12 February – Monday 28 March 2016

Words by Kirsten Hawkins. Images courtesy of The Gallery at Bank Quay House, 2016

For those of us with a “thing” for stationery, it can be enticing when you see something written by hand in the age of digital; the sight of pen and ink mounted on textured card provokes a thrill and a rush of nostalgia. It’s almost as if the innocence of the crudeness of hand-drawn lines creates such a contrast to the Photoshopped perfection and sleekness of the world around us that even the concept of pen and paper triggers a dopamine rush.

Emma Brown is no stranger to digital, as she produced “Go! It’s Your Duty Lad”, her World War One animation from the body of work My Subject is War, in Photoshop, and yet she was able to put her fingerprint on it.

An exhibition of process rather than finality, she has used this exhibition as a voyage of self-discovery, attempting work processes inspired by participants’ answers to two important questions:
• What type of obstacles do you feel you come up against when making work?
• What habits or processes have you adopted to overcome these creative blocks?

The gallery space comprises five sets of work in circular fashion, which is a motif running throughout the show, demonstrating that life as an artist is an eternal spiral of doubts, inspiration, pitfalls and growth.

We begin with A list for All Occasions, a set of Risograph prints, with handwritten copies of Brown’s own lists documenting her workflow. Even “Art in Liverpool” got a mention, with “Contact Art in Liverpool woman” being one of her must-does. Brown found this process to be therapeutic, and the mindlessness of it gave her a sense that she was moving forward in a way that wasn’t stressful. She turned procrastination, which is what we usually associate with list-making, into a positive force to kick start her creative efforts for this exhibition. The words have been fashioned with an apparently deliberate chaos, the ink running in certain areas of the page, lending it an atypical beauty common to things we consider imperfect.

We move on to It’s Also Hard to Know Which Ideas are Going to Work and Which Won’t Without Actually Doing Them, made from mixed media (mono-print, collage and inkjet print). This body comprises a selection of images employing layered paper sheets in a manner that boasts “just because!” Throwing all caution to the wind, a caution which keeps creatives in their self-constructed boxes, Brown has trialled a variety of illustrations, playing ideas out and taking the rare opportunity to fuel her self-discovery through experimentation:
Most of my work is made in response to a specific brief or project and I seldom have the opportunity to make work that is completely focused on personal exploration.” (Brown, 2016)

Balance is a set of three silk screen prints in circular formation conforming to the artist’s observation that obstacles to artistic production be viewed as “a vicious circle”. All three pieces give the impression you are looking through a telescope, with a focused view on one given area, but with a plethora of blind spots leaving your imagination intact.

One piece features a moth to represent the ephemera of thoughts and how artists lose focus on one concept in favour of other more exciting ideas. Another print shows a character on a tightrope “balancing” precariously between time and money. The final instalment of this trilogy is what resembles a shipping map or a pilot’s map. The artist confirms it is a linear graph tracking the major impediments to creativity, and her inspiration for the map-like appearance is in fact the night sky, linking stars like constellations.

Brown has brought the tangible into her next piece Nope, a set of cards which can be carried in your pocket inside a handmade box, brought out, touched and read out at any time. The cards are illustrated in black acrylic ink and display the handwritten words encompassing each of our worst fears about our ability, such as “Everyone else is better than you”. Whilst at first glance, this may seem negative, it is in fact a form of immersion therapy in which you expose yourself to your fear until it loses its power over you, echoing that famous quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.

Finally, we reach What Next? where Brown has illustrated a series of work visually capturing the “solutions” to creative block. The postcards are silk screen prints in red, blue and black and are reminiscent of old-fashioned comic strips. The postcards are an exciting sight to behold and prove to what extent Emma Brown can actually draw. This may be an obvious statement to make regarding an artist, but it isn’t rare to find artists who have neglected spending time to develop the bread and butter skills of their trade. In the age of digital, where you are not entirely sure where an image has come from, if it has been produced from scratch or scanned and then manipulated using Photoshop, there is no denying that analogue skills show unquestioningly who the original artist is, just as the theatre stage offers no hiding place to actors used to the safety net of repeated takes in a Hollywood film studio. Brown shows that, besides possessing an artistic voice, she is an excellent technician, something that is no surprise to those who visited “My Subject is War”. In conversation with Brown, she intimated that she wasn’t a natural drawer, but that she spent time honing the skill.

I felt that “War” was a subject that had been given to Brown, and while possessing incredible talent, I was missing what she wanted to say to the world personally. This exhibition has given her the platform to develop her own voice. It is a starting point for projects to come and I am convinced she has found her unique direction. We don’t know where it will lead, but it is clear that Brown does have a message for us all, so watch this space!