Interview
1 – Nell Brookfield
By Matt Page 
Nell Brookfield is a London-based artist who recently spent a year living in New York City while studying at the Pratt Institute. Before dedicating herself to painting and drawing, she studied anthropology at University College London. Three of Brookfield’s recent paintings were included in the exhibition, Buildings, at Matchett & Page in December 2020, alongside work by Soraya Smithson, R&F Mo and Eleanor Goulding and Russell Denman of Denman + Gould. Products of the first coronavirus lockdown, Brookfield’s paintings express the artist’s anxiety about the post-covid world and an enhanced appreciation of the buildings in which we live.


(L-R) Smoking Hut, 2020; The Door’s Wide Open, 2020; Our House is on Fire, 2020

After returning home from New York in March last year, Brookfield found herself working out of her bedroom, confined to her desk and unable to continue making the large studio works that she had been working on while in America. The three paintings shown at Matchett & Page are all small works on paper – Smoking Hut (2020) is just 16 x 10.5 cm while The Door’s Wide Open, the largest of the three, is 38 x 25 cm. For an artist whose work is usually made in pastel on large sheets of paper, the limitations of a more confined workspace provided an opportunity to experiment with different ways of working. She began to create her own acrylic and oil paints using loose pigments, a way of working that, she explains, ‘offered much more control over the colours, which you can get to know and develop a personal relationship with’.

A personal relationship to colour, and the desire to challenge herself to explore alternative approaches to expressing surfaces, is key to Brookfield’s work; many of her paintings contain meticulously drawn or painted materials – patterned clothing, furs, foodstuffs. At the same time that she was working on the three paintings, Brookfield was also producing a series of ‘touch portraits’ of herself and others. Charcoal drawings made on paper attached to the wall of her bedroom, the portraits are ‘observations’ gathered through touch, rather than sight. The results are eerie figures drawn with exaggerated bone structures and complex and diverse mark-making. Brookfield explains that the portraits allowed her to draw with an honesty that can be hindered by visual observation: ‘you end up, like with etching or other methods of printmaking, with marks being made that you really didn’t expect, and even though you’ve drawn them, they are completely unplanned’. She made the touch portraits daily for six weeks in the first coronavirus lockdown, during which the process provided her with a way to structure her days and to help with anxiety.


Sketchbook drawings 

The three paintings shown in Buildings represent an adjacent strand of Brookfield’s working method, what she calls ‘automatic paintings’. The automatic works draw on the imagery and thoughts that she collects in sketchbooks, which she keeps together in her studio for reference. Usually the subjects of Brookfield’s paintings are humans or animals; sometimes the two merge, as in the painting Spill (2020). ‘I have always been interested in the idea that humans are just the animals that have been taught to conceal emotions and anger,’ Brookfield explains. ‘Animals are very honest with how they are feeling, and I am quite fascinated by the fact that we all experience emotions and feelings and desires, yet we have learnt to hide them so that we can live in a civilisation where we are constantly interacting with strangers and being civil. The animal imagery represents the hidden emotional side that is always there but that we don’t always see.’


Spill, 2020

In Smoking Hut and The Door’s Wide Open the distinction between human and animal subjects is unclear: neither are entirely one or the other. Smoking Hut depicts what Brookfield calls a ‘dragon-like’ protagonist sitting in a hut. The inside of the building is bathed in a yellow light into which the subject breathes a green smoke from its beak-like mouth. The artist describes the smoke as a metaphor for the creature’s emotions: anger, anxiety, fear – she doesn’t see it as a specific feeling but rather the combination of multiple emotional states. Often these metaphors represent the artist’s own emotions and experiences, and the protagonists – human or animal – are self portraits. But while it is not difficult to find an affinity with the dragon-creature trapped in its hut in the context of coronavirus lockdowns, Brookfield’s recent paintings are not just a reflection on the post-covid-world: they also address other issues that have been made more pertinent – or at least have been given more time for consideration – in the last year. The Door’s Wide Open depicts a human-like figure sat in a guarded position inside a building. The Door’s Wide Open was made after things began to open up and a lot of people were going about their life in a much more casual way,’ Brookfield explains, ‘there’s the funny thing that the door is wide open and yet the person is still cowering in the corner. They’ve become hairy and concealed, and neurotic, and while the door’s open you can see outside a really choppy sea and it doesn’t seem particularly safe. This was made in the moment after the first lockdown when it was time to set your own boundaries and the stress that came with that, which was enhanced by the confusing messages from the government and your own sense of what is safe.’

In both The Door’s Wide Open and Smoking Hut, architecture is the barrier between the inside and outside world. In each, this barrier is articulated with an elementary form: a simple pentagon. For many, this the ur-form of buildings and is how one might draw a building as a child – Brookfield is no exception to this. However, it was only recently that the building motif became part of Brookfield work. The first painting in which it appeared is titled The Water’s Coming In (2019), in which the building ‘represents the idea that our bodies are our own houses’, Brookfield explains, ‘we are our own home and yet we do not always have complete control over whether we have cracks or leaks.’ From this, the building motif continued to have a presence in Brookfield’s work. In another painting, titled A Map of Isolation (2019), the building motif morphed into a symbol of isolation: ‘there were no figures, but there were trees growing in the houses and water dripping in. That painting was about the feeling of loneliness while being in a city and the strange fact that of all the houses are next to each other, and you are constantly very close to people, but there is still the feeling of loneliness in that situation – and it can even be heightened when you know that you are around lots of other people.’ Naturally, the buildings in Brookfield’s work took on a new significance during the coronavirus pandemic and its symbolism changed again for the artist: ‘it shifted from the home being the body, and the home being the four walls around you, to representing the importance of the house that you lived in – and the impermanence of it.’


The Water’s Coming in, 2019 


Map of Isolation, 2019

The impermanence and fragility of buildings finds another mode of expression in the third painting shown in Buildings, Our House is On Fire. In this work Brookfield returns to the connection between buildings and the body, but here she personifies the building more explicitly by setting eyes into its facade. The painting is animated by a short text that the artist wrote for the Buildings exhibition:

We cling to the belly of our house. It tethers us here, while everything else washes away. Nearby a home catches fire, breathing yellowy green smoke.
How could they be so careless? But our house is on fire too. If only you would unplug everything so my tiles and bricks would stop blowing away.
Homebody, the door’s wide open, so why are you still here?

Writing is an important part of Brookfield’s studio practice. ‘I try to set aside half-an-hour of a studio day to automatically type and to make connections,’ she explains, ‘it is a good opportunity to consolidate thoughts.’ Threading together the three works shown in Buildings through writing enabled the artist to reflect further on the paradox of buildings, specifically houses, being safe and secure while also being vulnerable – ‘that was parallel to the thinking that we all thought we knew what our lives were and then they changed overnight,’ she adds.

I suggested to Brookfield that the lines in her text ‘Nearby a home catches fire, breathing yellowy green smoke. / How could they be so careless? But our house is on fire too’ describe a sense of resignation that appears to be present in all three of the paintings: each of the subjects have a certain passivity, despite their emotional or physical conditions. ‘There is certainly a theme of control, whether it is with the materials that I am using, or in a wider sense,’ she responded, ‘how do we resign ourself to the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen, and that we can’t control it? How do we become comfortable with that?’.

Our House is on Fire aptly illustrates this loss of control; the painting was inspired by seeing a building burn down while the artist was in New York. Heading to the street, she watched as the building burned: ‘there were so many sirens and sounds and we went outside and saw this fire and an entire street standing and watching it happen. My flatmate said “how could they be so careless? In a time like this how could you be so careless?”’ – ‘of course,’ she adds, ‘there’s never a good time to burn down your house.’And, for the artist, the image of the burning house brought her back to thinking about the importance of the inhabitants of buildings, and the role of buildings as the physical and psychological worlds of those who live in them.

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Smoking Hut, The Door’s Wide Open, and Our House is on Fire were exhibited in Buildings at Matchett & Page in December 2020; a number of Touch Portraits were included in A Crowded Room, also at Matchett & Page, earlier in the year. For more of Nell’s work, visit www.nellbrookfield.com.