Where's the frame
February 27, 2023 1:53 PM
What do our homes say about us? The cracks, the chips, the cupboard we keep locked at all times, afraid of the memories that might accompany whatever comes tumbling out. All the material objects that we cherish, hoard, collect – what do they reveal about our psyche?
The home is the stuff of lived experience – or as London-based Pippa El-Kadhi Brown puts it, “a system of organs, a human-made Frankenstein clothed in wallpaper, bricks and crumbling mortar, fitted with pipes for veins and windows for lungs.” By questioning the conventional idea of our natural habitat, the artist’s work explores the domestic sphere as a deliberate space that we’ve learned to assimilate into since the very beginning of time.
It’s snowing when Pippa welcomes me into her studio, brightly lit by the sleet outside and brought to life by the large, hypnotic canvases resting on every wall. For the next hour, she talks me through the sources that influence her work, as well as her plans for the next year.
Working primarily in oil paint, Pippa’s practice investigates the enigmatic dialogue between our environment, consciousness, and human psychology. Her paintings, she explains, “playfully disembowel the anatomy of the domestic environment, gutting it from the inside out.”
I study a large diptych in front of me titled Night Dwellers (2021). The work portrays a cartoonesque interior where recognisable objects – a chess board, a fish tank, a kitschy wall-hanging – occupy and clutter the lived-in space they inhabit. Three fleshy figures lounge around a table, appearing wholly unaware of the outside world, perhaps gradually morphing into the furniture that surrounds them. They are not human, not really; they are bodily essences, flickers of human consciousness, maybe even extensions of the space and stuff itself. The room, which somehow feels intensely familiar, evokes somewhat of a Proustian moment (the experience coined by 20th century thinker Marcel Proust in which an outer stimulus – usually scent, in this case, a painting – triggers an involuntary memory) and my eyes scan every corner of the work in an attempt to figure out why. All I know is that the energetic canvas seems to vibrate with the pulse of the home it depicts.
I ask Pippa about the dream-like domestic spaces she chooses to paint and she tells me that growing up, her house was always extremely chaotic. “My dad works with props, so there was always weird stuff lying around the house. Teletubby costumes, prosthetic severed arms – objects that fed into our day to day lives. When I first started creating these domestic worlds, I found myself instinctively painting the bizarre objects I’d lived with for so many years.” At first, she continues, there was a subtle comedic element to her practice. But over time, she became fascinated by philosophical movements such as phenomenology and existentialism, which gradually began to trickle into the work. The result is a profound examination of the home as an infinite container of information – one whose walls enclose and reveal complex histories pertaining to the many souls that have passed through them.
“I’m interested in the idea of the home as a ghost in itself. How many people have lived in the rooms we exist in and consider our own? Our homes, so entrenched with emotion, are actually more like hotels, with people coming and going and leaving small traces of their existence behind. The chips in the floorboard, the stains on the wall, there’s stories behind all of that. I’m fascinated by the idea of house spirits, how they become personified through furniture or objects.”
Pippa’s paintings are often characterised by vibrant bursts of colour, and gesture plays an important role in the way she works. “It’s important to me to embody a sense of presence during the creation of a painting,” the artist explains. When I ask her where her distinctive use of pastel hues comes from, she tells me that over the past four years, she’s been making a conscious effort to curb her palette. “My early works are very chaotic, so I’m trying to be a lot more concise with my colours now. I feel like they often ended up having to compete with each other, whereas now I’m giving them more breathing room and allowing them to speak for themselves.”
A series of more recent, visibly darker paintings have been a refreshing break from the pastel tones she’s used in the past, Pippa tells me. An example of this shift is Phantom Bathers (2022), in which an otherworldly, incorporeal figure appears to be taking a shower under a luminescent stream of water. The contrast between the painting’s darker foreground and its gleaming light sources transport the viewer into an immersive, multilayered universe, revealing how the materiality of paint can carry and convey meaning that blurs the line between dream and reality.
As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Pippa what she has planned for the next year, and the answer is, a lot. For the past few months she’s been busy working on her recently opened solo exhibition ‘Walls Who Whisper’ at London’s Lychee One gallery. Running until the 25th of March, the exhibition presents a brilliant body of new work she’s produced especially for the show. At the time of our conversation, Pippa’s work was being exhibited in a group show at WAS Art Center in Ningbo, China. She’s also one of the artists included in the group exhibition ‘In Living Colour’ which opens in early March at Maverick Project’s AMP Gallery, and has been invited to take part in the Taste of Life residency in Latvia’s west coast later this year.