A conversation with Alex Brew
The Demented Goddess (DG): Alex, your early project, ‘Asking For It’ (above), exhibited in Bergen and London, was quite hotly debated by feminist and queer academics and activists. You were asking men to get naked for you, some of whom you knew and some you picked up on the streets…?
Alex Brew: I wanted to explore to the power dynamics of being a woman, around men, often strangers. I was usually standing on streets, approaching men then inviting them into a private place; like an alley or back to mine. I’d ask them to remove items of clothing and photograph them.
DG: They didn’t mind?
Alex Brew: They had different reactions. Some of them enjoyed being looked at through a camera, others felt provoked, got angry.
DG: How do you approach submerged feelings within yourself, as an artist? These drawings and paintings you’re sharing with us, they’re sexual, tender, hopeful, wounded …
Alex Brew: Usually I have a sense of something that’s wanting to be expressed but is as yet vague. These drawings are different to my other work, because I do this inner listening explicitly using a process called “Focusing”. A lot of it is about being bodily receptive to what wants to come.
DG: What does being receptive feel like, to you, as an artist?
Alex Brew: It’s like sitting by a trusted deep lake and waiting. You know you’ll pull out a fish if you’re there a while.
DG: That reminds me of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, in which a soldier with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder thinks of boyhood fishing trips to survive his insomnia. It allows conflicts to exist within himself and outside of himself, too. So, how d’you know when you’ve landed ‘a fish’?
Alex Brew: When you’ve finished, there’s something joyful. There’s a state of mind that’s possible when painting, a kind of seeing with your throat and chest and belly and even cunt that I don’t find possible with words. Your hand becomes more alive. It’s an attempt to go beyond our socially acceptable versions of ourselves, away from what is carefully planned and considered … when you’ve finished, there’s a little joyful giggle, even if the work itself is sad.
DG: As in 20th Century Surrealist work, dismembered bodies, sexuality, pain and joy combine in your work. In this large pencil drawing (below), a female figure seems to be shielding herself from an all-encompassing, beastly presence.
Alex Brew: When I was drawing it I felt a deep sadness – I threw up black vomit, which was slightly alarming. But I felt a real connectedness too. The drawing itself is quite web-like and that was the feel – of being in a web or womb.
DG: There’s a lot of movement – these works ripple inwards and outwards.
Alex Brew: For a long time, I haven’t wanted to speak about these drawings and paintings. Like they’re silent caves or oases, getting down to where things are life, growing and expanding, forming and shifting. I’m trying to get to and make art from where life comes from, rather than the static descriptions and concepts we superimpose on life.