Although occasionally shocking, this kind of middle-finger-raised attitude is redolent of the punk ethos of late-’70s Britain, where Brown came of age. This mindset has also led him into designing record covers for a diverse range of very un-middle-of-the-road musicians, including G.G. Allin, Coil, John Zorn, Whitehouse, and Deicide.
Completing the critics’ negative image of Brown is the fact that, since 1994, he has lived and worked in Japan, a country known for its easygoing attitude or indifference to certain unusual types of sexuality, be it tentacle porn, pedophilic manga, or shibari rope bondage. The implication in all this is that somebody like Brown is here because he wouldn’t be tolerated in his native England. But, of course, this is nonsense, as proved by Turner Prize-nominated British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, whose work routinely features naked children and Nazi iconography. If Brown is an exile in Japan, it is by choice.
“I was working as a freelance commercial artist for advertising agencies mainly, but thanks to England’s bad economy that work had almost reached a full stop,” he recalls of the period preceding his move. “I had some artistic aspirations of my own which were already getting more attention in Japan—a CD cover or two and articles in a fetish/SM magazine—than could ever possibly be imagined in England. I was in love with all things Japanese. So, with a Japanese girlfriend holding my hand, I left my home country. I had no big expectations, though. It was a leap into the unknown.”
Now married to that same girl, Brown is comfortable here and generally approves of the live-and-let-live attitude he has encountered.
“The Japanese mind-your-own-business disposition is so great they’ll walk past someone lying on the ground bleeding to death,” he says. “But generally it’s mostly admirable I think.”
The attraction is mutual. Although most of his paintings are still sold to Western buyers, Brown has gained popularity in Japan far beyond the dreams of most Western artists working here. This is expressed in book sales, illustrations for magazines and CD covers for local musicians. What is the secret of his success?
“I don’t really know many other gaijin artists,” he answers. “But I suspect there could be an unseen number of aspiring artists struggling to be ‘big in Japan.’ Despite the poor economy, Japan still retains a sort of prestigious trendiness. I’ve never tried hard at attempting to appeal to the Japanese, which might be a mistake many artists make, but have just tried to stay my Western self, and let the influence of being in Japan naturally seep into my work. Thus it became tainted by kawaii.”
While the Japanese seem comfortable with having Brown in their midst, elsewhere it’s a different story. Opposition to his art remains strong. He agrees that this is partly because it is so easy to understand his work in the wrong way rather than to just be fashionably mystified by it, as happens with other contemporary art.
“The brain short-circuits on the conflicting signals,” he says. “So, rather than try to work it out themselves, they’ll go along with someone else’s suitably pre-packaged opinion—the knee-jerk ‘feel good’ sicko/pedo accusation being the obvious lazy favorite. Safety in numbers! Much better than having to form their own response and possibly concluding there might be more to it than that.”
For the viewer mature enough to advance beyond the hysteria and moral outrage, there are a number of interesting strands to be discerned in Brown’s work. These include the enhanced aesthetic effects of juxtaposing opposites, explorations of female passive-aggressive power, elements of Continental surrealism (Dali and Bataille), traditional British vulgar humor (think the seaside postcards of Donald McGill) and an interest in human fragility filtered through J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash. But cultivating ambiguity for its own sake is also important.
“You want to make people think or affect them,” Brown explains. “To that end I do consciously make my work ambiguous and open to misinterpretation, deliberately sending out conflicting messages.”
Such ambiguity extends to the figures in his paintings—the ages of the girls are unspecified or they may simply be dolls. This means that any pedophilic reading ultimately depends on the viewer choosing to see things this way, an act revealing more about them than the artist. Brown points this out with regards to Li’l Miss Sticky Kiss, whose black eye, it is often assumed, is evidence of child abuse.
“Who said she was a victim of child abuse?” Brown asks. “How do people immediately come to that conclusion? They are making the sinister associations, not me—yet I get the blame for them! There could be countless innocent reasons how she came to have a black eye. Kids are prone to accidents and injuries of one sort or another. No one would think twice about a child with grazed knees or even a broken arm. Also, the images are just dressing-up, make-belief—cosplay! She’s variously a nurse, a punk, a witch, a cowgirl, a soldier. Wouldn’t it be likely that the black eye is pretend too?”
But, putting art and its multifaceted interpretation to one side, what are Brown’s own attitudes to sex? Is he, in fact, the sort of person you’d be insane to let near your children—a kind of Tsutomu Miyazaki with a paintbrush?
“In person, I’m way more conservatively normal, boring and conventional than the Trevor Brown, art ogre,” he responds. “I’m not even particularly sexually attracted to children at all. Well, physically, not until around the age of 14, but even then intellectual immaturity would make them fall short of desirability for me, although 14-year-old female fans that have written to me haven’t sounded exactly stupid. I love 18-year-olds who look 12! The way things are going, it won’t be long before that is illegal too! It’s utterly ridiculous setting the age of consent, etc., at 18 and anything below that is ‘child abuse’ territory. Girls are most sexually ripe at around 17—my wife said this!—and they are no longer kids at that age, so they shouldn’t be treated as such. I don’t have solutions, but clearly we just need a little common sense to prevail here, unlikely as that is.”