Joanna Braithwaite | Juggling Reality

Joanna Braithwaite’s paintings present juxtapositions of reality and the absurd. Her painting style is imbued with traditional techniques – richly layered oil paintings, with loose brushwork reminiscent of the Dutch masters of the 17th century. While the subject matter contained in her paintings diverges from that of the traditional, characters from the fringe of society who capture Braithwaite’s attention fill the canvas. They are engaged in unusual acts that are normalised by the artist’s rendering of them – a circus clown with a half a dozen dogs bulging out of his over-sized novelty pants, a donkey balancing an impossible amount of fruit in baskets on its back, Catholic nuns zooming through the street on mobility Segways …

ARTIST PROFILE spoke to Braithwaite in her Sydney studio about all that which drives and inspires her.

The tightrope between reality and the surreal is explored through Joanna Braithwaite’s love of animals and her fascination with the human qualities of their personalities. For her, depicting the animals with human qualities gives insight into topics that might otherwise be overlooked should they be rendered simply as human issue. As one example, her painting ‘All at Sea’ (2015) portrays a family of fish rowing a small boat in rough seas. The humanity of the painting immediately poses questions and we feel for their safety: where have they come from and where are they going; are they refugees, risking their lives in search for a better future? Then we remember they’re fish and they could easily jump overboard and swim to safety … Braithwaite cleverly and intelligently composes pictures that explore and highlight aspects of society that might not usually be visible. Her paintings are at once humorous and political, lighthearted and deeply serious.

Your work plays with the absurd, the surreal at times. There are elements of realism but then the subjects can be doing completely bizarre things such as, for instance, the fat man with the oversized pants packed full of dogs. Can you talk to me about this juxtaposition in your paintings?
I don’t see things as being black and white. I try to go into situations where there are lots of people – like the Easter Show or large crowd gatherings such as the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day – because sometimes when people come together, in reality strange things happen and it’s not always necessarily what you’d expect! For me, if I see something out of the ordinary, I’ll push it a little bit further. Like the man in the oversized pants. I saw a clown at a circus wearing big pants and there were also people performing with dogs. So I put the two images together. If I think things look potentially interesting, and a little bit out there, I’ll push them to see where they can go.

There’s almost a childlike imaginative realm in your works. Is that something that you’ve always been interested in?
Yes. To me, I think imagination is paramount to having fun in life. Kids are fantastic like that. I love anything that takes you into an area where the unbelievable seemingly becomes believable. There are amazing things happening currently with different media and technology. It is possible now to create unreal worlds that people can move into, or cyber worlds or whatever … I think painting is unique as it can allow a very direct translation of an idea or image that’s in your head but not necessarily real. But it can be believable on canvas – I really like that about painting.

I think humour and profound sadness, those kinds of emotions, for me, are really close. It’s trying to get that balance right.

How do you think you achieve that with your painting?
I don’t know that I always succeed, but I think it’s about a juxtaposition and a balance. Of course sometimes it can go too far one way and I have to try to pull it back. There are other elements that I use as well – for me, humour is really important and that ties in with the imagination element. I think humour and profound sadness, those kinds of emotions, for me, are really close. It’s trying to get that balance right.

Do you enjoy walking that tightrope?
I just think that’s life, isn’t it? I remember when my father was critically ill, being in hysterics with my brother beside his bed, and it wasn’t that we weren’t sad, it’s just that those extreme emotions butt up against each other in life.

Yes, they’re the forces that highlight one another as well – without happiness we don’t have sadness, without humour we don’t have dull moments, and vice versa.
Exactly, and I guess I go into that imaginative realm. But to make it believable, I pull it back in my painting by adding elements of realism. I don’t want to slip too far into a make-believe cartoony thing and I don’t want it to go into the hyper-real either. So I’m often juggling both those elements.

You paint in series, which are often thematically linked. How do you get to that series?
I try to think of various research excursions to go on because that’s where I get my material. What I tend to do is pick up on a few current issues that take my interest and then I bring those ideas or experiences into the studio and I’ll paint small studies. For example, I recently went to Comic-Con (a convention where people role-play dressed up as their favourite Super Heroes) and I am working from that crazy research trip now.

The ideas and sketches or studies from my excursions come in waves – like idea bursts – and then when I get excited about one, I take it through to a larger painting. In the Crowd Pleaser series, I decided I wanted to visit a circus with animals and so caught the train to a matinee performance way out west of Sydney. It was a baking hot day – so hot, the clowns’ make up was running and the audience were soaked in sweat. It was really quite a challenge for all involved! I came away from it thinking about the lifestyle of the carnies and the animals, and the place of such circuses in current times. This all fed into a series of works where I invented new acts and tricks myself.

I really like the idea that I can paint pictures that can catch people unaware! But generally I’m a person who tries to be open and so I like the idea that pictures ask questions rather than pass judgement.

Do ideas always come from real life, from being out of the studio?
They can come from a multitude of sources. Those trips often inform the work but sometimes it might be something that I read in a magazine or have seen on TV. I remember years ago in New Zealand when cloning was first in the news. I painted a series of works that related to that. Or I will just see something in a newspaper and then I’ll do some sleuthing and go on an excursion that relates to it. I like the idea that I pick up on what’s going on around me and then with my own research, it takes me on a journey.

Your work is the result of personal curiosity but, as others have written, your work can also seem a commentary on aspects of society. Is there ever an intention for making social commentary through your paintings?
I really like the idea that I can paint pictures that can catch people unaware! But generally I’m a person who tries to be open and so I like the idea that pictures ask questions rather than pass judgement. If I can make a work that provokes people to wonder and consider their own point of view about a situation or subject, then I think I’m onto something.

Do you hope that if you’re tackling a subject and the paintings pose questions, that you’re also highlighting to people that it’s okay to be different?
Yes, but it’s not so much to normalise because I actually celebrate eccentricity. I like that – my father was an incredibly eccentric man. I’m saying, “Yes, celebrate difference, enjoy it, and nothing is black and white.” And, I guess the challenge is to paint in such a way that reflects this, and that’s not necessarily an easy task.

You often present a juxtaposition in your pictures – animals with human qualities, nuns riding Segways for instance – can you tell me about this aspect of your work?
For me, animals have been terrific subjects to paint, not only because I love painting them – the colours, the textures, their characteristics – but also people’s relationship with animals, the balance of power, and people’s ability to compartmentalise these relationships with animals, fascinates me. It’s something I have painted about a lot. I like juxtaposing incongruous things – sometimes when barriers break down it can be quite revealing. The nuns on Segways were fun to paint. Religion is a minefield of curious juxtapositions.

The ideas and sketches or studies from my excursions come in waves – like idea bursts – and then when I get excited about one, I take it through to a larger painting.

Your painting technique is richly traditional – both in its materiality and composition. Can you tell me about your influences and how they feed into your painting?
Historical portraiture has been an on-going fascination for me. Last year I went to Haarlem in the Netherlands because I wanted to see some of Frans Hals’ portraits. In recent times I have used the format of historical portraits to paint animal subjects, often connecting them to the human world by including a prop that makes reference to an event or moment in time. ‘Lizard Lounge’, a large portrait of two lace monitors, is an example of this. Another example would be ‘Silent Partner’, a painting of a donkey in a slouch hat. I wanted to paint an image that celebrated the stoic work and camaraderie of animals in war situations and the well-known story of Simpson and his donkey inspired this picture.

What’s a typical working day?
It’s just like any job: I get up, have breakfast, and head into my studio. If there’s an excursion I have in mind, I will go along with a little book and a camera and spend a couple of hours there gathering material. Most days I’m in the studio. I paint, l break for lunch, come back and then paint again until I realise that I’m just not thinking anymore, and then that’s it. It’s my job and love it.

What took you to art school originally, what led you to painting?
It was an avenue of expression. When I was a kid, every night I used to draw a cartoon series; I’d have an ongoing serial with different adventures. I used to go on what I’d call “artist trips” with my best friend and we’d cycle to the river in Pleasant Point (near the little rural town where I lived in New Zealand). We’d have our drawing blocks and we’d explore old houses and get chased off the properties. I guess those were my first research trips. We just used to think we were very arty. I must say my parents really encouraged me – they both knew that it was something that I wanted to do …

So, here you are, living the dream?
Well I think so. I say that to (my partner) Frazer sometimes. You have to take stock. If I could have known way back when that I would have been able to paint every day and live the life of an artist, I would have thought how brilliant – and I do.

EXHIBITION
Social Animal
1 – 25 September 2016
Martin Browne Contemporary

Courtesy the artist,  Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney; Bowen Galleries, Wellington; and Milford Galleries, Queenstown