Recently, El-Kadhi Brown’s work featured in a group exhibition at Studio West which also aimed to 'playfully disembowel' the domestic environment. Titled The Angel in the House’, in reference to the Victorian ideal of domesticated femininity, the exhibition brought together seven emerging women artists, all of whom variously explore ideas of womanhood, and examine the domestic as something that can both be a suffocating bind and a source of creative freedom. 'It's something that women will never be able to walk away from,' El-Kadhi Brown says. 'I think the exhibition is beautiful because all the artists have a very different approach to this idea. ' Included at Studio West are two paintings that are smaller than most of her works, and 'very soft and very delicate.' To her, this delicate, almost pastel-like style seemed suffused with 'this angelic feeling'.
Angels, ghosts, Tom and Jerry
In one of Pippa El-Kadhi Brown’s paintings, two blurred fish swim in a bowl, which seems to radiate beams of light like a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. Other fishy forms float around in what might be a skyscape, or a child’s bedroom ceiling. A green slip of a frog leaps from the bottom left corner of the canvas. In another painting, a rubber duck bobs in a bathtub, overflowing with luminous water dollops that transform into psychedelic bubbles when they hit the tiled floor. Across El-Kadhi Brown’s work, bulbous yet wispy figures dissolve into pastel backgrounds, teacups teeter and water glasses spill, and chess boards warp into impossible shapes – occasionally swapped for games of snakes and ladders. These domestic scenes are playful and alluring and strange; surreal in the manner of a child’s drawings. This is ‘the domestic’ seen through a trick mirror. As she herself has put it, El-Kadhi Brown’s paintings 'playfully disembowel the anatomy of the domestic environment, gutting it from the inside out.'
"bulbous yet wispy figures dissolve into pastel backgrounds"
Yet, like El-Kadhi Brown’s recurring teacups, her paintings also often teeter on the edge of blissful fantasy and bizarre nightmare. Darkness is cut through with beams of radiant light and colour, but gloom and confusion still seem to lurk. The playful and angelic qualities of her figures sometimes slip into something a touch more unsettling. In her 2021 painting, Night Dwellers, for example, two translucent, androgynous figures sit in a beam of light, a card game and a steaming teapot between them. A third, almost imperceptible, figure lies curled nearby – their body all light.
"something that women will never be able to walk away from"
Are these figures otherworldly angels, spirits from the future, or ghosts from the past – lingering, refusing to budge? 'I often think about the figures in the paintings to be like these ghostly presences,' El-Kadhi Brown says. 'But not necessarily like a spooky bad ghost.' Indeed, they are perhaps better thought of as figments than figures. 'The spaces that they inhabit are very psychological and the figures themselves are sort of extensions of this space.' Both the home and the psyche, after all, become loaded with multiple, conflicting ideas and impressions. More than anything then, perhaps what the artist's shifting, androgynous, translucent forms represent is contradiction itself.
This kitschy, nostalgic, lighthearted style seems increasingly dominant – perhaps one of the defining styles of contemporary painting. My Instagram explore page, for example, is full of artists creating cartoony still-lives, and faux-naive, ‘childish’ scenes. Most of these artists are, like El-Kadhi Brown, young women saturated in the aesthetic language of the internet. A language that is built on contradiction, collision and collage – on mash-up. So, is this where this faux-naive aesthetic stems from? From a voracious ‘digital native’ approach to inspiration and creativity, which takes it for granted that it is possible to make work that is both angelic and haunting, serious and tongue-in-cheek?
"plant-like forms sprout against a pale, buttery yellow background"
'I feel like this age of, I'm gonna say, ‘silly art’ is becoming quite big now,' El-Kadhi Brown suggests. 'I’m loving it.' At the same time however, what comes through in El-Kadhi Brown’s work and that of some of her peers, is a real dedication to craft. Silliness and playfulness may be the order of the day, but so is a great respect for colour, texture and beauty. In her most recent works, El-Kadhi Brown has been taking a bit longer than she did even two years ago. 'I'm thinking about the relationship between the colours, maybe not more, but in a different way. I worked in a very urgent, fast way and I think I'm trying to just take it a little bit slower,' she says. 'I think in the process of doing that, the paintings have more of an ethereal feeling to them'.
Indeed, the works in Angel in the House are characterised by a more delicate, soft, 'angelic' aesthetic. In Cumulus, plant-like forms sprout against a pale, buttery yellow background, and at the top of the canvas a window’s shutters are thrown open to a dusky lilac sky, which bleeds into pink at the edges. In the centre, a tangled pool of pink is covered with fluffy white clouds, which drift over the whole painting in a line, like an animated chase from Disney’s Fantasia. 'I think that is the most ‘feminine’ painting I’ve done,' she says, suggesting it 'feels very stereotypically soft.' Yet, she also highlights its essential 'strangeness': 'the figure is blending into the space. There’s a question of whether it's part of the cloudscape that's drifting over it.' This seemingly soft femininity comes with a distinct undercurrent, not of violence, but of a kind of funny business – a sense of rascally goings-on.
"as if Matisse had played Mario Kart"
Embodying contradiction and strangeness, the figures come to look like tricksters – not 'spooky bad ghosts' but perhaps akin to poltergeists. Indeed, El-Kadhi Brown suggests she wants them 'to feel almost like they're meddling.' Yet, it can also feel like she is the meddler; the one playing tricks. Sometimes a splayed banana skin threatens the ghostly inhabitants of her dreamlike domestic locales, giving the paintings a lively and mischievous energy – almost as if Matisse had played Mario Kart.
"a bow and arrow just sat on the sofa"
For El-Kadhi Brown, however, this playful, strange, mischievous version of the domestic is also, just, true. Not a trick mirror at all, but a nostalgia-tinted reflection of her childhood home. 'I've always felt like growing up, my house was really weird compared to one of my friends,' the artist explains. 'I'd go to my friends' houses and they'd be really tidy, and I'd go to mine, and I'd be like, why is mine so messy,' she laughs. 'It would just be chaos!' Her dad worked with props, so there were always odd bits and bobs around the house – fake limbs scattered about, and 'a bow and arrow just sat on the sofa'. 'It felt very normal to me,' El-Kadhi says, 'and it almost felt abnormal when I'd go to my friends’ houses and everything was very organised.' From a young age, she became interested in the line between order and chaos, and how people both shape and adapt to the spaces they find themselves in. 'I always think about this Gaston Bachelard quote,' she says, 'where he talks about how the domestic home is the child's first universe and then you sculpt every other home from this first interpretation of this space. I was really interested in how everyone has their own little slices of their first home in themselves, and how these weird objects would be so normal for me.'
To me, what is most joyful in El-Kadhi Brown’s approach to her paintings, is the way she brings seemingly disparate things together, which suddenly seem like they were destined to complement each other all along – such as Bachelard’s notion of sculpting home from the child’s 'first universe', with a love of retro cartoons. Again, she makes a virtue of contradiction; holding both things at once. Matisse and Mario Kart. Bachelard and Looney Tunes. 'I'm looking a lot at backgrounds,' El-Kadhi Brown tells me – 'looking at The Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry, even things like The Simpsons. There are always these brilliant pastels, but then also sometimes very bright colours.'
Her interest speaks to a broader interest in imagination and fantasy – in the slipperiness of perception. 'What I love about Tom and Jerry,' El-Kadhi declares, 'is that you see these domestic backgrounds and you just see a little slither of the kitchen – maybe just the bottom floor and the tiles and something – and you get this whole idea of what this whole 1950s style house is like.' These 'little slithers' seem to echo her idea that everyone has 'little slices' of their childhood home inside; 'I love leaving just enough for the viewer to make their own mind up about what they're looking at.'
By Eloise Hendy
Cover image: Pippa El-Kadhi Brown, Coyote