File Note 54: Mel Brimfield - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Gary Stevens



TA DA! Images References Quote Biography Credits


The 1960s were a time when sculpture was heavy and it was predominantly a male preserve. Anthony Caro’s sculpture course at St Martin’s School of Art in 1968 produced the likes of Gilbert and George, Bruce Mclean, Richard Long and a host of others who rebelled against the aesthetic strictures of the time. In America Richard Serra experimented in film with Hand Catching Lead (1968). Bruce Nauman was a pioneer in video, turning the camera on its side or upside down for pieces like Bouncing in a Corner (1969) or Revolving Upside Down (1968). 

In This is Performance Art (2010), a new work by Mel Brimfield, we are introduced to Alex Owens, a modified construct of a fictional character in the 80s movie Flashdance (1983), yearning to become an artist in her own right. We see Owens exercising in front of a television; drawing inspiration from the image of a Donald Judd sculpture fixed on the screen she twirls en pointe. She hasn’t had a formal education and compensates by training obsessively. She is an outsider, a woman and working class, performing in private for a future, fantasy audience. We watch her gleaming, toned thighs pumping away, framed by a black leotard, and try to think formalist thoughts. 

Although it seems unlikely that Alex Owens would be aware of Merce Cunningham’s dance collaborations with John Cage and their relation to minimalist sculpture, the interdisciplinary ethos of the Black Mountain College is central to Brimfield’s practice as an artist and curator. The implication of the interdisciplinary approach is that different areas work together, yet for Brimfield everything becomes a cultural curio, stripped of context, turned inside-out and re-devised. It is a menagerie in which artefacts of all kinds bump up against one another and vie for attention. Her work is burlesque, irreverent and down-to-earth, itself part of a particularly British comic tradition of debunking; puncturing over-inflated egos. You get the impression that she likes Morecambe and Wise more than Gilbert and George.

Tony Hancock’s film The Rebel (1960) is a blanket attack on the art world. It is rooted in popular culture, insisting on a class difference. Like Bobby Baker, who transposed the artist’s studio to a domestic setting, painting in ketchup. Brimfield collides TV and popular film with formalism, turning the tables on the exploitation of bathing beauties and dancing girls. Although Brimfield is not a cockney the sound of the dance troupe the ‘Beau Belles’ suggests a class reference. In This is Performance Art an aerobics class perform a version of Bruce Mclean’s Pose Work for Plinths 1– 3 (1971), (a panel of photographs from a performance that itself mocks plinth-based sculpture), which mixes high and low culture and shifts the balance from men to women. It debunks the debunkers and in doing so it empowers women, while also giving space to a wider population that looks at television more than sculpture; a culture that dreams of celebrity. 

Brimfield’s work is funny but it is also sexy, often in an uncomfortable, vicarious way. On Board (2009) is a temporary sculpture, itself a restaging of Charles Ray’s Plank Piece II (1973), preserved as a photograph, of a woman folded over and pinned to a wall propped up by an ironing board jammed into her midriff. It seems to be a mad marriage between Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), with its undercurrent of violence and protest in her apparent compliance to a role, and Richard Serra’s Prop (1968), where a roll of lead pins another sheet of lead to the wall and holds it there  —  except that On Board is funny; it has a floppy doll, cartoon death affect.

When video first became accessible to artists, the moving image, in shades-of-grey, reminded them not of cinema but television. It was immediate and accessible. It posed a complex problem for those who wanted to be true to materials. With photography comes the possibility of sustaining the unsustainable, of giving temporary or fleeting events the permanence of sculpture, such as Bruce Nauman’s Fountain (1966 –7) or Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Objects (from the1980s). Brimfield has been true through conspicuous fakery. Rose English, in an early performance Plato’s Chair (1984), paid tacit homage to Tommy Cooper in which the sublime and the ridiculous converge as the magic act is exposed. Brimfield has a gravity defying, juggling routine where the balls reconfigure in the air in a slightly crazed pantomime fantasy act. For Brimfield though, there is a manic and relentless pursuit that can never resolve itself into a finished piece; there is never enough, there will always need to be more. Her work is laugh-out-loud funny and yet her video and performance is always tumbling forward, exercising, training and preparing. Always striving, trying, impossibly, to keep the balls in the air.


Roy Hudd with Philip Hindin Roy Hudd’s Cavalcade of Variety Acts: A Who Was Who of Light Entertainment 1945 – 60 Robson (1998)

Ned Sherrin Ned Sherrin’s Theatrical Anecdotes: A Connoisseur’s Collection of Legends, Stories and Gossip Virgin Books (1991)

Paul Schimmel (ed) Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949 –1979 Thames and Hudson (1998)

Sally Banes Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater, 1962 – 64 Duke University Press (1993)

A Short History of Performance II Whitechapel Gallery (2003)

A Short History of Performance IV Whitechapel Gallery (2006)

Robert Hughes (Presenter) The Shock of the New BBC  ⁄  Time Life Films (1980)

Matthew Collings This is Modern Art Channel 4 (1998)

Simon Schama The Power of Art BBC (2006)

Look Around You (Series 1 and 2) BBC ⁄ Talkback Productions (2002, 2005)

Robert Day (Dir.) The Rebel (1961)

‘Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance’ Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London and New York, 1993


Mel Brimfield was born in Oxford in 1976. She studied at Bath Spa University College, BA (1995 — 1998) and at Chelsea College of Art, MA (1999 — 2000). She has had a number of UK solo exhibitions including ‘Waiter Waiter, there’s a sculpture in my soup’, Ceri Hand Gallery, Liverpool, 2008 and ‘Waiter Waiter, there’s a sculpture in my soup: Part II, Performance Art and Comedy from Gutai to the Present’, Pumphouse Gallery, London, 2009. Brimfield has also worked on a number of collaborative projects including The Golden Record — Sounds of the Earth, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, 2008 and Battersea Arts Centre, London, 2008; The Comic Book, The Collective Gallery, Edinburgh 2007, ICA, London 2007. She was also included in ‘Local Operations’, Serpentine Gallery, London, 2007 and was co-curator  ⁄  producer of the Whitstable Biennale, 2006. ‘This is Performance Art: Performed Sculpture and Dance’ will tour to Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2011. Mel Brimfield is represented by Ceri Hand Gallery, Liverpool.


Gary Stevens is an artist.