Shape-shifting humans, grotesque beasts, benevolent animals and majestic birds – these are just some of the players in an arresting visual drama that springs from the uncommon depths of a defiant artist named Jeanne Brousseau. The drama is both tragedy and comedy, whimsical and horrifying, rendered with childlike imagination but with the precision and intensity of a grown-up who has something important to say. They are, in fact, a survivor’s deeply suppressed memories of child sexual abuse by her father.
Hirschl & Adler Modern is proud to introduce the work of self-taught artist Jeanne Brousseau (b. 1952). This represents the artist’s debut before the general public, the first time these highly personal, intimate drawings have been seen outside her hometown of Penobscot, Maine. Like many in that region, Brousseau farms and raises livestock, but is also known locally as a maker of offbeat crafts and as a first-rate knitter. It wasn’t until recently, however, that the sheer breadth of her creativity became known when she decided to tell her story and share her private drawings with the public.
The drawings started as therapy in the mid-1990s when Brousseau was in her 40s and beginning to piece together the details of her troubled past. The most chilling of them, Untitled, of about 1994, was her first serious effort to encapsulate the physical sensation, emotion and pain of her ordeal. It is a strikingly original, clear and devastating portrayal of sexual violence and its toll on the victim. Upon seeing it one might prefer to look no further. But that would miss an opportunity to witness the extraordinary triumph of spirit playing out across the rest of the artist’s work. The ensuing visual narrative is one of courage, revenge, escape, and survival. The drawings are intricately detailed, mesmerizing accounts of her experiences and attempts to overcome them. Alluding to her abuse both directly and indirectly, Brousseau uses her own distinctive visual language to set up a classic dichotomy of Good vs. Evil. Untitled [Vengeance Tale with Horse and Alligator], about mid-1990s, features the artist’s band of animal warriors called on to protect her and to seek her revenge. Here the tables have been turned as her father assumes the role of victim. It’s a ghoulish scene rendered with a childlike innocence and cuddly characters. But the fascinating micro-writing tells of their deadly serious intent.
After the initial 1990s burst of creativity and self-exploration, in which she executed mostly linear, monotoned compositions, Brousseau abruptly stopped drawing. It wasn’t until 2018 that she returned to the format, now with an almost joyous confidence and strength and breakout color announcing her victory. The characters remain – her hideous, menacing father, and complicit, controlling mother alongside a bestiary of both kind and evil creatures. But with her parents no longer living and her own life more stable and happier than ever before, the tone of Brousseau’s recent work is about freedom and overcoming her past. No longer fearful, these are sophisticated, fulsome statements of hard-won survival.