Brenda Draney: Organizing One's Memories
Dr. Brian Levine leading the Sunday Scene, Winter 2023. The Power Plant, Toronto. Photo by Hyerim Han.
The title of Brenda Draney’s exhibition, Drink from the river, was inspired by Heraclitus, who said, “No man can step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” Memory scientists love that quote because human recollection isn’t a copy of our original experiences. Every time you think about an event you are somewhere else in your stream of consciousness, and that changes the memory.
No metaphor is perfect, and this one is no exception. If every event and every memory were a truly fresh experience, our minds would be a jumble. It would be like a bunch of pages scattered on the floor—or worse, like my desk. So, then, how do we organize our memories?
Brenda Draney, Drink from the river, 2023. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
One of our big jobs in life is to make sense of our experiences by organizing those papers, which means deciding what gets stacked with what, but also what is separate from what. Some of that organization happens effortlessly. As babies, infants, and toddlers, our brains do a massive amount of categorization or sorting the papers into piles: a pile for people in my life, vehicles, animals, etc. This is done to make sense of the world. Our young brains are so busy trying to understand how the everythimg works that we don’t reliably store specific events in memory—or differentiating papers within a pile—before the age of 4 or so. And for a good reason: you can make a toddler cry if you put ketchup on their hotdog in the wrong way. If one remembered each of those parental fails, it would mean being scarred for life.
With a bit of maturity, we eventually retain events that form our life narrative—our autobiography—and that is when the hard work of organizing and making sense of our story begins.
Brenda Draney, Parish 1-8, 2010. Raku-fired clay. Courtesy the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver. Installation view: The Power Plant, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Every one of us is at the centre of an epic story, even those that think their life is boring. In fact, some of the greatest epic tales ever written have been about ordinary people (for instance, Leopold Bloom). If only we each had a novelist to write it out for us. (A psychotherapist can do that by helping you make sense of things that have happened in your life.) But, let’s get back to that jumble of papers and our big job of organizing the events that happen in our lives—this process of differentiating one paper from another in the pile.
If there were an owner's manual for organizing events in your life, it would start with the when and the where, which are the most conveniently accessible dimensions for categorizing events. They say that time is what keeps everything from happening at once. If you could time-stamp events like a file on your computer, you could dial up the memories at will based on the date. However, we are unable to do that. Our brains do not have an effective way of time-stamping events once enough time has passed. Throughout the exhibition, Draney’s paintings both guide and abandon us as we work through this organizational process.
Brenda Draney, Evacuation, 2013. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver.
Upon entering this gallery, there is another kind of place: the interior. There is a lot of intentionality in its configuration, as if we are entering a home with distinct spaces where many different things happen. A good deal of those things are alienating, as many people lack the privileges of the warmth and connection that we take for granted, such as an actual home and not just a tent. We take for granted that, within this home, we have a bed to sleep in as opposed to a couch. And, that it is a place where we will not be evacuated, flooded out, or expelled by the police.
Yet, I want to draw your attention to something missing: the exterior context. The visual scene is usually the easiest thing to remember. But, at minimum, we all have a sense of what things look like when we step outside our homes. Though Indigenous cultures are thought to have a strong sense of connection to the landscape, the exterior scenes in these paintings are so sparse that the characters are untethered from the very landscape that belongs to them. Or maybe it’s that when your sense of security is threatened—you don’t have a home—you turn inward and grasp the interior spaces.
Let’s move from the when and where to the what.
Brenda Draney, Lawyer, 2022. Oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist and Catriona Jeffries, Vancouver.
When kneeling over a toilet, a person with a camera is the last thing I’d want nearby—not only for my sake but for the others who might see the picture. But this isn’t just anyone. She’s in a party dress. Why is she exploiting the situation with her camera?
Let’s face it: we’ve all been there. But the last time I was kneeling over a toilet, at least I was wearing something. Now that I think of it, what are we doing right now as we engage with this painting? What are we doing as we look at it? As we imagine the narrative preceding this scene, what if she is a stand-in for us?
Brenda Draney, Rest, 2021. Oil on canvas. Installation view of Drink from the river, The Power Plant, Toronto, 2023. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.
Brenda Draney paints a lot of couches, and this one is asking more of us than any of the other works in terms of interpretation. The only thing to hang our hat on is this postmodern kitchen table chair abutting the couch. Is the person blending in with the couch out of sheer exhaustion? Or does she need to blend in because she doesn’t belong there in the first place?
The idea that memory is constructed and not a copy of the original experience has led some—including some of my colleagues who should know better—to suggest that our memories are inherently unreliable. Memory can be unreliable when there is bias or interference from other agendas. But in the absence of these biases, the stories we tell are fairly accurate. If not, society would crumble because we would be unable to trust anything anyone says.
Whatever happened to these characters, I believe it was real. If Draney was notready to go there, then she would not be ready to start making sense of these events and putting them in perspective according to her life narrative. Instead, she is reframing these events and revisiting them from the perspective of her mature self.
Brenda Draney, Drink from the river, 2023. Installation view of Vanity, 2019, and Rose, 2019. The Power Plant, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Like the other paintings, this one has empty spaces. Yet, there is a clear narrative with a beginning, middle, and end: lost innocence. The adults caught flagrante delicto are defiant and not even covering up. Here, Draney does not shy away from the what—even though much of it is implied.
In this painting, mounted next to Rose, we return to the position of organizing the narrative. Within, there’s a double vanity. Is someone supposed to be next to the girl?
Film or representative art hijacks our visual system and replaces our images with those of the artist, and we are happy to go along with that; who doesn’t want a break from our drab surroundings and our wretched minds and see something else for a change—even if it is someone else’s suffering—or perhaps especially if it is someone else’s suffering?
On the other hand, people usually say the book was better than the movie. That is because we are predisposed to create images in our minds to embellish stories. In fact, it is easier to form images with eyes closed. Reading a novel, then, is more of an investment. In the reading you create images that are yours and yours alone, and those images make the story come alive.
Imagery is a weak version of perception. In other words, when you conjure up an image in your mind— such as a rose—it engages some of the same brain areas as seeing an actual rose. Neuroscience researchers can use signals from brain scans to make computer-generated facsimiles of what’s inside your brain when you close your eyes and imagine something. The results are similar to many of these paintings.
Draney could have easily talked with her paintbrush and depicted scenes to tell her story. Or she could have gone the other way and made it completely abstract, leaving all the work to us. Instead, she is partially depictive. She is leading us somewhere very specific, but then leaves spaces for us to construct a visual narrative. She even went so far as to make the titles sparse. Thelonious Monk said that what you don’t play can be more important than what you do play. Like musicians, visual artists know how to use empty space, but few are so intentional in leaving blanks out of a narrative.
Brenda Draney, Drink from the river, 2023. Installation view of The Righteous, 2010, and Pray, 2020. The Power Plant, Toronto, 2023. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Portraits: The Righteous, 2010, and Pray, 2020
Many of the portraits in this exhibition are distanced or gaze averted. But, these two depict a direct interaction. The woman’s hand is raised, perhaps making a point or giving advice.
Though the when, where, and the what dimensions of our stories have been discussed, what about emotion and the personal connections with others? Ultimately, it is these relationships that we are left with, the ones that are not tied to a single event, but rather the people who stay with us through thick and thin. These are the anchors that tether us as we do what do—the big job of organizing one's memories.
Originally presented as Sunday Scene with Dr. Brian Levine on April 16, 2023 at The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto. This transcript has been edited for clarity.