rsXXII-/-8-7 is one in an ongoing series of what the artist calls her ‘bum paintings’ in which she depicts close-up views of her own ‘bum’ from different angles. The paintings in this series date back to 1998, and have often been characterised as exercises in which the artist ‘experiments in composition, light, palette and painterly technique’ (Carey-Thomas, [p.6]). The title follows a system of classification that allows the artist to differentiate one painting from another, without any specific meaning. Other titles in the series are more descriptive, such as Window 2001 or Blue Streak 2003, alluding to different elements found in the painting. The cropping of the image at the hips and the upper thigh is a constant in the series, and the canvas surface is always filled with the subject, removing any other elements that could suggest a precise setting. The cropping of the image here recalls the composition used by French artist Gustave Courbet (1819–77) in his work The Origin of the World 1866 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), a depiction of a female nude, but cropped to focus in on an almost anatomical description of female sex organs, painted with a sensual brush stroke and a Venetian palette that attenuate its explicit sexual content. Applying a different style each time she confronts the subject, Carnegie does not aim at accuracy, correct measurement or finish, instead the artist plays with the legibility of the image and its expressive possibilities. Her representation of the human body is sometimes naturalistic and her palette realistic in colour and tone, as in rsXXII-/-8-7, Untitled 1998, Dusk 1998 or Nude on White Linen 2002. In contrast, other works in the series such as White Light 2003 or Red 2004 depict schematic forms and artificial colours. All through the series Carnegie continually charges and diffuses her subject, sometimes emphasising its erotic connotations, at other times treating it as a neutral form. Writing about Carnegie’s ‘bum paintings’, critic and curator Polly Staple has commented on their effect, which varies ‘from the suggestion of a torrid narrative to a purely formal exercise in painting; from the crispness of a Photorealist style to the more recent fleshy abstraction in which the outline of the figure blends with an indistinct background’ (quoted in Staple, p.75).
In the ‘bum paintings’ Carnegie continues her investigations in the medium of paint, calling for attention to the artifice involved in the construction of an image through pictorial resources such as the application of light to organise space, or gradation in colour to reproduce a sense of volume. However, for the artist this series also opens another level of significance and interpretation, one that engages with her relation to the chosen subject. Commenting on this series, Carnegie has explained:
I get access to a part of me I can never see without assistance and that usually places me in a vulnerable position during the process of making that work and as a more distanced viewer of that work ... it’s what drives the work. There’s a real vitality in that confrontation with vulnerability and that’s what I’m focusing on there, not so much an aesthetic blocking.
(Quoted in ‘Paint it Black. A conversation between Gillian Carnegie and Simon Thompson’, press release, Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York 2003, http://www.andrearosengallery.com/exhibitions/2003_2_gillian-carnegie, accessed 27 April 2009.)
In rsXXII-/-8-7 Carnegie presents an erotic subject that, although treated in a manner similar to that in which she paints still lifes (as in Thirteen 2006, T12486), is loaded with different meanings. The naked figure tests the viewer’s response when confronted with an erotic image and raises notions of voyeurism, at the same time as playing on the language of representation.
Lizzie Carey-Thomas, ‘Gillian Carnegie’, Turner Prize 2005, exhibition brochure, Tate Britain, London 2005 [pp.6–7].
Ben Tufnell, ‘Gillian Carnegie’, Days Like These, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2003, p.48–53.
Polly Staple, ‘The Finishing Touch’, frieze, number 64, January–February 2002, pp.72–5.