- Lisa Brice born 1968
- Gouache and tempera on canvas
- Support: 2000 × 950 mm
frame: 2026 × 974 × 46 mm
- Presented by Harry and Lana David 2020
Untitled 2019 is a painting in gouache and synthetic tempera on canvas measuring roughly two metres high by one metre across. It shows a naked woman in stockings standing before her own reflection in an arched mirror. A plume of smoke billows upwards from the cigarette which dangles from her lips. She holds paintbrushes loosely in one hand and, at her feet, a palette lies discarded onto which blue paint from her brush drips and pools. With one hand on her hip, her stance is relaxed and confident and, though her head is turned away towards the mirror, her reflection boldly confronts the viewer with empty white eyes reminiscent of those painted by the early twentieth-century artist Amedeo Modigliani (1884–1920). Her position recalls the contrapposto posture which first appeared in the Early Classical Greek sculpture Kritios Boy c.480 BC (Acropolis Museum, Athens). This was arguably the first time in Western art that the human body had been used to express a particular psychological disposition; in the case of Kritios Boy, the calm evenness of temperament associated with the highest ideal of man. For Brice, this subversion of the traditionally misogynistic visual tropes of the canon of Western art history is key to her practice. She has explained:
As a figurative painter looking at art historical work, it is significant that the figuration is invariably created by white men for an audience of white men. Sometimes the simple act of repainting an image of a woman previously painted by a man, and thus re-authoring the work as a woman, or the use of strong colour to tweak the slant of eyes or mouth,
(Lisa Brice, quoted in Mehrez 2018, p.18.)
Borrowing a multitude of art historical references, including characters, gestures, props and interiors, from artists such as Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and Edouard Manet, Brice paints strangely familiar scenes in new and often unsettling ways. Where the figures in her paintings might previously have been depicted as an objectified nude or a damsel in distress – there for the pleasure or amusement of others – Brice recasts them in new or altered situations with a strong sense of autonomy. In Untitled such roles are reversed one step further as the model now also assumes the position of the artist.
This painting was first exhibited in the artist’s solo exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery, London in 2019. In her essay to accompany the exhibition, curator Laura Smith explained that Brice’s ‘works are not portraits of specific women, but they represent an idea, an escape towards ambiguity, emancipation and empowerment that reclaims the female body on both an international and transhistoric level (Laura Smith, ‘Lisa Brice: It’s a Feeling Thing’, in Stephen Friedman 2019, p.5). This deliberately ambiguous and universal nature of her subjects is echoed by Brice’s extensive use of cobalt blue to interrupt any obvious reading of the figures in terms of ethnicity. Blue has a multiplicity of art historical associations: it is traditionally the colour of the Virgin Mary’s cloak in early religious iconography; for Henri Matisse (1869–1954) the colour blue allowed him to focus intensely on the female form; for Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) it was associated with the deepest depths of sadness; and Yves Klein (1928–1962) employed his own trademarked shade of blue to create paintings using women as living paintbrushes. For Brice, who is South African but has strong ties to the Caribbean island of Trinidad, the colour also hints at the sense of liberation experienced by those involved with J’ouvert, a festival which marks the beginning of Carnival. As part of J’ouvert, revellers cover themselves with mud or coloured (usually blue) paint, freeing themselves from the limitations of their own character. The blue paint is possibly made from Reckitt’s powder, which historically was used throughout the colonies of the British Empire for blueing white cloth. The powder is also associated with skin bleaching, something that takes on particular relevance considering the roots of Brice’s work in Trinidad where shadeism – discrimination based on degrees of skin colour – is prevalent. The artist has explained:
While I did the first blue drawing in an attempt to imitate the blue light of neon signs, which led to attempting to capture the fleeting colour of twilight in paint, the transitional gloaming hour, it has gone on to accumulate further meaning as the work has progressed. Drawing in paint and using a colour which is not usually associated with traditional monochrome drawings moves the work towards its painterly end.
Anyone who has had the experience of playing J’ouvert could testify to the liberating transformation achieved from being covered in mud, (or coloured paint) and released from the usual perception of oneself and others. This notion of transformation is something I allude to in the figures depicted as veiled in paint, combined with the painterly spectacle of the Blue Devil – a formidable Trinidadian carnival character.
(Brice, quoted in Mehrez 2018, p.19.)
In this particular work the fact that the blue shading of the figure’s reflection does not match her own means that her identity and intention are further veiled. Brice’s paintings consistently refuse straightforward readings; just as the activities or ethnicities of her subjects are hard to pin down, there is no clear sense of time or place in her work. Scenes take place in threshold spaces – not quite inside or outside and often partially hidden from view. This work is roughly the size of a door, underlining this liminal sense of space. Throughout Brice’s work there are repeated motifs of doorways, windows, curtains, grills, ironwork, screens and, as see in Untitled, mirrors, all of which provide stolen glimpses into other people’s spaces or reflections of other people’s private worlds.
‘Aïcha Mehrez and Lisa Brice in Conversation’, Tate Etc., no.43, Summer
2018; an edited version of this interview is also available at https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-43-summer-2018/lisa-brice-art-now-interview-aicha-mehrez, accessed 28 October 2019.
Laura Smith, Lisa Brice: It’s a Feeling Thing, exhibition booklet, Stephen Friedman Gallery, London 2019.
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