Police Constable Kate McFay (Maxine Peake) 2016 is a painting in oil on canvas by the British artist Dawn Mellor. It is one of twenty works in Mellor’s Sirens series, all completed in 2016. The paintings depict female police officers from popular and long-running British television dramas that focus on crime and police work, such as The Bill, Prime Suspect and Happy Valley. The characters of the police officers are painted in costume as though on set but have been defaced with additional elements, such as netting, lollipops or water with bubbles, overpainted on their figures, or with disembodied fingers falling out of their mouths.
This particular painting is a portrait of the actress Maxine Peake playing Police Constable Kate McFay, the central character from a one-off television comedy drama called Bike Squad that aired on ITV in 2007. The painting depicts Peake dressed in a white shirt, black jacket and high visibility police vest, as well as a police bicycle helmet. In her right hand she holds an extended police truncheon. She is submerged to her chest in white foaming water on which five severed fingers sit, and in the foreground is a waterfall and rockface. Her face is obscured by a bright red net; one eye is heavily made up while the other is left bare. Protruding from her mouth is a brown finger. Other works from the Sirens series also in Tate’s collection are: Sergeant June Ackland (Trudie Goodwin), Police Constable Norika Datta (Seeta Indrani), Police Constable Jamila Blake (Lolita Chakrabarti), and Police Constable Di Worrell (Jane Wall) (all 2016, Tate T15208–T15212).
The title, Sirens, is a triple play on words, evoking the sounds emitted by police cars but also the vernacular term for a sexually provocative actress (particularly associated with the glamorous Hollywood era of the 1950s) and the deadly seductresses of Greek mythology who lured sailors to shipwreck and death with their irresistible song. There is thus an implicit tension between the shrill noise associated with emergency vehicles and the softer yet still dangerous allure of the female goddesses of the silver screen and of mythology. As with all of Mellor’s paintings, the women depicted are objects of lust, firmly under her (and the viewers’) gaze while also being feminist figures, strong and capable professionals played by well-known women. This tension subverts and complicates ideas around the gaze and the societal expectations placed on female artists in addition to those around heteronormative behaviour. There is a conflict between desire and repulsion, between objectifying women and submission to their powers that runs through all of Mellor’s practice.
In these ways Mellor’s paintings act as a rebellion against the media industry’s colonisation of public consciousness in relation to attitudes towards women and towards celebrity. In appropriating and debasing photos of celebrities, turning them fiendish and tawdry, the artist negates the passivity usually associated with image-consumption – by taking ownership over the pictures, as well as performing a scarring defacement on their subjects. A critical element of Mellor’s practice is the lesbian gaze and her presentation of desire and lust for women, particularly a desire that can be read as fetishistic and rejecting any polite or commodified reading of the queer experience. On her fascination with television and celebrity culture the artist has stated: ‘Television was one of the few areas where I could access information when I was growing up, which was before the internet, and I believe made me vulnerable to manipulation as a child. I was seduced in my early years by excessive consumption of mainstream stars from various cultural fields due to a lack of access to other voices.’ (Quoted in Hatty Nestor, interview with Dawn Mellor, Studio International, 8 April 2018, https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/dawn-mellor-interview-activism-and-resentments-due-to-economics-class-racism-and-gender, accessed 30 October 2018.) Mellor’s work thus focuses on an investigation of sexuality, class and popular culture. By concentrating on depicting largely female bodies of different ages, races and nationalities, her paintings highlight the stereotypes surrounding the depiction of women in historical painting through the lens of popular culture.
Raphael Gygax and Dawn Mellor, Dawn Mellor, Zurich 2008.
Dawn Mellor, Michael Jackson and Other Men, Zurich 2011.
Richard Riley, J.P. Stonard, Linsey Young, The Painting Show, exhibition catalogue, British Council touring exhibition, Contemporary Art Centre, Vilnius, Lithuania and tour 2016.
Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.