Lizza Littlewort's Portraits of Young Artists at the AVA
Lizza Littlewort's paintings explore a space between constructions found in popular culture (i.e. the depictions of the rich and famous), and constructions found in the tradition of portraiture (the work of Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon in particular). She regards her work as most successful when it fools people, when her viewer believes, even for a moment, that she has captured the soul of her subject. Somewhat paradoxically, this body of work is not about encapsulating a subject's essence, it is about "reflecting on the construction of myth, the construction of culture and the construction of consensual reality."
Littlewort began this series of paintings early in 2001 and they have been worked and reworked with an ever-evolving eye towards the goal of "constructing the condition of 'famousness'" by giving the viewer a sense of intimacy with the subject. Littlewort mostly resists obvious formulas and rather attempts to grapple with allegory and visual metaphor.
In Bridget we confront a seated figure, warm colour and fluid mark-makings. The vantage point is from below, forcing us to look up on the figure, giving it power. We are reminded of the portraits of vice chancellors and deans of universities. Littlewort allows us to taste that genre, but then flips it by using expressionist colour, creating fluid, atmospheric space and by including a punch line, so to speak: the figure is wearing goofy, Ronald McDonald-style red shoes.
In Zen we confront a curiously stoic figure engulfed by his surroundings. The positive and negative shapes battle with each other, violently blurring and fracturing the space. The storm rages about his head; he is caught in the crossfire. He rests his chin on a closed fist like The Thinker, and stares out at the viewer, expressionless.
This story, told with a more complex visual language than many of the others, strays furthest from the themes of fame and "consensual reality." It is a kind of metaphysical tragedy. We do not know if this one "wants to be famous," we only know that there is a violent conflict and that neither side is winning.
Zen stands in contrast to works like Cobi 2, where the elements of constructed-ness are more easily discernable. In Cobi 2 the figure sits, perched on elbows, fiddling with sunglasses, staring into the middle-distance and wearing a wistful, girlish grin. Littlewort has rendered the face mask-like by outlining it with a bright graphic line and by giving it pink eyebrows. The clothing and hair is made up of frantic squiggles. We can discern the intoxicated excitement of youth. This is a daydreamer, we used to know kids like that, or, maybe we were one.
In Alex the figure slouches in the corner of a couch, arms outspread, elbows up on either side, holding the weight. Littlewort's handling of the paint follows suit. She uses anxious, decisive blocks of colour to sculpt the top of the figure. As she moves down to the right, the paint becomes transparent, neutral blues over a red-orange wash. Below the arms the form is simply outlined by two graphic lines. The viewer's eye must grapple with the visual momentum created by a strong diagonal: from the cigarette dangling between the fingers in the top left, to the drips and under-painting that make up the dress in the bottom right.
The metaphors emerge: The scene is an avalanche. Or, she is a boxer, against the ropes, holding herself up in the corner of the ring (couch). The pursuit of fame becomes a natural disaster, a love affair becomes a violent sport. Then we look at the face, the figure looks away, gazing into the bottom right. We feel like we recognize her from a cheap soap opera that went off the air years ago. We can see that she has tasted fame, but doesn't know where it went, or how she let it slip away. We wonder how it came to this.
Littlewort cackles. She has drawn us in, she has constructed moments of intimacy. But why play this game? Littlewort is fascinated by what makes people buy artwork: "for economic reasons, I've made a conscious effort to make this work consumable. In Europe, it may be appropriate to take the piss out of your viewer, but in South Africa, you can't expect people to have that kind of visually literacy."
In a sense, Littlewort is asking us to redefine that which we call subversive in the South African context; a question with implications for the debate surrounding South African artists imitating trends in Europe.
That debate aside, Littlewort, nevertheless feels uncertain about her subversive project. She is engaging the political and economic realities of her surroundings and of her life by making work that will appeal to a wide audience, work that will sell. And she is trying to do it with integrity: "I tried to make work about the insincerity of everything, but along the way, I found I couldn't really do it." Alas, affirmations of humanity creep in through the back door, and the romantics cheer and the cynics laugh, and many of us, still want to be famous.
Opens: April 19
Closes: May 8
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