Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg
16.04.2015 – 14.05.2015
Stylistic evolution is a slow process for some. The problem with the cult of youth in art, that apparently interminable tradition of lauding ever-younger artists for even the most embryonic visual statements, is that it all starts to look a bit like ‘Smash Hits’ magazine in the 80s. Fresh faces, brooding portfolio head shots, a few edgy sound bites, one exhibition under their belts.
But boy bands, and girl bands for that matter, generally don’t age well. The same happens in the art world. Boy- and girl artists, smooth-skinned graduates with all the answers and no mortgages, tend to get stuck in modes of production. Sometimes the art world, or as Brooklyn artist William Powhida overtly distinguishes it, the art market, doesn’t allow the kid the space to develop depth.
This nearly happened to Lisa Brice. Formerly a young art star, Brice is an anomaly. Since she graduated in 1990, when she was actively managed into certain modes of production by the impresarios of the Hänel Gallery, she has managed to transition between styles and concerns with alacrity, each time responding to deeply-held notions with a convincing sense of how to explore these visually.
Along this trajectory, Brice has, over the last seven or eight years, revealed a shift away from some of the more voguish preoccupations of the mid-2000s. First she made a decisive break from the digital qualities of her exhibitions ‘Night Vision’ in 2006 and ‘Base 1, 2, 3’ in 2007, and more recently another step away from the shadow of Peter Doig, which loomed rather large in 2009’s ‘More Wood for the Fire’.
In her latest show, ‘Well Worn’ at Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, Brice explores her preoccupation with the late works of Intimist painter Pierre Bonnard, one which was evident in a similar and related body of work shown at London’s French Riviera gallery called ‘Cut Your Coat’ in 2014. It results in an arresting body of work, and paradoxically seems to bring her closer still to her own voice.
In particular, two works, Untitled xxxix (Well Worn 3) and Untitled xxxviii (well Worn 2) (both 2015) reference Bonnard’s warm, softly sexualised interiors. Where Bonnard’s broken brushstrokes render flesh and pattern, animate and inanimate, with equal tenderness, Brice’s thin veils of paint seem to represent a conscious decision to strip the language down to its bare essentials. This works well with the concept of naked self-presentation before a mirror in the privacy of one’s bathroom, which is the subject of most works on this exhibition.
Elsewhere, a new addition to her arsenal, a process of layering her formats with offset printing, emerges: vertical black lines (in one case, Untitled I [Well Worn 17], the lines are horizontal) operate like the strips of motel window blinds, obscuring one’s reading of the ghostly figures that float behind or beyond. The mash-up of Bridget Riley’s cool Op Art with Nabi sensitivity results in images that are, like the best erotica, tantalisingly tricky to decode.
Many works on the show are exhibited in pairs, a decision made to deliberately suggest mirroring. The effect is to allow for a lengthy rumination on vulnerability, and move the work past the erotic, into a mode that sees Brice obliquely taking on the phenomenon of the selfie. How does the psychology of self-presentation and self-representation operate? What is gained, and what lost in the process of considering your own body, your own image? A number of the figures look down at their bodies, or pose holding up their hair, apparently trying out looks or considering parts of their bodies traditionally sexualized.
The all-inclusive curation of the show seems to reinforce this notion of self-exposure. Brice’s willingness to show all her sketches, no matter how clumsy and unresolved some may be, reads as a readiness to expose her process to the same scrutiny as that directed at her all-female cast of protagonists. Maybe Brice is considering her own mortality and physical fallibility (maybe, like all of us heading north of 40, her own body is the subject of show’s title) and finding resonances with the process of growing up in public as an exhibiting artist. If so, she’s providing a great antidote to the yearly art fair parade of MFA formalists (as Jerry Saltz calls them) and wafer-thin portraitists.