SMAC Gallery, Cape Town
29.10.16 – 03.12.16
According to Frances Goodman’s press release, ‘degreened’ describes an adolescent after they have had their first kiss. Before I was degreened, I was sombrely warned by a considerate degreener; ‘Be careful, or you’ll start wanting more’. This caution against voraciousness is playfully, if ominously, explored in Goodman’s work, which distils familiar images of so-called ‘feminine’ desire and sexuality, rendered in luscious sequins and acrylic nails. Woven beneath the alternatingly sparkly and smooth surfaces is the ever-present threat of subsumation – of being enveloped by an object of desire.
This is a fear of being consumed by the object that ‘wants more’ than it should – by the perceived cloyingness of femininity. Goodman’s work Dirty Candy; a wall full of disembodied pop-art lips studded with sequins, includes one pair of lips entitled Lady Danger. Dirty Candy/Lady Danger creates a set point for the show, pointing at the intersection between fear of, and desire for, the feminine sex object, and a deeply embedded suspicion of its motives.
Degreening is an act; an event. You kiss or are kissed, and something happens – you are forever altered in some way. This is the popular discourse around virginity too, which is framed as something ‘lost’, as if it had been an asset; some tangible marker to be shed. But here, instead of loss, Goodman pulls the narrative towards growth and mutation – from the perfectly formed, Cosmopolitan-Perfume-Whisper lips, sequins fluttering against the downward facing fans, to the blank, zombified, victimised portraits, and finally a third room, hung heavy with huge, bright flowers.
Goodman is explicitly not using the metaphor of sexual virginity, though – she is using the first kiss as the symbolic moment – the first break from innocence, the first mix of fluids.
Those body parts usually associated with fecundity; hips, breasts, bellies, buttocks; are absent. The final signifier – the lips – are left to do the work of representation. Mouths are perhaps the most dangerous of these body parts. They can speak. They can hiss. They can scream. They can bite and spit. And, of course, much as mouths and lips can exude sensuality and fullness, they are also vessels of hunger.
The free-floating mouths of Dirty Candy simultaneously draw on the visual language and availability of the hyper-feminine; amping up the intensity of the symbols so that they become disproportionately provocative; almost obscene. They hold both the advertising aesthetic of a Maybelline lipstick spread, and the bizarre, sci-fi sexuality of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s bright red lips, suspended in darkness, and singing.
In the second exhibition space, these lips are placed back into context on the faces of the womxn in Goodman’s tryptic Sequin Paintings. These portraits (titled Damsel, Victim and Dazed) seem to feature womxn in states of ecstasy, agony and disorientation. They have been frozen at a crucial moment – one of horror, but also one of transformation. A turning point.
There is something ghoulish about them – their milky, unfocused eyes, exposed teeth – sequins shimmering in the light, simulating life and movement in the absence of either. They begin to capture something undead. Something animalistic, cornered and hungry.
Here, the unspoken abjection of eroticised feminine fertility rears up – they are fertile as in fertilising or producing fertiliser – of VORE-ing, consuming, digesting the subject (desirous of the womxn or feminine object), defecating, leaving the nutritious remains somewhere beneath the sequins and synthetic nails. And where shit falls, strange flowers grow – flowers with evocative names, and fleshy tendrils, threatening and plush and tropical – an alien rainforest.
Enter the Lady Garden – full of engorged, looming bulbs and petals – pistils preparing to release their seductive, noxious fumes. The atmosphere here is heady – the flowers are very well fed – thriving and monstrous, at once plant, animal and, human. They are carnivorous, but they are not hunters. They are lures – they draw their victims into the chasm of their mouths without even having to rustle. They are degreened, but not devenomised.
Roald Dahl describes the horror of the fertile womxn and her kiss/kill/swallow in his short story Georgy Porgy (… kissed the girls and made them cry, etc) below, where the protagonist and his mother watch as a rabbit licks, kisses, and then devours one of her new born babies:
“‘See how she’s fondling and kissing it all over! There! She’s really kissing it now, isn’t she! Exactly like me and you!’
I peer closer. It seems a queer way of kissing to me.
‘Look!’ I scream. ‘She’s eating it!’” [i]
Degreened draws on this same fear and eroticism of being swallowed, beginning with the light touch of an innocent kiss, and leading right down into the gullet.
Despite the insistence on feminine sexuality being immobile and patient, there remains the underlying terror of being emasculated, castrated, and digested by the sinister chasm of the mouth/vagina. The suspicion that this vessel of pleasure is potentially lethal plays right into the insistence on feminine passivity – not wanting the femme mouth to move, just wanting it ajar, waiting. But, as Goodman points out, this waiting is also the patience of the Venus Fly Trap, which moves to strike only when the time is right.
[i] Dahl, R. 1959. Kiss Kiss. Penguin. 137