Tate Britain, London
26.04 – 27.08.2018
‘[Unless there is representation]… in the history of art, it’s not really a history of art—it’s a history of power.’
–Guerilla Girls (2016 interview by Stephen Colbert)
In her first exhibition at the Tate Britain, Lisa Brice paints women revelling and relaxing. The show forms part of ‘Art Now,’ a long-running programme foregrounding emerging artists, and despite initially reading as a positive collection of female nudes by a female painter the seedy locales and exposed nakedness of her subjects reveal a conflicted feminist narrative.
Brice’s spread of blue gouache studies show figures in postures from the mundane (towel drying their hair) to the provocative (clutching beer bottles to their crotches). Her subjects are recruited from friends, mass media and the canon of famous historical works of art. In Untitled 2017, a line drawing of Félix Vallotton’s The Black and the White, Brice echoes his reworking of Manet’s Olympia. In Vallotton’s version Olympia’s dour black-skinned maid is sitting, smoking on the corner of the bed. The atmosphere of anxious withdrawal from the viewer in Manet’s composition is diffused and Olympia lounges unselfconsciously. She does not need to wield her body in the lone company of her female companion.
The stony smoking figure reoccurs in Between This and That, one of six large paintings, surrounded by robing and disrobing women. One, back turned to the viewer, lowers her white panties to her high-heeled shoes. The setting could be a stereotypical Parisian brothel. A screen of spiraling wrought iron encloses the composition and a preening vamp in prison uniform stripes adds to the strange sense of confinement.
The implication is that these works reveal a time before or after the referenced artworks were produced — behind-the-scenes, unposed moments in which the women were permitted to suspend their performance and relax. But like actors given brief respite, they cannot leave. This is just a break between takes. The timespan of their enjoyment marked by cigarettes on which they hungrily suckle.
In these works Brice asserts the contrived nature of the original works, unsettling our sense of those works as impartial, or at least benign, sources. For, benign they are not. The male monopoly on fine arts has ensured that the female subject has largely been presented for the titillation of a patriarchal audience. In response, the tactic of Feminist Visual Parody, an altered imitation of a famous work of art, is a staple in rebuking neatly presented art histories. Brice’s revisions include two scowling renditions of William Rothenstein’s Parting at Morning – which hangs in an adjacent room. The figures retain what Rothenstein described in his model as a ‘cadaverous beauty,’ but instead of regarding the viewer with meek resignation their blank eyes are seething as they chain smoke post-coital cigarettes. Perhaps it is the many years spent in captivity, gazing out of gilded frames that has given these protagonists the ‘fuck it’ attitude that makes these works simmer with mutinous anger.
A recurring setting, recognisable by its ribbon curtain and a juicy magenta base-coat, seems to be a seedy bar. Boundary Girl (Natalie) cavorts in panties and a single fishnet stocking. Behind her, the stocking’s hatched pattern is repeated in a chicken wire boundary and beyond that, darkness. Other scenes from this shebeen share the motifs of smoke and cigarettes as well as the appearance of stylized strays that hiss at the unwelcome viewer.
Works reclaiming the female nude suggest an answer to the question of what feminist art should, and could, look like. By using non-local colours Brice ‘[obscures] naturalistic skin tones and interrupt[s] an easy or preconditioned reading of the subject along ethnic line’ signalling a desire for the work to be intersectionally accessible. The ambiguity of her rendering moves the viewer away from an attempted reading of the work as realistic and specific rather than propagandistic and general.
Her blues reference pornography and blue-collar work but also the carnival costume of the Trinidadian blue devil (a ritual dress that permits the wearer to act in a more uninhibited manner than in everyday life). It calls to memory Picasso’s melancolic blue period, Matisse’s cutouts and Yves Klein’s cult of blue.
The blue works against specificity while the incessant smoking grounds the work in a temporal moment. Brice’s choice to make smoking such a prominent element of this body of work also illustrates the perceived association between smoking and the empowerment of women. Because it was historically a male privilege and is performed differently along gender lines, the practice of smoking relates intimately to the performance of gender. This is confirmed by a World Health Organisation metadata study which found that the Gender Empowerment Measure is a reliable predictor of smoking rates among women. The more egalitarian a country is; the more women smoke.
The rise of smoking among women has been attributed not just to social factors and to women’s increasing economic resources, but also to the tobacco industry’s marketing of cigarettes to women as a symbol of emancipation. This theme inspired a variety of marketing campaign slogans, including Phillip Morris’ well known 1968 advertisement for the Virginia Slims cigarettes campaign, ‘You’ve come a long way baby.’
Painting a cigarette into every available mouth is an attempt to provide relief and pleasure through the adoption of symbols of masculine power. Smoking may be a side effect of equality but here it comes without freedom. Here it is both corporeally and symbolically self destroying. It substitutes the creation of a new symbolic glossary for feminist power for the reliance on the phallic, industrial language of the patriarchy.
Whether they are in repose or gyrating to unheard music, Brice’s subjects represent complex subjects with whom we naturally empathize. Although they may be caged within their picture planes there is a sense of emotional defensiveness that ensures that these are not the pliant and pliable female nudes you’re used to.