The naked body of a young woman slumps belly-down across the canvas. Her limbs curve gently away from her torso and her hair hangs straight down; dirty blonde with dark roots. She is cushioned by impasto marks in the same colour and register as her body. She might have left the shower, flopped down and become entranced by the motes of dust on the floor. Or been waylaid by a daydream which became a late afternoon nap. Or perhaps she is simply leaden with a garden-variety ennui.
For the longest time, female nudes in art have been symbols for patriarchal dominance and conquest. Oddities or deities, distressed damsels or defiant heroines. But never just themselves.
But this girl feels pretty ordinary. She is at ease, unembarrassed. She’s in her room. It isn’t tidy. She’s relaxed. Unjudged. And us? We are not voyeurs. We don’t even exist.
The palette of Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, My Hair Will Smother You shares its olive greens and fleshy caucasian pinks with the rest of Mia Chaplin’s ‘Mouth’. In this show, her mottled, heavy paint spreads from the picture plain onto the sculptural forms of jugs, cloths and other knickknacks, coating them in gloopy pastel lard. Figurative scenes in this show feature female protagonists at rest. Cocoon Mood is a self portrait through the lacy canopy of a mosquito net or Unsex Me Here is a knobbly container on which flounder a bevy of odalisques and Botticelli’s Venus. Accompanying these works are impasto renditions of cloth; bolts of floral patterns of the kind found in a the trope of the tufty, frilly, feminine boudoir (interestingly a term that derives from the French verb bouder – to sulk or pout). The mood is pensive, woozy and soft edged.
Chaplin works in a pastiche of post-impressionism embracing the decorative niceness the genre now evokes. She paints in a similar vein to predecessors such as Irma Stern, John Duncan Fergusson and George Leslie Hunter and contemporaries, Ian Grose (Chaplin’s cloth paintings appear to closely imitate Grose’s series titled Dissimulation) and Georgina Gratrix (one of Chaplin’s vases bears the same name as a Gratrix’s 2016 exhibition, Puppy Love). The vases, ash tray and flowers show the paint breaking free from the canvas and forming a nascent environment, a kind of film set in which the gallery begins to transform from white cube to squelchy bedroom. Chaplin plays with the glossy three-dimensionality of oil paint in impulsive renderings of her domestic surrounds, layering her compositions with concepts hinted at in the titles more than in the works themselves.
Titles such as Roses Are Red, Violets Are Blue, My Hair Will Smother You, Cruel Intestines and the Oral Drive hint at a reading of her female realm as inherently sinister. Go-Go Juice Jug features a two-headed woman and in the exhibition text, Chaplin expounds the lore of a Japanese monster, futakuchi-onna, a woman with two mouths. These references invoke the Abject, a psychoanalytic concept that attempts to understand causes of fear and revulsion of the female body (as well as monsters in horror films). The Abject provides a clues as to why naked female breasts, breastfeeding and menstrual blood to this day are viewed with consternation and considered worth censoring in most commonplace media.
In her 1980 book, Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva describes the body as a site of constant work rejecting excreta in order to maintain the symbolic and physical membrane that keeps a person a subject. The ultimate failure to do this leads to death when the subject itself is expelled from the body, leaving only a corpse. The corpse symbolizes the height of abjection. Kristeva ‘terms “abjection”, that which does not “respect borders” … that which “disturbs identity, system [and] order”‘. We squirm when confronted with things that signify the break down of the body, such as taking in a substance that has left the body (think of spitting into a cup and then drinking it) or more commonly squeamishness at the sight of a suppurating wound. Women’s bodies are, Kristeva argues, the more intense sites of abjection because of our fertility. She argues that abjection is ‘rooted historically and subjectively, in the cathexis of maternal function – mother, woman, reproduction.’ It is difficult to view the female body as bounded and discreet when every orifice is ready to pour forth or receive. This closeness to the abject creates threateningness, which informs taboos and mythology.
Where other South African women artists have worked with the attraction and repulsion of the feminine abject, such as Penny Siopis in her Pinky Pinky series and Svea Josephy in her Confinement series, Mia Chaplin places it within the day-to-day reality of her subjects. Embrace depicts a breast-feeding nude melting into a grey-green and sarcoline background. She and her cohorts are fragmenting into the painterly picture plane, the medium absorbing their bodies into its sticky, abhorrent mass of paint. The subjects of Chaplin’s paintings are threatened with dissolution and threatening in their feminity yet they maintain a normalcy that allows them to be foremost people rather than symbols.
In her article Bedrooms in Excess: Feminist Strategies Used by Tracey Emin and Semiha Berksoy Gülsüm Baydar argues that
bedroom displays are highly provocative at a number of levels. … The bedrooms of Emin and Berksoy are messy and full of ‘stuff’ that is too personal to be offered to the public gaze. Excess is the term that … comes to mind, a theoretical term that is associated with the unassimilable residue that finds no stable place in orderly systems. The cultural theorist Elizabeth Grosz states that, often associated with the feminine, this residue ‘is not simply superadded but also undermines and problematizes’ the system in question.
The sculptural ornaments, over-busy cloth and painterly fractured backgrounds operate as the ‘excess’ in Chaplin’s work. She undermines the systems of female representation by creating a bedroom setting, a place where women’s private abjections and threatening ‘stuff’ are normal. ‘Mouth’ is a collection of sensuous and rosy works that house women in all our totally normalness – normalness which really freaks people out.