16.10 - 23.12.2023
At the threshold to LIVES and WORKS – Lisa Brice’s new body of work at Thaddaeus Ropac in Le Marais, Paris – we see women sitting at a bar cast in blue light, caught in a self-possessed splendour as they gaze at their own reflections in the glossy counter. Their thoughts seem to wander like the trails of their cigarette smoke. To them, we are irrelevant. These women belong to themselves. In their defiant aloofness, they are like counterweights to Picasso’s Pierreuses au bar, one of his Blue Period works, which depicts the gaunt backs of two women at a bar counter, curved despondently over an even emptier glass. Brice has long retrieved women from obscurity in her work, recasting them from passive subjects in the canon of art history as protagonists of their own story.
Brice knows the violence against women all too well. In 1990, she arrived home to find her housemate stabbed 15 times after a break-in. Women’s voicelessness in art history is another kind of violence, to which Brice offers a quiet protest. With their pulsating colours and monumental presence, her paintings challenge the unconscious biases we harbour about women, especially women in art.
Her works are renaissance-like in scale. To walk amongst them, we feel we are almost inside of them. Often suspended between figuration and abstraction, the scenes possess a filmic quality, defying anchors in any one moment, beckoning to another world. They are layered with references from various sources – personal photographs, pop culture, artworks across art history – as well as from various places Brice has lived in and visited – South Africa, London, Trinidad – a coalescence of her peripatetic existence.
In moments, French wine glasses are replaced with Trinidadian Stag beer, a beret with a floppy bucket hat and large mirrors with terracotta breezeblocks. We move from early 20th century Paris to a South African shebeen in a single glance. In turn, Édouard Manet’s barmaid wields an iconic pose of Trinidadian singer Nicki Minaj. Importantly, these scenes play out in bars and studios – spaces of leisure which are also spaces of violence – historically, male-dominated spaces where women are obliged to fulfil certain expectations. In another instance, we see a transposition of Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde by one of Brice’s characters – once model, this figure becomes author of her own body.
“All painting is a lineage,” Brice has remarked, “it’s all a conversation with what has come before.” The pupil-less gazes of these women are reminiscent of Modigliani’s eyes, for instance, which he often painted black or left unfinished, as he said he would not paint the eyes of his sitters until he knew them. This style is also akin to the effect of the nighttime photography that we see recreated in Brice’s 2006 body of work Night Vision, wherein the flash of the camera generates diaphanous bright white slits where people’s eyes would usually be. The absence of pupils is, moreover, a technique that mystifies the identities of the characters. Brice offers no inkling to who these women are in the way of titles either, opting for the Untitled epithet right through.
Upstairs, Brice’s smaller figure studies are painted in emphatic cobalt blue strokes onto tracing paper – a medium ideal for process-driven works because of how it resists absorption, making it possible to layer and transpose images from one sheet to another.
Brice’s work has often been characterised by this strong shade of blue – a colour which encompasses a myriad of historical significances. Yves Klein’s obsession with the colour precipitated his life’s work, which he produced in the eponymous shade, and even fostered a hatred towards birds because, he claimed, “they tried to bore holes in my greatest and most beautiful work – the sky.” Picasso painted exclusively in shades of blue during his renowned Blue Period, denoting a time of deep anguish and disquiet, while Krishna’s blue translates to divine essence and grace. Maggie Nelson fell so in love with the colour, she wrote a book about it. She described it like being under a spell in which everyday blue objects became like a secret code, or the fingerprints of God. Male bowerbirds seem to share this kindred association too, collecting blue things – like flowers, shells, feathers and, in contemporary fashion, blue plastic – to decorate their nests and seduce their partners.
Brice’s relationship with the colour was borne out of the pursuit to recreate the blue of a neon sign at night – calling into mind that liminal moment when the sky is a very particular blue, neither day nor night, what is referred to as ‘the gloaming hour.’ She uses the liminality of the colour as a device to further augment the ambiguity of the figures, interrupting an easy reading of their ethnicity by removing them from our grasp.
In the 15th century, Da Vinci wrote that, when painting the faraway, “…that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.” In the same way, Brice’s women refuse to be known – for as long as they remain blue, they will remain distant.
Brice’s work also makes reference to J’ouvert, the first day of Carnival in Trinidad, when revellers cover themselves in mud or blue paint to feel unbound from the limitations of the past. It’s clear that the women in LIVES and WORKS share this desire for liberation. Brice’s work is a watershed moment in feminist art, and yet we still wait to see women delivered to such liberation in reality.
Standing at the far end of the exhibition space, there is a rhythm in the gracefully recursive figures that moves from piece to piece; moons in one painting translate as windows in another, as trails of cigarette smoke waft up from all directions. You can almost imagine the room going up in smoke.