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in other words

Everything you ever wanted to know about the art market but didn't know who to ask
17 October 2019

Articles in This Issue

The Dream Team

My all-time top ten artists

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c. 1435). Museo del Prado, Madrid

BY Allan Schwartzman
publisher of In Other Words, co-founder of AAP & chairman of Sotheby's Global Fine Arts

In Allan's Intro

Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of Man in Red Chalk (c.1512)

No Frieze or Fiac for me this year (though more on that elsewhere in this issue). I have been thinking about the bigger picture, in part through a game of fantasy which, most recently, we played in Brazil. There are many variations on it. The slant of the last version of it was: if you could live with works of art by your favorite artists, who would the top ten be? And so here goes my most recent version, mostly in chronological order.

Rogier van der Weyden. Northern Renaissance painting has always spoken to me more than the Italian. I think it’s that combination of grace and human emotion—felt more than spoken–and the jewel scale of so many of its masterworks, that has always drawn me in, with an intimacy in which I lose sense of time and scale. I am in the pictures, no matter how improbable that may sound. I might just as easily have listed Jan van Eyck, Hugo van der Goes, or Hans Memling, but for me Rogier is perfection.

I could say a lot of the same for why Piero della Francesca is next on my list. There are so many genius artists of the Italian Renaissance but, as with van der Weyden, Piero speaks to me in a way that no other artist could. I have never been able to adequately describe that enigmatic aura of space and selfhood, but I believe I have experienced it, or at least would find solace in that psychological world.

Talk about enigma! Giorgione, The Tempest (1506-08).

Every time I play this game, for which there are no predetermined rules, a friend will ask: “Can it be any artist? It couldn’t be an artist like da Vinci, whose work is so out of reach, technically and metaphorically.” And I always answer: “It’s a fantasy. Name any artist you want.”

And so, even while I confess to the same humble gluttony in myself, this time I am claiming him for myself: Leonardo. At first I thought Raphael, as Raphael is possibly a little less gumptious than Leonardo. I didn’t care much for Raphael when I was a student. But then the father of a friend of mine told me that he didn’t begin to appreciate Raphael until he was middle-aged. And sure enough, somewhere around that point in my life, Raphael clicked for me as well. But since this is a fantasy, and I am only entitled to a list of ten, I am calling dibs on Leonardo.

We decided to play this version by artists, rather than artworks. But for the next artist on my list I am choosing the artist by a specific work: Giorgione’s The Tempest (1506-8). Talk about enigmatic! This is a painting that I actually get to view again every two years when I go to Venice, and nearly every time I see or read something else in it. I have dissected it from so many angles of interpretation, and still it is a painting I feel one can never fully understand. Are you seeing a pattern here? I guess I am most drawn to the things I feel you can never fully understand. Isn’t that your hope for all truly great art—that it’s something that even if you own it, you cannot fully possess?

Diego Velázquez, London 2017, Las Meninas (1656)

There has been so much analysis of the work of my next artist—Velásquez—that maybe art history has fully unfurled the messages behind the stories he depicted in his paintings, their references, analogies, and metaphors—their mastery of the mysteries of the frame, the artist, and the subject. But I still can’t get enough of them. Las Meninas (1656) takes the chess game of meaning to a level where each time you view it you can be captured by another gaze.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Apollo and Daphne (1622-25) at the Galleria Borghese in Rome

Oh my gosh, the last time I was in Rome and made a beeline for the Galleria Borghese, I only had eyes for Bernini. There is so much in them to take in, that I was in a state of ecstasy. Setting aside for the time being the brilliance of his architecture, where trickery can become some parallel, perverse form of natural experience, Apollo and Daphne (1622-25) is one of the most impactful works of art I have ever viewed—how the artist captures transformation and the fleeting nature of desire. I will never cease to be amazed by how he depicts the gentle touch of hand to flesh, and by capturing the moment in carved marble! Bernini nailed desire—how it can lure and torment, and how it can remain one step from reach.

Now that I have named my first sculptor, I digress art historically to add my wildcard: Donatello. Every such list should have its disruptor—that artist, song, or destination that you don’t fully know how to evaluate. I have never really focused on Donatello, but that casual twisty, bendy contrapposto of his David (1440s) is implanted in my visual recall all these years since Art History 101 at Vassar College, for all the reasons that the artist reimagines this archetypal posture of figurative art, releasing the figure from the pose while at the same time embedding him in the material of his creation—bronze.

“The lusty, back-street sides of desire”—Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul (1601)

Speaking of the Borghese, next for me comes Caravaggio. I could say much of the same for Caravaggio, though on the more lusty, back-street sides of desire, the touch of flesh swapped for the rot of ripened fruit.

Constantin Brâncuși, Mademoiselle Pogany [I] (1912). Courtesy the Philadelphia Museum of Art. © 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

And so having spent so much time in the Renaissance and Baroque, I rush to the Modern, bypassing, regrettably, so many favorites—Botticelli, Bosch, Bruegel, Mantegna and Titian. Goya, Manet, all of Impressionism, Fauvism, the Russian Avant-Garde. No Picasso, Matisse, or Munch. Maybe because as I just saw at the exquisite new collections installations at MoMA, I can always go see them a mile from home.

Which brings me to the 20th century with one sculptor and one painter: Brancusi and Mondrian. Need I say more? I am going for perfection, bypassing so many trophies, geniuses, and transformers of visual language, of that which we call art. This is a game of what I would most want to live with and, in the end, for all of my talk, most of the time about the provocative and the progressive, I guess that if I could live with the work of any ten artists of my choice, I choose the gentler human expressions of passion, the mysteries, meaning, and the self.

Now mind you, this round didn’t leave any room for a Cycladic or Bactrian figurine, a Classical Greek statue, Khmer bodhisattva, Kongo power figure, or Benin bronze. Those are fantasies for another day.

Piet Mondriaan, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue Painting (1921). Gemeentemuseum Den Haag

But, since we are talking about a kind of restrained gluttony here, and since my fellow players in Brazil turned to me to define boundaries, I will violate a sacred one and opt for an 11th artist—de Kooning? Pollock? Newman? Bourgeois?

When I was in my mid-teens I would occasionally find myself wandering into MoMA and going straight to Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis (1950-51). I am not certain of when or how I first encountered it, and I knew nothing about art at that age, but that painting had placed a hypnotic spell on me—when I found myself in Midtown, it was the Plaza for Teuscher’s and MoMA for Newman. I can still envision the route up the staircase and a few bends to the right. But this time, I am choosing Rothko. Or, should I take a step outside of the sublime, and jump right to the next giant leap forward—to Warhol? I think I’ll jump to Warhol. It makes sense to end my list on a cliffhanger: the last great disruptor, who changed the course of art, and whose masqueraded wisdom saw the writing on the wall about where art and civilization would go, truths we continue to play out and continue to play with us.

British Artists Now

A look at UK artists from across the Atlantic

Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD, still (2015). Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey

BY Jonathan Griffin
writer and critic

In Analysis

Facing blank stares when asking for “worter” in restaurants; feeling a bit awkward on 4 July; being asked to explain Brexit: being an expat Brit in America comes with its fair share of daily trials and tribulations. After almost a decade living in the United States, the differences between the two cultures are more apparent to me than their historically vaunted affinities.

As the UK tumbles towards the deadline, at the end of this month, when it is set to leave the European Union, now seems an apt moment to look at British art’s standing on a global stage—and specifically how it fares in the US, a country with which Britain has long been said to enjoy a “special relationship”. America is, of course, undergoing parallel ruptures and implosions but it is, I am convinced, a starkly different cultural and social context.

One of the original YBAs, Sarah Lucas is now being reconsidered. Above, her work Self-Portrait with Fried Eggs (1996). Courtesy the artist; Sadie Coles HQ, London; and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

This summer Los Angeles was invited to grapple with the slang, puns and working-class vernacular of British artist Sarah Lucas in a survey at the Hammer Museum (“Sarah Lucas: Au Naturel”) had travelled from the New Museum, New York. Lucas is an artist indelibly associated with that period in the 1990s when it felt like the entire world was clamoring for Britain’s cocky, swaggering brand of cultural exports.

Much of the work of the so-called Young British Artists now looks increasingly problematic, tied as it was to the political ascent of Tony Blair’s New Labour party, national pride that verged on jingoism and—despite its appropriation of popular culture—the increasing separation between the so-called metropolitan elites and the working class. The country is still contending with the fallout.

By contrast, a significant number of Britain’s leading millennial artists—including Patrick Staff (whose solo exhibition “On Venus” opens at the Serpentine, London, on 8 November), Ed Atkins (whose solo exhibition opens at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, on 15 November), Hannah Black, Danielle Dean and James Richards—are now based outside of the country. Staff, who now lives in Los Angeles, suggests that their work and that of many of their peers “has a certain placelessness, a certain dislocation, that is the product of the interconnectedness of a post-internet generation”.

The right to work in the rest of the EU now enjoyed by British artists could be dramatically curtailed after 31 October if Britain leaves the bloc. It could also reduce the number of non-UK citizens working in London’s art institutions. Is British art about to become more parochial again, as a result? It is not easy securing a residency visa in the US either, but it is possible that this country will see an influx of British creatives as opportunities disappear in mainland Europe.

What defines a British artist, anyway?

Lubaina Himid lived in England most of her life but maintains a global perspective. Here, a painting from “Lubaina Himid: Work from Underneath”. Exhibition view: New Museum, New York. Photo: Dario Lasagni

Partly as a consequence of its colonial past, multiculturalism has long been a prominent feature of British society. However, for a long time this diversity was not reflected within the mainstream contemporary art world, and only in recent years have many non-white artists started to be given their due.

Lubaina Himid, who won the 2017 Turner Prize, is the subject of a solo show currently at the New Museum, New York. Born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) in 1954, Himid has lived in England for most of her life, but her work as an artist and curator has upheld a global perspective, celebrating the cultural contributions of the African diaspora while satirizing the British political system.

Danielle Dean was born in 1982 to an English mother and a Nigerian father in Huntsville, Alabama, but was raised mainly in Hemel Hempstead, just north of London. Though she has lived in California since 2010 she still identifies as a British artist. She insists, however, that her work is defined by its “globality, not just about being American or English”.

The English artist Nathaniel Mellors represented Germany in 2009 with Erkka Nissinen. Above is a photo of their collaborative work, The Aalto Natives (Floored version) (2017) in “Bad Mantras” at The Box LA

London-based Rosalind Nashashibi, who was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2017, is half-Northern Irish and half-Palestinian, though she grew up in England. She says that, like most artists, she is “not very loyal to nationalities, or to identifying with large groups”. She has lived in Italy and had residencies in the US, and exhibits abroad more often than at home. “Most of my friends are not necessarily in the UK anymore. The way that an artist’s life is, you meet people through very intense experiences that you have when you’re working somewhere else.”

National or international events such as the Turner Prize and the Venice Biennale have, over recent years, loosened their qualifying criteria: just as several non-British artists have been nominated for the Turner Prize, British artists have represented other countries in Venice. In 2017, the English-born, Los Angeles-based artist Nathaniel Mellors represented Finland, in a collaboration with Erkka Nissinen, just as Liam Gillick, now based in New York, represented Germany in 2009.

“Sod you gits”

In Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD, Mark Leckey reconstructed a motorway from his childhood. Courtesy of the artist © Mark Leckey

The US and the UK may share a common language, but when artists show work abroad that draws on specific cultural or linguistic references, subtleties of meaning can suffer. In Sarah Lucas’s recent survey the cultural significance of kebabs, the Sunday Sport newspaper, snooker, Carling lager, fried eggs and the phrase “sod you gits” were left largely unexplained, although the title of the show, “Au naturel”, was thought to require translation.

The exhibition’s co-curator Massimiliano Gioni says that codification does not preclude access. He quotes Marcel Proust: “Beautiful books are always written in a sort of foreign language.” He continues: “I think that’s also ultimately the greatness of art—to be tacky and sentimental—that you have this experience both of recognition and distance.”

Mellors belongs to a younger generation than Lucas. His narrative films, installations, sculptures, photographs and paintings are nevertheless also “underpinned by a class consciousness”, as he puts it. His approach is Surrealist and often laugh-out-loud funny (it has been compared to Monty Python) but, he says, “the dynamics are always about class and power and ownership”—issues that are as relevant in the US as they are in Europe. “I think it’s about extracting something that’s universally relatable from the local,” he says. “The work I think of as great art is, a lot of the time, on one level, incredibly local, and on another, totally transcendent.”

In the past, Nashashibi has tended not to use verbal language in her 16mm films and paintings. “I am less an idea person than an experience person,” she says. However, in her most recent two-part film, Parts 1 and 2 (2018-9), which is included in the group show “A Story Forms” at Bel Ami, Los Angeles (until 23 November), translation and cultural difference is discussed by the British, Lithuanian and Italian protagonists—all friends of the artist.

She contrasts her approach with that of Mark Leckey, whose work is dense with cultural references—particularly that of the youth culture of the northwest of England, where he grew up. Leckey, she notes, nevertheless “goes down well in America”.

Speaking American English

Martin Creed performing “Words and Music” at the Control Club, Bucharest, Romania in February 2019. “It’s funny that we speak—approximately—the same language,” he says of the US, “but in many ways it’s much more different than going to Europe, where they do actually speak different languages.” Photographer: Andrei Gindac

Artist and musician Martin Creed is currently in the middle of a solo concert tour of museums, art spaces and universities in the US. “It’s funny that we speak—approximately—the same language,” he says, “but in many ways it’s much more different than going to Europe, where they do actually speak different languages.”

Nashashibi says that she is often conscious of feeling “exoticized”, as a Brit in the US, just as, early in her career, she sometimes felt similarly as a Palestinian in the UK. On the other hand, in New York she met for the first time someone who shared her Northern Irish-Palestinian heritage. She says that while in the US she feels more freedom “to express myself and be who I am, and to meet likeminded people”, under the current administration she also feels less safe.

There is also no doubt that, while race is a major topic of cultural conversations in both the US and the UK, the contexts are distinctly different. Dean says that, although she is black, “there is no single black culture or subjectivity, even though there is a shared ongoing history of geopolitical violence that produces ‘blackness’. In my case, I am half-Nigerian.”

Where support comes from

Few artists are so directly concerned with the British condition—with its imperial past and its multicultural present—as Hew Locke. Here, a work from “Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing” at Hales Gallery, London. © Hew Locke. Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS), London / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, 2019. Photo: E.G. Schempf

Few artists are so directly concerned with the British condition—with its imperial past and its multicultural present—as Hew Locke. Statues of kings and queens, coats of arms, flotillas of naval warships and architectural Victoriana have all featured in the Scottish-Guyanese artist’s work. Which is why it is surprising, perhaps, that his exhibition “Hew Locke: Here’s the Thing” has travelled from the Ikon gallery in Birmingham, England, to Kansas City’s Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (until 19 January 2020).

Erin Dziedzic, the Kemper’s director of curatorial affairs, says that while some maps and other educational material had to be made available in the gallery, as with most contemporary art museums with a global focus, the Kemper’s audience is “very comfortable learning about people from different cultural backgrounds”.

The Kemper already owned two of Locke’s works when it planned the show, and Dziedzic had also seen his installation For Those In Peril on the Sea (2011) in the collection of the Pérez Art Museum Miami, in 2018.

Many other of the artists I spoke to admitted to receiving more support from institutions in the US than from private collectors. The Art Institute of Chicago acquired Nashashibi’s film Vivian’s Garden (2017) after it was included in Documenta 14 in 2017. Staff’s video Weed Killer (2017) was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and was in the collection of MoMA in New York before it was also acquired this month by the Frieze Tate Fund for the British national collection.

Institutions have been slower to include more senior, previously overlooked British artists. MoMA, for example, owns nothing by Himid, Claudette Johnson, Donald Rodney or Sonia Boyce—all artists associated in the 1980s with the British Black Arts Movement—and only one work each by Rasheed Araeen and John Akomfrah.

Escaping class systems

Patrick Staff’s video Weed Killer (2017) was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and was in the collection of MoMA in New York before it was also acquired this month by the Frieze Tate Fund for the British national collection. Courtesy of the artist and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles

Dean and Staff have both been inspired by the communities of protest and activism that they have found in the US. “I’m just trying to find connections to people around the world who are fighting for a better future,” Dean says. Staff says that Los Angeles has a more robust queer and trans community than London. Both artists work with the Commonwealth and Council gallery in Los Angeles. Staff describes the gallery as “something that I could get in LA that I wasn’t having access to in London, which is maybe a set of discourses, a set of ideals that are more actively engaged with a de-colonizing process or a decolonial desire”.

Staff concedes that “British people are rather more interested with looking to the US than vice versa. In my experience, in the US there’s a sense that British culture and history cultivates a sense of anxiety.” That anxiety—related, in part, to the painful consequences of a now collapsed empire and an archaic class system—is likely only to increase in the wake of Brexit.

It was incredibly freeing, says Dean, to leave the British class system behind when she relocated to the US. “The American Dream is complete bullshit, and is an illusion,” she says. “But what I like about that aspect of America is that it has a sense of possibility for everyone—there is still a sense of hope that anyone can make it big here.”

Report from London: Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

The state of the city’s art market as Brexit looms

BY Charlotte Burns
executive editor of In Other Words

In Analysis

Speak no Brexit, see no Brexit. Anna Maria Maiolino, In-Out (Antropofagia), from the “Fotopoemação” series (1973-74) © Anna Maria Maiolino. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Brexit is to the art world what fictional villain Lord Voldemort was to students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: a dangerous nightmare not to be spoken of. The anxiety bubbling away in the British art world surfaces in sotto voce whispers during business hours; expressed more urgently only in the hours after dark.

Three years after the referendum took place, dealers at the Frieze London art fair and at Frieze Masters, which took place in London earlier this month, said they were struggling to guess what impact Brexit will have—mainly because nobody in the UK government seems to know either. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has been sending letters to galleries urging them to prepare for Brexit but failing to explain exactly how they might do so. “It’s Orwellian,” says one dealer. “Like Monty Python,” says another.

The UK’s constitutional crisis is both spiraling and slippery—a unique divorce bringing together archaic parliamentary practice, longstanding national resentments, political bloodlust and populism. The governmental chaos is bad for business. “Indecision has an even greater impact than a decision,” says Brett Gorvy, co-partner of Lévy Gorvy gallery, which is based in London, Hong Kong and New York.

A cloud of indecision

“With a moment of finality—even if it is the wrong decision—at least you know what you’re dealing with. Frankly, we don’t know the tax position or where we will be in nine months in terms of our relationship with Europe and it hangs over everything like a cloud,” he says. “It stops you making decisions. When you have an organization such as ours, you can’t hold up your business on the basis of these decisions in London, so you look for alternatives.”

It is hard to imagine that Brexit might actually hobble the UK’s art scene, many locals say. This is the same country, after all, that conjured a spell upon itself in the 1990s, transforming from a parochial, beige sort of place into a cool cosmopolitan hub for business and creativity. Yet, like any good magic trick, the reimagining of London as a cultural hub required a bit of faith—of a kind that was in abundance for the first decade of this century. But this month, that energy and conviction felt lacking.

In terms of the market, things were fine, if a bit lackluster. The fair was fairly busy, said Thaddaeus Ropac, who has galleries in Salzburg, London and Paris, “but you felt the lurking problems”.

Overall, the offerings at Frieze felt unsurprising. The quality was not bad in any way, but nor was it exciting. In fairness, this conservatism is the state of the market everywhere right now. This is not the moment to take big risks with ambitious or expensive installations that may not sell. Instead, there was an abundance of domestically-scaled paintings, photographs and works on paper: cash and carry art, as a former museum director once termed it.

New (old) European centres

The audience felt thinner—lots of Europeans but few American or Asian collectors. Many collectors and curators with continental distances to travel made a choice about whether to attend Frieze in London or rival French fair Fiac: the events used to run on from each other but are now separated by a week. Lots seemed to be plumping for Paris.

Lévy Gorvy did not take part in Frieze this year, choosing the Parisian fair instead. “If Fiac is very successful for us, the chances of us going back to the London fair become less,” Gorvy says. “You change your future simply by the nature of looking elsewhere.” 

“You felt the lurking problems,” says gallerist Thaddaeus Ropac. Above, a work he brought to London: Anselm Kiefer, Mutatuli (1989-2009). © Anselm Kiefer. Courtesy Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, Paris and Salzburg

The French capital is in the midst of a cultural repositioning. Amid the uncertainty in the UK some dealers are looking to Paris. David Zwirner gallery opened an outpost this month (Zwirner told the Financial Times that “Brexit changes the game. After October, my London gallery will be a British gallery, not a European one. I am European, and I would like a European gallery, too.”).

Meanwhile, the gallery perhaps most associated with the Young British Artists, White Cube, has also announced plans to open a space in Paris (though the gallery’s senior director, the appropriately named Mathieu Paris, says the move is “absolutely not due to the political situation”.)

Offshore incomes

“Everyone who has been here for more than 15 years and is rich has left—and that’s nothing to do with Brexit,” says UK and Hong Kong dealer Ben Brown. “Brexit is screwing up the economy but people aren’t leaving the country because of it,” he says.

Brown points to the stricter tax laws implemented last year for the super-rich who live in the UK and pay no tax on offshore income. Now, individuals who have been resident in the UK for 15 of the past 20 years are deemed to be UK-domestics. This has impacted the number of so-called “non-doms” (people based in the UK with non-domicile tax status), which fell to a record low in August, according to the HMRC, which reported that there were 78,300 registered non-doms for the 2017-18 financial year—a fall of 13% from the year before, with a consequent £2bn decline in taxes they paid to the exchequer.

Keeping cool

Harold Ancart, Untitled (2019). © Harold Ancart / SABAM, Brussels. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner . Photo by JSP Art Photography

Yet some of the original augurs of a culturally Cool Britannia are keeping their faith. “London is a really dynamic city and it is showing its best face—despite the common topic,” says Mayfair gallerist Sadie Coles. She says Frieze week was “surprisingly buoyant. There were such outstanding museum and gallery shows, which attracted a very good turnout of international collectors, critics and curators. There was a fantastic feeling of quality, and business was really good despite the feeling of Brexit anxiety.” Indeed, “it felt like a week where we could forget that and get on with business as usual”.

Speaking on the phone from Fiac, Coles said the French fair was “equally wonderful”. The city is in the ascendant for several reasons, she said, principally because “there are lots of institutions which are either new or repurposed for contemporary art, so there is a real feeling of new platforms in Paris”.

“But for me it is not an either/or,” she added. “If the heat is taken out of London for five seconds, I don’t think it is a bad thing. I have no doubt the froth will be trimmed and it will be better. London isn’t going to stop being dynamic and energetic, because it has this great infrastructure of art schools, museums, galleries and artists. And actually, by the end of the year, I will open a third gallery in London,” she says. “Just to dig deep.”

Lisa Brice Reclaims the Female Figure

The must-see show in London

Lisa Brice places her work squarely within the troubled terrain of figurative art history. Here, Untitled (2019) by the artist. Copyright Lisa Brice. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

BY Louisa Buck
contemporary art correspondent

In Must See

Scantily-clad and shady ladies slouch, smoke, pose and paint in intimate interiors in new works—gorgeous, audacious paintings—by Lisa Brice, on show now at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery (“Lisa Brice” until 9 November).

Brice places her work squarely within the troubled terrain of figurative art history, which has been dominated by white men painting women’s bodies for the delectation of other white men. In these new works, underwear is adjusted, poses are struck and the air is thick with intrigue and whorls of cigarette smoke. Brice has even painted some of her sultry models across a pair of folding screens—the kind more commonly used for undressing behind—suggesting the seductive connotations of a traditional artist’s studio. 

Painted from a female perspective, Brice’s subjects are given a new and independent lease of life. Above: Lisa Brice, Untitled (2019). Copyright Lisa Brice. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Yet while the scenarios may be familiar, here the tables have been turned, for this is now very much a woman’s world. Brice plucks her protagonists from sources including magazines, the internet, her own personal photographs and, most notably, art history. Female subjects that were originally painted under the male gaze are reclaimed and placed in new and more sociable circumstances. Their original poses are tweaked and they are armed with new props, including cigarettes, paintbrushes and beer bottles.

Painted from a female perspective, her subjects are given a new and independent lease of life. In these latest works some are now even artists themselves, standing naked before easels and mirrors to examine their own reflections. Utterly self-possessed, nonchalant and comfortable in their own and each other’s company, these sisters are emphatically doing it for themselves.

Some figures make repeat appearances, keeping new company in different formats. A particular Brice favorite is the slumped seated figure she has taken from Félix Vallotton’s 1913 painting The White and the Black—probably the music hall dancer and artist’s model Aïcha Goblet. Brice reimagines her, painting Goblet on screens with a cigarette clamped between her teeth as she presides over what might be a brothel, a studio or backstage changing room.

Another frequent cast member is a black cat, which has been released from the boudoir of Manet’s Olympia to prowl through Brice’s rooms. This now-contemporary feline now bears witness, stands guard or, in one case, dribbles cobalt paint from a raised paw.

A new protagonist is a naked, smoking artist bestowed with a Louise Brooks haircut and wearing nothing but a pair of stockings. She is both the sole subject of a large blue gouache and also depicted on both screens from different angles. 

In these painted interiors any direct gaze, male or otherwise, is deliberately deflected by a multitude of layerings, doublings and transparencies. Not only do individuals reoccur but they are also often partially obscured behind iron grilles, veiled by translucent curtains or reflected in mirrors. Sometimes bodies overlap with each other and fade into the background like specters. In many of these latest works, Brice uses the additional transparency of tracing paper to shift and duplicate outlines.  

A new protagonist is a naked, smoking artist bestowed with a Louise Brooks haircut and wearing nothing but a pair of stockings in Lisa Brice’s work Untitled (2019). Copyright Lisa Brice. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London.

Matters are further complicated by her very particular use of color. For the past few years most of Brice’s figures, especially those on paper, have been rendered in cobalt blue, straight from the tube. This was first used to imitate the blue light of neon signs and to capture the fleeting transitional color of twilight.

Now it has become something of a personal trademark, carrying many meanings and fulfilling multiple functions. There are all the art historical associations ranging from the Virgin Mary’s ultramarine gown to Matisse’s blue nudes, Picasso’s Blue Period and Yves Klein’s use of women’s bodies as human paintbrushes, loaded with  ‘International Klein Blue.’

But more importantly, by substituting naturalistic skin tones for shades of blue, Brice prevents any easy preconceived readings of her subjects along ethnic, or even gender, lines. This significantly adds to their ambiguity and psychological complexity. Blue-limbed and blue-faced, they are all equally exotic and alien. 

Brice was born and grew up in South Africa during a particularly volatile time in the country’s history, and although her work is not overtly political, this early fraught context remains crucial to her work. She is now based in London but also spends time in Trinidad where, in a tradition stretching back to the time of slavery, revelers at carnival time cover themselves in blue pigment to become “blue devils”, anarchic characters rendered anonymous and unaccountable by disguising the color of their skin.

Now, in these most recent paintings, Brice combines her signature blue with hot pinks and reds, while the painted screens mark a new monochrome departure into smoky shades of greenish grey with an absinthe tinge. Yet while her paintings have become even more luscious, accomplished and seductive, the women in them remain uncompromisingly autonomous and difficult to pin down. Neither specific portrayals nor generic types, they are emblems of female empowerment who are actively reclaiming their bodies and refusing to submit to anybody’s will but their own.

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