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.
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.
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.