In 1959 Yves Klein wrote: “blue has no dimensions.” For him, all other colours could be relegated to specific associative ideas that they arouse. Blue on the other hand is boundless and “suggests at most the sea and the sky.” Throughout art history, many works have testified to the infiniteness of blue. 17th century paintings of the Virgin Mary in ultramarine blue such as Sassoferrato’s The Virgin in Prayer evoke a sense of reverence while Picasso, in his Blue Period paintings (1900 – 1904), employs shades of blue and turquoise to depict poverty and hardship in Paris, and his own grief following the death of a friend. Now, new works by South African artist Lisa Brice depict women in cobalt blue.
For Brice, cobalt blue recalls the ‘Blue Devil’, a carnival character in Trinidad. Revellers imitate the character by painting themselves blue. Brice combines painting and drawing to produce works showing women that often appear getting dressed or undressed. Rendering these subjects in the colour of a carnival character highlights these acts as forms of performativity. In one painting (all works are untitled), a female subject puts on her trousers behind a partially drawn polka-dot sheer curtain. Her face is portrayed in cobalt blue while the rest of her body, that is without colour, blends into the white background. We are forced to focus on her body, looking in the white, searching for its form. This piece seems to allude to how women’s bodies are spectacles. The curtain and the candid nature of the image suggest that we are peering into a backstage area from behind a stage curtain. We see the female subject putting together the ‘presentable’ image of herself: the version of herself that is for the ‘performance.’ Undoubtedly, this image speaks to us in this era of social media and selfies. We are made to think about the ‘perfect’ images that we create for our online profiles, in contrast with the more personal, more candid, more true way we are in ‘real’ life. Brice, here, takes on the perceived ‘ugliness’ of getting dressed and undressed and portrays it delicately and beautifully. In this, and many of the other images in the exhibition, we see women as their true selves, prior to the moment they pose, or are made up, so to speak.
Most beautiful is the manner in which Brice plays with the image of the double. Several paintings feature the women either in their underwear or fully dressed looking at their reflections. Rather than looking at their reflections to check whether they look fine, they strike poses as though they are having photographs or portraits taken. These are powerful images in which the subjects subvert the ‘gaze’ and enjoy being spectacles for no one but themselves.
In another painting, Brice’s use of the double seems to serve another purpose. A lady clad in a tube top and what appears to be underwear, with her head wrapped stares at her reflection with her back facing the viewer. Unlike the other paintings where the subjects appear to be posing, this woman seems to study her reflection. It is as though she is in deep thought, asking who am I? In this seemingly private and contemplative moment, we the viewers are intruders. Perhaps Brice uses this to draw to our attention how the moments that we regard as being private are, in fact, not, in a world in which we are increasingly in the public eye. Or, perhaps she is demonstrating to us the truthfulness that can be found in the moments when we are alone and not performing to others. Again, we recall the notion of a backstage area – the mirror: a dressing room mirror, the woman: an actress before she puts her mask on.
Brice’s female subjects appear at once empowered and vulnerable. While they are comfortable in their bodies, posing for themselves, they are also intruded by us. These contradictions reflect those of being a woman in today’s world.They reflect the manner in which society encourages us to be confident in ourselves but then constantly scrutinises us, upholding us to its standards. On the contrary, Brice’s images urge us to take pleasure in ourselves for own sake. Together, in the exhibition space, they depict a range of emotions, some which society often frowns upon, such as vulnerability and self-confidence demonstrating that they are intrinsic to the human experience.
Amidst these alluring portraits of women is one image that is different from the rest; a lone painting of a lone chair facing a window with the moon beaming through the pane in the same cobalt blue that is used to depict the women in all other images. In this single image without a human subject, the sense of absence is potent. The scene recalls a stage after a performer has left it, the chair, a prop; the moon: a spotlight. However, the window suggests the ongoing presence of a gaze. It feels as though someone is watching whatever is in the room. Maybe this is symbolic of how even the most ordinary things have become spectacles today. We take photographs of objects on top of tables, chairs, cups, adorn them using filters and splash them on social media. Here, Brice leaves us wondering whether everything is a spectacle or performance and whether private moments really exist.
Brice’s paintings use the female body to ask thought-provoking questions about performativity and truthfulness. She confronts our anxieties about the rituals that we often do not want others to see. In this age of social media in which we are required to present our ‘best’ image, Brice asks us to not to disregard the things that we do in preparation for that image. Rather, she prompts us to embrace them as moments in which we might see the truer versions of ourselves and others. In these images, we see self-confidence, we see friendship, we see enjoyment and appreciation of the female body and self.
By Siima Itabaaza
Stephen Friedman Gallery
17 March – 21 April