19 May-30 August, 2021
Review by Maya Elsie
Lisa Brice’s decision a few years ago, to paint exclusively in shades of blue, is an enviable one, making the South African artist’s paintings instantly identifiable. Brice currently lives in London and has been focused on painting for nearly a decade, after previously working in a range of other mediums. As she explains: ‘Uncertainty is central to painting, and [its] strength, and that’s very much what attracted me back to the medium, ultimately.’ After coming across her works a few times, seeing that potent Prussian blue anywhere will take you right back to the enigmatic gaze of Lisa Brice.
The current exhibition of her works on paper at Charleston in East Sussex is peaceful and serene: a clean display of forty identically framed paintings, showing similarly composed figures unified in a small but strong show. Next door, you can see the works of Nina Hamnett, a painter who was working a century before Brice. Hamnett’s blank-faced portraits were direct reference points for Brice, who rebirthed female characters from the paintings, propelling them into a modern-day setting.
Atmospheric depictions of female artists holding up self-portraits in their studios abound, as well as pairs of women in unspecified bedrooms. There’s a consistent theme here, a flux between the identities of the artist and the muse. Each figure is obscured, sometimes by their abstract blue faces, glamorously sheltered behind beaded curtains, or protected by stoic and seated madams in the foreground of the composition.
One woman is shielded by another with a translucent sheet as she changes. It could be something in a film about a rich aristocrat and her maid, or perhaps a scene between a prostitute and a madam, as in Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour.
The abstraction leads to intrigue. Is the subject always the same woman, maybe Brice herself? Whether the often nude subject is in control of her own portrayal is up for debate. We are left wondering how Lisa Brice wants us to see her muse. She looks as though she lived and died within the painting; a woman with a wine bottle and cigarette in hand, who’s attitude is humorous and faintly cynical.
The images are breathtaking because there are so many of them. These A4 paintings on tracing paper, loosely drafted like primary sketches, elevated by the use of luxury oil paints, have their very own dreamy aesthetic. The mesmeric style lends itself to the subtle macho and sensual gestures amplified between the chorus of blue-skinned protagonists surrounding you in the gallery space.
The foreword in the catalogue explains that Brice is reinterpreting the male gaze, which women have been led to believe they are subliminally living under at all moments. It reads as if written from a male perspective on Brice’s art, impeding us from finding our own meaning in the work.
The image of a woman standing over a mirror to view her labia and painting them directly onto the canvas in front of her speaks to a new wave of liberated, young artists popular on Instagram. Michaela Stark and Shadi Al-Atallah come to mind; both celebrate and exploit their own nude bodies, with distinctive techniques in painting and photography.
Brice’s figures are defiant; they challenge you. You can’t quite work out who they are, engulfed in smokey rooms with mirrors. You’re likely to leave the show with your imagination fired up by what you’ve seen.