The exhibition Art Now: Lisa Brice at Tate Britain is a selection of new and recent artworks by the South African painter Lisa Brice (b.1968). Referencing art of the past and reusing popular culture symbols the artist transforms traditional art subject of female nude into something very original. Works painted almost exclusively in saturated blues and reds feature women undressing, dancing, drinking, smoking and socializing. The use of non-naturalistic colours creates certain ambiguity and can be seen as a part of a discussion about depictions of race and women in visual art . There is of course more than that. Minimalistic labels accompanying the paintings open multiple ways of interpretation.
For this exhibition Brice painted her response to Parting at Morning (1891) by William Rothenstein which is in Tate Britain’s collection. In Parting at Dusk (2018) the artist replaced naturalistic colours of the original painting leaving only the gold background unchanged. The woman’s skin is now blue, her eyes are hollow and she holds a cigarette in her mouth. While Rothenstein’s painting depicts a poor young woman, perhaps a prostitute, Brice’s painting shows a different story, but it is not a fairytale either. The women in both paintings are probably ‘working women’ in one way or another, left behind by a lover or client. While we might pity the figure in the original, Brice’s figure does not seek sympathy from the viewer. Parting at Dusk suggests that the woman has a whole night ahead of her, filled with possibilities. The blue figure on gold background looks nocturnal, but she is not a helpless victim.
Midday Drinking Den after Embah II, was inspired by a work of Trinidadian artist Embah (born Emheyo Bahabba, 1937-2015) whom Brice described as her mentor . In this painting the dancing woman behind the strip curtain is clutching a bottle of alcohol in her hand. On the table in the foreground there is a large hissing cat. Apart from the cat’s blue face, green bottles and the dark green curtain, the rest of the scene was executed using red hues. In the Western art tradition women were often accompanied by dogs – symbols of (marital) loyalty and faithfulness (see the little dog Titian’s Venus of Urbino). Closer to the spirit of Manet’s Olympia, Brice’s women are accompanied by cats instead. Like cats, they are strong and independent creatures. In Midday Drinking Den after Embah II the blue-faced cat with its hollow red eyes has almost a demonic appearance. This ghostly apparition brings a sinister aura to the image.
Another work painted in response to a work in Tate Britain’s collection is After Ophelia (2018), inspired by the iconic painting Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Brice’s Ophelia is not drowning, she enters a room with a defiant attitude, in a cloud of cigarette smoke and holding a beer. And there is a cat too, proudly walking in with a mouse in its mouth. These two are not to be messed with.
Brice’s paintings are not quirky modern updates of the old masters, they are statements. Are they reclaiming the place of women in art or confronting the ‘male gaze’? Yes, among other things. They also illustrate how art constantly reinvents itself, which is one of the most exciting things about art.
Art Now: Lisa Brice is a free exhibition running at Tate Britain from 26 April till 27 August 2018.
Read more and see more works by Lisa Brice here: