Last Chance Salon
I like to think that in taking up brush or pen, chisel or camera, women assert a claim to the representation of women that western culture long ago ceded to male genius and patriarchal perspectives, and that in turning to the image in the mirror they take another step towards the elaboration of a sexualized subjective female identity.
—Whitney Chadwick 1
Lisa Brice: It’s a Feeling Thing
By Laura Smith
For any figurative painter working today, the specters of art history haunt their brushstrokes. These specters—we all know—are predominantly men: men frequently painting women, who are frequently nude. This is the slippery territory that South African painter Lisa Brice chooses to inhabit. And not just inhabit, but complicate, muddy, and turn on its head in refreshingly satisfying ways. Brice’s paintings and drawings are populated by scantily clad women; in groups, or alone, they saunter, slouch, smoke, pose and paint—themselves—in interiors that feel either privately domestic or behind the scenes of something public. Knickers halfway down—or removed entirely—they often appear to be mid-costume-change, grasping cigarettes, a beer, a clutch of paintbrushes, looking either to one another or into mirrors, assuredly studying their own reflections.
The mood feels intimate and genial, yet hushed and shadowy. Brice is deft at populating deeply layered scenes in which several women might emerge from behind screens or grilles, partially concealed by doors or veiled by sheets of sheer fabric. Her women appear completely poised and self-satisfied. In these paintings, the body of a woman is not an object to be desired and consumed, but a subjective being, symbolic of nothing other than itself. Brice collects these women from several sources, including magazines, the internet, personal photographs, and—significantly—art history. By repainting some of the women originally painted by men and tweaking their posture or props ever so slightly to skew their body language away from submission or compliance, Brice lifts them out of the art-historical canon and gives them a newfound freedom, as well as friends with whom to share it. As she comments,
Sometimes the simple act of repainting an image of a woman previously painted by a man—re-authoring the work as by a woman—can be a potent shift in itself. Inserting props such as cigarettes or bottles of alcohol…or using strong color to tweak the slant of eyes or mouth can further transform the figures from objectified to quietly self- possessed, matter-of-fact or provocative subjects. At times, this transposition rescues previously isolated figures of women from the lonely confines of a renowned art historical painting and gives them a new existence in a fresh grouping of other women who are “freed” in the same way. In their new setting, the women begin to play off one another…No longer isolated, a conversation is implied, but about what remains ambiguous.
For her 2018 Art Now exhibition at Tate Britain, Brice chose to resuscitate John Everett Millais’s famous depiction of Ophelia (1851–1852), literally bringing her back to life and gifting her some of Brice’s recurring “props”: a cigarette and a bottle of beer. Ophelia is accompanied by the seated figure of renowned novelist and feminist Gertrude Stein—as depicted by Pablo Picasso in 1906— as well as Félix Vallotton’s portrayal of dancer and model Aïcha Goblet from The White and the Black (1913), while the black cat from Edouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) stretches languidly in the corner. Across Brice’s oeuvre, the same figures often reappear in different contexts, not dissimilar to how Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres would paint the same nude (woman) in different settings: here a brothel, there a palace… So it was not surprising that at her following 2019 exhibition at Stephen Friedman Gallery, we met Brice’s rehabilitated figures of Stein and Goblet again, as well as the cat. This time, however, they had found their way onto a painted folding screen, the kind that a model or actor might use to change or undress behind. When I visited Brice at her studio, we laughed about how odd it is that screens such as these are/were frequently used for nude models to undress behind, to get naked behind before emerging—naked—because, naturally, it is unseemly to drop one’s pants in public, but not to sit for hours in the nude. On one of the screens, one of Brice’s figures is mid-pant-drop, her knickers just below her crotch; she bends her bottom towards us, a plume of smoke obscuring her face. Her body language feels nonchalant, defiant, as though we are irrelevant to her.
Brice’s repetition, layering and doubling, as well as her play with reflections and transparencies, can be found in both her content and her media. Brice frequently employs a range of materials on which to paint, from the aforementioned folding screens—behind which other painted canvases will eventually reveal themselves—to tracing paper and other layerable translucencies. In one earlier work a straightforward, single line depicts a nude woman standing with her back to us, and an additional transparent sheet placed on top of the original painting fills her bum cheeks with a gentle pink blush. These flushed cheeks nod to both the rosy (face) cheeks of the prone figure in Vallotton’s The White and the Black, as well as the blushing bum of the model in Laura Knight’s once-controversial Self Portrait (1913), a seminal work in which Knight boldly presents herself in the process of painting a nude model at a time when women were not permitted to attend life-drawing classes.
Typically, in a solo exhibition, Brice will present a generous selection of her smaller tracing paper works. Almost like sketches or painted drawings, these works introduce us to many of the individual characters that populate the larger paintings. Always depicted in fluid blue lines of oil paint, or offset mono prints, these works line up their protagonists—who are at turns belligerent, sensual, audacious, empowered, bored, or distracted—as portals; windows, doors, mirrors into an alternate world in which these women choose how to present themselves, self-reliantly and completely on their own terms, subverting any notion of the gaze and reclaiming their autonomy. For this exhibition at Salon 94, in addition to her munificent selection of smaller works, Brice presents five new life-size oil paintings on double sheets of tracing paper. These drawings occupy the architectural enclaves of the gallery space and depict a series of nude women in various similar reflected or refracted poses.
Across the five works, bums, elbows, and knees are blushed or flushed, giving the impression that the women are working, or exerting themselves, as they look at themselves in a canvas as if it were a mirror, or gaze at their own reflections in an actual mirror while leaning on seemingly the same canvas, or clutch handfuls of paintbrushes or cigarettes. One of these figures is drawn from a vintage Victorian nude photograph, but her position also resonates strikingly with the figures in German painter Lotte Laserstein’s At the Mirror (1930–31), a decisive work in which Laserstein depicts her friend and partner, the artist and model Traute Rose, grappling with a mirror. In Lasterstein’s painting Rose’s back is to the viewer, so that her reflected stare is the only clearly visible face in the painting. She meets her own determined expression while Laserstein stands to one side, grasping her palette and semi-obscured by her canvas. The two women, both entirely self-empowered, also sport the “new woman” cropped hairstyle of the time. Rose appears defiant and in control, while Laserstein presents herself hard at work, as she so often was. In Brice’s clever reference to this work, the two women become one, artist and/as model and vice-versa, while the mirror becomes the canvas, indicated by the tacks along its outer edge.
The nude women who populate the recesses of the gallery space in Brice’s five new tracing paper works almost become an architectural frieze, animated across the room. They also reappear, reimagined and now interacting with one another, across two brand-new painted folding screens. One of these screens reveals a more classical and formal composition that, in the artist’s own words, is “slightly unraveling,” while the second, installed upstairs, is a darker, nocturnal version that suggests a further unraveling of order, with the figures drinking, lounging, and viewing and painting themselves. Here we see a reference to Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde [Origin of the World] (1866), through the depiction of a woman artist standing at an easel while looking down at mirror placed between her legs on the floor, painting her own vagina. Behind her, a reclining figure arches her back over a chair while blowing rings of smoke up into the air, her pose and position a direct citation from Balthus. Another artistic reference comes in the appearance of a Nina Hamnett drawing, enlarged to life-size by Brice and held by a woman on the far left of the more classical screen. Similar in scale to the woman carrying her, the drawing almost becomes a fifth figure herself, as Brice makes it deliberately unclear whether she is a reflection or a painted image.
These screens are some of the most site-specific works that Brice has made to date. The checkered floor painted onto the screens is a to-scale match of the floor in the gallery where they are shown, while the same gallery’s rust-red marble skirting board also appears across both screens and informs their color palette in different ways. By playing with and deliberately incorporating the architecture of the space in which her works are shown, Brice places the women that they depict in real space and real time; they are undeniably present in the very same room. It is as though they have just popped out and we are now experiencing the remains of their labors, or the remains of their party.
An enduring source of interest for Brice—with similar allusions to alcohol and revelry—is Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882). One of her most significant new works of the last two years, Smoke and Mirrors (2020) demonstrates this fascination. A huge, four-paneled (so as to formally resemble her folding screens) horizontal studio scene in which mirrors and canvases become interchangeable, this extraordinary painting depicts numerous women: some recognizable, some anonymous, some dressed, some nude, some painting portraits of themselves or each other, others lounging, talking, some perched high on stepladders, some crouched on the floor, all accompanied by cigarettes, cats, and beer. The work reintroduces us to several figures we have seen elsewhere, from Knight’s aforementioned blushing bum to another woman who is painting herself—this time based on a photograph of Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka at her easel—which Brice has loosely translated into a portrait of herself at work in a scene reminiscent of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). Elsewhere, other women artists appear; the figure we see casually leaning through the bars of her own stretcher is (painted from a photograph of) Helen Frankenthaler. She is watching another woman in front of her pour paint, and this second figure is also (painted from a different photograph of) Frankenthaler. It is as though she is observing herself performing, suggesting an awareness of how she appears to the world as a strong woman artist. And in further reference to the 1950s New York art scene that Frankenthaler inhabited—and the heavy drinking and smoking that women artists participated in therein—we also see Joan Mitchell in the figure of the woman carrying the canvas (here depicted nude), while the figure atop the ladder is Lee Krasner.
This work is Brice’s most ambitious and adroit exploration of the use of mirrors. Not only does it embody the entire mood of nonchalance found in the face of the barmaid at the Folies-Bergère, it also uses the very same device of turning almost all of the (real life) canvas into the illusion of a mirror. We see the women in the foreground doubled and reflected, while those deeper inside the scene seem to fill both the canvas and the space around us, the viewer. What is interesting, though, is that we are not there, we are not part of this scene, we are not reflected, even though we are standing in the middle of it. The women are held in a dialogue with one another that we are not invited to, rendering us, and our gaze, invisible. The result engenders an astonishing mix of feelings ranging from discombobulation to admiration.
Brice makes other small nods to the Folies-Bergère in this work: the moon in her densely layered scene echoes the round lights in the Parisian bar, and the green boots perched at the top of one of her ladders refer to the dangling feet of Manet’s trapeze artist. Dramatic plumes of smoke—almost like thought-bubbles—fill the air, emphasizing the reflections in both mirrors, and the beer bottles scattered around Brice’s scene resonate with the bottles that cluster on the bar around the bowl of oranges. It is well documented throughout art history that the depiction of a bowl of oranges in a painting is intended to denote that the woman present is a prostitute, but perhaps more interesting is the fact that often the women posing as prostitutes or nudes were in fact artists themselves—the nude model in Manet’s Olympia, Victorine Meurent, being a case in point. Through reappropriating the images of these women, Brice gives them back their creativity and their agency; here they look purposefully at their own reflections in order to paint themselves, armed with—again—cigarettes and brushes. First presented at her KM21 exhibition in the Hague, Smoke and Mirrors appears again at LGDR, this time accompanied by a brand-new sister work, Last Chance Salon (2022), hanging on the wall opposite, quite literally mirroring it. This new work is a darker version, to quote Brice: “as if the lights have been turned down.”4 Dark absinthe greens replace the fleshy browns and characteristic blues of the elder sibling and a smoky, intoxicated atmosphere permeates, while a flicker of small changes to the figures’ positions and poses suggests a sort of painted time-lapse, as does the shifting moon and slinking skulk of the cat.
In this work, Brice brings together references to portraiture created by and of modern and contemporary women artists, as well as some of the many women originally painted by men throughout history. Another important reference in this regard is the previously mentioned The White and Black by Vallotton, which Brice has recently returned to a new work. Untitled (After Vallotton) (2021) depicts an actual door—life-size, streaked in emerald green and florid orange reds, and slightly ajar—as the blued figure of a Black woman looks guardedly through the crack, exhaling a red-pink plume of smoke. A black cat at her feet screeches towards us, making us feel patently and almost embarrassingly visible, while in the door’s narrow glass window we glimpse another figure in silhouette, her cheeks blushed and her hair cropped.
Aïcha Goblet, the woman at the crack of the open door in Untitled (After Vallotton), is tinged with blue but not wholly blue, as are many of the figures that populate Brice’s work to date—particularly those that feature in her drawings and works on paper. Brice’s blue of choice is cobalt, straight out of the tube. It is worth noting that, again, through her use of blue, Brice summons particular references from the history of art—from the reverential quiet of Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato’s image of Mary, The Virgin in Prayer (1640–1650), to the sobriety of Picasso’s blue period paintings (1900–1904), Henri Matisse’s jolly Blue Nudes (1952), and Yves Klein’s use of women as human paintbrushes covered in his self-coined “International Klein Blue” (1962). In addition to these allusions, Brice’s use of blue began as an attempt to capture the moody electricity of blue neon and the melancholic glow of twilight, but has since accrued further meanings. Of particular interest to Brice is the Trinidadian “blue devil,” a formidable carnival character who masqueraders imitate by coating themselves in a cobalt blue pigment, likely originally made from “Reckitt’s Blue,” a whitening laundry powder found throughout the colonies of the British Empire that was also used in skin bleaching. The character of the blue devil was born during slavery, when the mask of blue pigment would disguise the skin tones of carnival revelers, freeing them from accountability. Brice’s recurrent use of cobalt is thus a threefold endeavour, enabling her to tease and tweak significant works from art history while granting her works the distinctive atmosphere of glowing neon at dusk, and providing her subjects with an anonymity or ambiguity that allows them to evolve into whoever they want to be. As she says,
In my work this color can suggest skin veiled in paint or tinted mud, obscuring naturalistic skin tones and interrupting an easy or preconditioned reading of the subject along ethnic lines. This all reinforces the idea of transformation and adds to the ambiguity of the narrative.
Brice’s enduring interest in Trinidad began when she undertook a workshop residency there in 1999, followed by a residency in 2000. She has since returned regularly, maintaining strong ties to the island and allowing its history and culture to directly influence her paintings. Similarly, her country of birth, South Africa, remains a significant source of stimulation. Brice grew up during a particularly tumultuous time in the country’s history and she still perceives the world through that inherently political and racially fraught lens. If the impact of Trinidad and South Africa is evident in her work, so too is the weight of her move to London, where she has lived and worked since 1998. Being in London, in proximity to the rest of Europe, provides Brice the chance to encounter so many of the art-historical works discussed above—in the flesh, so to speak. Her own works contain this trio of influences, bringing these disparate worlds together. London—and Europe—provides a cultural point of departure: the art-historical canon with which Brice grapples so nimbly. South Africa and Trinidad pervade her atmosphere, the politics and the context of her paintings, quite literally coloring their mood and—as an interesting aside—their brand of beer. Brice’s beer bottles are always the Trinidadian Stag Beer, a deliberate inclusion that signals her connection to the island as well as knowingly nodding toward Manet’s inclusion of French beer at the Folies-Bergère, which apparently stands as a defiant allegiance with France during the German occupation at the end of the nineteenth century. Brice’s incorporation of Stag is double-edged; in addition to visually pledging her allegiance to Trinidad, she also aims to invert the brand’s macho marketing, which labels the drink as a “man’s beer” and—as we so frequently see—advertises its deliciousness using recurrent imagery of scantily clad women.
Brice’s assimilation of all these references accords her work a powerful attitude that is both tangible and transformative. The familiar and repeating motifs of a cigarette, a bottle of (Stag) beer, paintbrushes, a mirror, and the arched-back cat that stalks her painted rooms grant her spaces an inviting intimacy that lures us into her works. But her women are never here for our pleasure; it is their own pleasure that is defiantly paramount and our gaze is repeatedly denied, ignored, confronted, or challenged. The shadowy depths of Brice’s canvases, their layered transparencies, reflections, smokescreens, and actual screens, and her cool, recurring, and unruffled figures build an atmosphere, a feeling. Her works are multiple portraits of multiple women; they represent an idea, an escape towards ambiguity, emancipation, and empowerment that reclaims the body of the woman on both an international and transhistorical level.
1 Whitney Chadwick, “How Do I Look?” in Mirror, Mirror: Self-portraits by Women Artists, edited by Liz Rideal, Whitney Chadwick and Frances Borzello (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002), 9.
2 Lisa Brice and Aïcha Mehrez, “Q&A: Lisa Brice,” Tate Etc. 43 (London: Tate, Summer 2018). See https://www.tate.org.uk/tate-etc/issue-43-summer-2018/lisa-brice-art-now-interview-aicha- mehrez.
3 Email to the author, February 21, 2022.
South African artist Lisa Brice depicts a deftly layered world in which the female nudes of Western art history, predominantly painted by men for the male viewer, have been liberated from their traditional contexts. No longer alone, submissive, an object to be desired or consumed, Brice’s female subjects emerge as poised and empowered, reclaiming their autonomy. In smoldering, often monochromatic paintings, Brice portrays figures at work as both artist and muse, holding a beer, cigarette, a clutch of paint brushes or a mirror and always self-possessed. While these compositions riff on iconic paintings by canonical male artists such as Édouard Manet and Félix Vallotton, they also draw on the paintings, images and histories of female artists and models. Brice’s reimagined subjects are unlocatable and ambiguous, painted with obscured faces in doorways, mirrors, or other thresholds. Her canvases are allied by her loose, animated brushwork and her signature palette of vermillion and cobalt blue, a hue she connects to the “blue hour” of evening, advertising neon, and the “blue devil” character of Trinidad’s carnivals.
Born in 1968 in South Africa, Brice studied at Michaelis School of Fine Art in Capetown (1990). She lives and works between London and Trinidad, where she has spent significant time since the late 1990s. Her work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions including Lisa Brice, Charleston, East Sussex (2021); Smoke and Mirrors, KM21, The Hague (2020); and Art Now: Lisa Brice, Tate Britain, London (2018). Her work will be featured in the group exhibition, Women Painting Women at Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX (2022) and has been in prominent group shows including A Century of the Artist’s Studio 1920–2020 at Whitechapel Gallery, London (2022); ; Mixing It Up: Painting Today at Hayward Gallery, London (2021); and Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s – Now at Tate Britain, London (2021), among many others. Her work is in the collections of the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC; Tate Britain, London; X Museum, Beijing; Johannesburg Art Gallery; and South African National Gallery among others.