Lisa Brice at Goodman Gallery Cape
by Tavish McIntosh
The investigation of infantile and child sexuality has notoriously occupied the work of Mark Hipper and others. However, a concern that is found less often in the art arena and more often in the media spotlight, is that of adolescent sexuality. Lisa Brice's 'Base One Two Three' appropriates the clichés of Hollywood and mixes them with personal snapshots of adolescent sexual encounters, producing a range of paintings that display her technical bravura. The paintings are consummately seductive but ultimately troubling. Brice carefully sidesteps the usual position of detached judgement. She makes no moralising comments nor does she try to say anything overtly humorous. The work, with its sensitive subject matter, exists outside of these categories, evocatively embracing the liminal quality of adolescence and its attendant moments of sexual initiation.
But how do we consume an image of an adolescent girl clad in her underwear (Back in 86 tights) leaning back - questioningly provocative - against an unmade bed? Should we identify with the onlooker she is gazing at, or should we identify with her? Do we occupy the 'male gaze' or do we, in the postmodern era, counter-identify? The work invites us to do both, so that we occupy a space somewhere in-between the two, located between passive voyeur and active participant, between the detached and the emotional. This disquieting ambivalence is echoed by Brice's technical range. Murky shades of blue, black and creamy white make up the colour palette but the different techniques upend the chromatic coherence. Each of the four distinct methods used through the exhibition contribute to the disquieting sense that these images are giving the viewer no definitive entry point.
Images are poised between Brice's fluid painterly style, which she recently took up again, and a more disciplined method that uses bleach on denim. Brice was flexible with her newly discovered medium and moved from a painterly application of the bleach to a more restrained mode. With this she was able to bring into the exhibition its provocative ambivalence regarding the subject matter. The denim drawings clearly delineate and demarcate their subject. Brice creates clear graphic lines by brushing the bleach through stencils in order to delineate the forms. The use of stencils implies an impersonal approach. Despite this apparently mechanical technique, the unstable reaction of bleach on denim produces beautifully shaded creases and unforeseen splotches. A product less of the artist's hand than of the unconventional medium, the unintentional spread of bleach across the face and eyes of the adolescent girl in CD's Teen Venus as she turns towards the viewer heightens the visual drama, increasing the image's ability to portray a sense of rising panic.
Often our role in the visual dynamic of the artwork is not so provocatively apparent, but an uneasy sense that the sheer technical bravura of the exhibition conceals a deeper malaise becomes apparent as one goes through the paintings. We are an unnecessary third for images of couples fervently embracing; in the Blue Boy's hand holding his partner's to his crotch; the movie star embrace practised and now feigned in Hanging On. Within the gallery, which imposes set relationships between viewer and artwork, moral dictums are usually laid aside; however these images - none of which actually go beyond 'Base Three' (which I am reliably informed is defined as 'heavy petting') - force the viewer to make a decision to consume their seemingly mindless actions or to refuse.
The artist appropriates these images from snapshots of others, hearsay, movie stills and advertising campaigns. Like a memory bank, the exhibition veers between the personal and the collective moments of sexual initiation. Experience is overlaid with representations thereof, photographs become memories and advertising campaigns, reality. Memories and nostalgia are mediated through mass culture. Brice exploits this repetitive surplus of visual stimulation by reusing her source images, but with each rendering, methodological changes produce a different effect. The exhibition questions the role of the image in both creating a moment for voyeuristic pleasure and personal recollection. And in doing so, they interrogate the viewer's attitude towards controlling and policing desire. The images show the ambivalence of early sexual encounters, predicated on gaining knowledge and shedding childhood as rapidly as possible without a thought for the consequences.
Why have these moments of unpracticed, clumsy passion been immortalised by countless films and photo shoots? Perhaps because this is the universal story of awakening desire, the first steps towards realising pleasure and its inevitable accompaniment pain. Lisa Brice, with 'Base One Two Three', explores our ambivalent relationship with those initial sexual encounters in an exhibition that hides its hard-hitting content behind sumptuous technical skill. The almost monochromatic palette brings the exhibition together, attesting both to Brice's maturity as an artist and her ability to bridge the divide between technical experimentation and visual cohesion. Nonetheless this coherent exhibition structure adds to the disquiet produced by her subject matter.
Opens: October 20
Closes: November 10
Goodman Gallery Cape
3rd Floor Fairweather House, 176 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Tel: (021) 462 7573
Fax: (021) 462 7579
Hours: Tue - Fri 9.30am - 5.30pm, Sat 10am - 4pm