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Been There, but Haven't quite Done That

Painting is a bit like art criticism. Well, not really. But it is a good opening line, and I wish it were true because while both art criticism and painting have survived several well-publicised deaths, painting’s renewal seems to be well within reach. Particularly, these days when despite the fact that we thought its life had come to an abrupt end when abstract modernists worked themselves into a lifeless black hole and pop, found objects and appropriation become the mode du jour, burying the notion of the new under the rubble of a well, weighty history, contemporary painters do appear to be reaching towards invention. Note: ‘reaching’; much of these efforts have relied on superficial gimmicks – painting with toothpaste and detergent, emulating digital renderings of painted lines with paint (so very-very meta-meta) and appropriating other canvases or compositions from famous paintings as in the work of Cullen Washington Jnr and Paul Bloodgood, two artists who showed at Saatchi’s Abstract America Today exhibition last year. Or making a thing out of the oil stains. No names. Have painters ever been so up their own…? A renewed interest in abstraction, which that Saatchi exhibition signals, has paved the way for novelty and invention to be part of the painter’s vocabulary again, though at times these gestures seem so empty. The title of Lisa Brice’s show at the Goodman Gallery, Joburg , Well Worn, denies the notion of the new, or renewal, and indeed it shows her returning to the gender themes she has mined before and a societal condition that appears inescapable. Her subjects are ‘well-worn’ too – they appear like fifties models in their cross-your-heart bras. Nevertheless the work feels fresh and clever. This is mostly down to a sort of gimmick: striped fabric that serves as her canvas. It allows for a rewarding trompe l'oeil that seduces you into believing you are viewing her subjects through a set of blinds or filter. This creates the impression that the female subjects – usually half-dressed women with ideal bodies – are obscured by the thick black lines that run uniformly horizontally and vertically through the artworks. These invasive lines carve up their bodies as much as they obscure them, further enhancing this voyeuristic gaze that the allusion to blinds evokes. This visual device is more than a gimmick to refresh painting, or her practice; it is incredibly powerful because it acts as a screen that can be thought of as independent to the subjects or inextricably fused to them. As such the art begins and ends with the canvas – which of course, is always the case but is overstated in this context – despite the illusion of ‘separation’ it generates (as if we are looking through a small window into a larger world that exists beyond the frame.) In this way the striped canvas works at eroding and supporting the visual illusion inherent to painting. This all has ramifications for the ontological condition of painting but also, significantly for the gendered theme. This striped ‘screen’ also speaks of the act of seeing via digitised lenses and screens. In this way these lined paintings suggest a number of ‘filters’ and layers of gazing and modes of consumption of female bodies. Significantly, most of these figures are looking at themselves, in mirrors, or are posing as if they are being watched or will be watched. The only time or space that they are freed from this is in this state of undressing or dressing up - before they have put on their clothing. An act that interestingly holds little interest because they are not posing - they are not active 'subjects', engaging or assessing their subjectivity. As such even if they are alone – they are never ‘alone.’ In this context the black lines are a metaphor for the noise, the visual and psychic noise that interrupts, shapes conceptions of the self but also prevents individuals from ever truly existing without the pervasive expectations of how to behave, look. Of course, these are not new issues or ideas, and certainly, they are not new to Brice, whose work since the Sex Kitten series in the early nineties has been concerned with how women perform for men and derive status and visibility socially, culturally through doing so. What makes this series interesting or takes this discourse further is her interest in this state between being undressed and dressed, a space where the female body exists between the public and the private. Or is it? This intimate act demands our voyeuristic gaze yet doesn't pander to it. The subjects don't scrutinise themselves while dressing or undressing - they are absorbed in an act that doesn't require their gaze. The visual filter also adds interest and develops the discourse. Embedded in the image – as the base medium for a painting it cannot be removed or manipulated – the body must “fit’ in between but also sugges