Lisa Brice shows sisters very much doing it for themselves

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Lisa Brice shows sisters very much doing it for themselves

South African artist turns the tables on the male gaze in her exhibition at the Tate Museum in London

Louisa Buck

Any figurative artist working today knowingly carries the weight of art history on their paintbrush. Then if you happen to be female there’s the added issue of stepping into what has traditionally been a male terrain, in which women tend to appear on, rather than behind, the canvas.
South African artist Lisa Brice is all too aware of this vexed territory, and the parade of scantily clad nymphs, goddesses and ladies of shady repute who over the centuries have been offered up by predominantly male artists for masculine delectation. 
But in Brice’s paintings the tables are deliciously turned. Her current show fills Tate Britain’s Art Now gallery with women in various states of undress who mooch, slouch and smoke in intimate domestic interiors. Pants are pulled down, underwear is adjusted, poses are struck and the air is heavy with intrigue and whorls of cigarette smoke.Often these female protagonists are viewed through elaborate screens, grilles or glimpsed through curtains. The mood can be voluptuous but it is also convivial; these women are utterly self-possessed and comfortable in their own and each other’s company. We are the outsiders, peering into their private world.
Brice takes her women from many sources – magazines, television and the Internet – as well as from art history. Female subjects originally painted by men are plucked from the art historical canon and, repainted by Brice, are given a new, liberating and often more sociable lease of life. 
There are gestures from Degas, poses from Balthus and the same figure can often crop up again and again in different circumstances. A particular favourite is the slumped seated figure from Felix Vallotton’s 1913 painting The White and the Black,  probably the music hall dancer and artist’s model Aïcha Goblet. 
In two large paintings, she has a cigarette clamped between her lips as she presides over a smoky, sultry scene of what could be a brothel, a boudoir or a backstage changing room. 
One of these shadowy interiors also contains the seated figure of Gertrude Stein as portrayed by Picasso in 1906, but here surrounded by almost completely obscured by a sexy masked female, with one leg protruding from her slinky striped dress. A view that I’m sure the sapphic Ms Stein would have very much appreciated.For Art Now, Brice has made two new paintings which refer specifically to works from the Tate’s collection. One is based on Millais’ Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia, but here the prone, drowned victim is very much alive and upright as she strides through a doorway, bottle in one hand, cigarette in another. Instead of water, the multi-coloured streamers of a fly curtain ripple over her body. At her feet a cat carries in its mouth the water vole that Millais had depicted alive and swimming, but here hanging limp and dead.The other, Parting at Dusk, rescues and rehabilitates the gaunt model in William Rothenstein’s Parting at Morning of 1891. The simple gold background of the original is maintained, but with her skin a cobalt blue, her head swathed in a turban and a smoking cigarette in her mouth, she is a waif no longer and you pity her at your peril.  
Many of Brice’s paintings are rendered entirely in this distinctive cobalt blue, a colour she first used in an attempt to imitate the blue light of neon signs and to capture the fleeting transitional colour of twilight. However now it carries many meanings and fulfills many functions.Brice was born and grew up in South Africa during a particularly volatile time in the country’s history. Although her work is not overtly political, she still feels that this very particular early context informs all that she does. 
Now based in London, Brice also spends time in Trinidad where, in a tradition stretching back to the times of slavery, many of the revellers during carnival time cover themselves in blue paint to transform themselves into anarchic “Blue Devils”, rendered anonymous and unaccountable by a mask of blue paint.
Similarly, by substituting naturalistic skin tones for shades of blue, Brice complicates any easy preconceived readings of her subjects along ethnic or even gender lines, adding to the ambiguity and psychological complexity of the scenes she paints.  
Blue is also a richly referential choice of colour, conjuring up a memory of Matisse’s blue nudes as well as the moody (and often barely-clad) ladies of Picasso’s blue period, not to mention Yves Klein’s use of naked women as “human paintbrushes”, their bodies covered in a similarly vivid azure that he patented as “International Klein Blue”. (And just to complicate things further, let’s not forget the Virgin Mary’s time-honoured cloak of the most costly ultramarine.)But whether she is exclusively using blue or – more recently – combining it with hot pinks and reds, colour combines with Brice’s formidable painterly skills to present us with a series of gorgeous, complicated, atmospheric scenarios where nothing is certain except that here the sisters are most emphatically doing it for themselves.

Until August 27 at Tate Britain; tate.org.uk

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