My interest in drawing mythological female characters as a child has evolved and fed directly into the themes I work on in my current painting practice. This recent series explores archetypal female characters as they appear throughout mythology, taking the archetypal significance of certain Goddesses of the Greek Pantheon as a starting point. The paintings are still of women I know closely, but they are now reimagined as universal, archetypal characters.
Serpents have also entered this series due to their historical connection to female power and fertility. In many pagan cultures the serpent was a potent symbol of fertility, wisdom, transformation, rebirth and healing and as such was closely linked with many goddesses. These animals went from being sacred to becoming the symbols of evil and sin in the judeo-christian culture, mirroring the characterisation of eve/woman as being responsible for ‘the fall of man’.
Once a year the Gallery commissions a major exhibition of new work based on a concept or theme of our time. This autumn GOOD NATURE will be a celebration of our planet, its beauty and its fragility and the essential part we all play in preserving it.
Caroline Lucas MP, 2017
Oil, acrylic and charcoal on canvas
150 x 120 cm
Good Nature exhibition at Candida Stevens Gallery
16 Sept – 28 Oct 2017
The focus of my practice is centred on the human form, with a particular interest in portraiture and female identity. As such, my thoughts on the theme of ‘good nature’ immediately directed themselves towards the people making a positive contribution to nature. Those who dedicate their lives to protecting the natural world and the planet we live on, and Caroline Lucas instantly entered my mind. First MP to the Green Party and current co- party leader (alongside being VP to the RSPCA), she is an historic figure who has changed the face of politics, by providing a consistent voice of reason on matters concerning nature and our environment to parliament. Her politics and life’s work come from an understanding that we as a society and species can only flourish if we value and protect our environment.
She seems to me, to be someone who cares deeply, and fights tirelessly for what she believes to be right, even if this means standing at odds with the status quo; as seen with her arrest for participating in an anti-fracking protest in 2013. There is something refreshingly rebellious about Caroline Lucas MP, and with this first official portrait of her I wanted to capture the sense of fearlessness I get from her along with her ever questioning, fighting spirit.
The painting contains references to the natural world as well as the feminine creative force, together with clues to the methods used in the making of the piece at this very turbulent time in UK politics.
At this point in my life, I have become increasingly aware of a search for meaning, not just personally, but in the people around me. Many are having children, and many are deeply and finally fully committing to their art.
I feel that age plays a large part in this; fully emerging out of adolescence or youth and being firmly placed within adult life seems to bring with it a desire to create something meaningful, as it opens the gates to a burgeoning awareness of our own mortality. This sentiment is reflected in the title of the show ‘der Tod und das Mädchen’/‘death and the maiden’ which refers to the traditional Vanitas motif in which the young female serves as a symbolic reminder of human mortality. The title evidently also harbours an autobiographical element, whilst also alluding to my German heritage; allowing me to work through a theme which some of my favourite artists such as Klimt and Schiele have done before me.
The models for this body of work are a mixture of women I know, some of whom I chose because they have a vocation in creative professions such as music, art, make up and film; others I chose because they are mothers, and some, of course overlap. I was interested in their experiences relating to creating and mortality, and to see how they felt about their creative practice /motherhood and how these experiences provided them with meaning.
The process of painting itself almost always involved the paintings taking on several incarnations before they were completed. Some started out as one thing and became another entirely. Some are left in part abstract whereas some come into focus much more sharply, seeming more finished and figurative. The idea of resurrection is also reflected in the use of the initial source photograph, which almost acts as a silent witness to the process of painting taking place around it, and during it’s time discarded on the studio floor also becomes transformed. I then took these ‘damaged’, discarded prints up again, scanning and re-printing them, allowing them to become reborn in a sense; giving them a new lease of life.
The use of Copper in this body of work has to do with it’s close association with the goddess Aphrodite/Venus in mythology and it’s resulting symbolic associations with feminine beauty and artistic creativity. It is one of the oldest metals in use across cultures and is considered to embody the nurturing aspect of women along with their youthfulness.
This body of work uses portraiture as a vehicle through which traditional vanitas themes can be explored. Youth and beauty allude to their natural counterpart of death and decay, as well as the contemporary idea of a woman’s increased awareness of her own mortality, conscious that she faces a loss of visibility long before her actual loss of life. It touches on the power of the iconic image and it’s relation to our current obsession with our own reflection and the capturing of the ‘perfect’ selfie; as if this idealised avatar could make us impervious to the affects of time, imperfection and age; but primarily it is about the process of image creation itself, which seems directly to reflect the theme of desire and lack at the core of the subject.
The basic human desire for certainty and a sense of wholeness is in direct conflict with the finite, fragmented nature of being, giving rise to a perpetual cycle of desire and lack. The image making process in this body of work mirrors the same cycle; Initial elation at the idea of creating perfection gives way to inevitable disappointment caused by the impossibility of the task.
This cycle begins with the source photograph, which almost acts as a silent witness to the process of painting taking place around it, and during it’s time discarded on the studio floor also becomes transformed. These prints are then taken up again, are scanned and given a new lease of life. ‘Unsatisfactory’ paintings are destroyed by whiting out. This layer is then also rejected and washed off, which re-activates the old layers of water-soluble ink, leading to a merging of the old and the new.
The ultimately futile yet unstoppable desire to create wholeness, unity, perfection or even in the simple case of art, a ‘finished’ piece, is laid bare in all its stages.
These recent works explore the dynamics of desire and the role that iconised versions of ourselves and others play in relation to self-image and our search for continuity. Drawing on Lacanian concepts of desire, lack and the role of the specular image (all of which I situate within the contemporary everyday, in which self-mythologization and the creation of iconised images of ourselves are very much part of our daily experience via the use of social media), these works explore how the images of ourselves that we project outwards can become just as real as our actual being.
“Nowadays you can take 200 photos and if there’s 1 where you look kind of cool from one direction, you can slightly enhance it on Photoshop, and then you start to believe in those images...It’s like this surface, and every now and then somebody punctures it, not with a bullet or an arrow but with a photograph” CJ
RULES FOR CHOOSING A MODEL:
1. A woman who is close enough to me in age for me to be able to see myself in her (specular image) so +-10yrs
2. A woman within the sphere of my everyday acquaintances
3. Using social media, select the first woman fitting criteria 1. who appears in my newsfeed.
This series of works were born from dialogue between myself and my models, whom I chose according to their adherence to the principles I set for this series. The significance of images of women, beauty and self-image was discussed, and the interviews transcribed. (Please see Interviews to find out more). These very personal accounts then gave way for my process of creation to begin. The dialectic between desire and lack initially framed in relation to the question of self-image, was then taken up as the central problem for the creation of images in painting; in which initial ideals were transformed and modified through a practical process of questioning, drawing from various traditions of portraiture and painting. The importance of the iconised virtual version of ourselves emerged as a key theme in the interviews, and interestingly enough each of my models went on to use the paintings as their digital avatar on social media.
To me beauty seems to be representative of the lost object – the ever-elusive promise of a complete sense of being; an idea I see echoed in Bataille’s concept of continuity, and ultimately stemming from our difficulty to accept our own finitude. Unattainable beauty thus comes to represent wholeness, an ultimate state of existence, and the iconised image can give us a taste of this, and thus, of immortality. The image remains as it is, whereas the self is unstable, in a constant state of decline until it eventually disappears. My final piece consist of 3 separate pieces, which work as a set, each exploring different nuances on the theme. The choice to have 3 models, and present 3 works (1 relating to each model) refers back to Lacan’s 3 registers, the number’s association with the divine and the historical use of the triptych in religious iconography. The work also references various traditional Vanitas motifs, such as the young woman, mirrors and precious objects (Der Tod steht uns gut) alongside other symbolic references to perfection, ideals, and the significance of the specular image. These references are evident through the use of materials, sizes, shapes and medium; The reflective nature of the perspex framed in the size and shape of a domestic full length mirror being an example. Please see Lexicon for more details and The Specular Self more pieces from the series.
“It’s almost like you’re a flower. You have this short life span where you’re blossoming and you’re beautiful and everyone wants a piece, and they’re like ‘let me look at you, let me touch you’ and then, once you hit a certain age you’re discarded” Mitra
This is a series in which I started to engage the process of painting and image creation more directly with the tension between desire and lack. ‘Unsatisfactory’ images are covered by whiting out and washing off, the process of which re-activates the old rejected layers of water-soluble ink, leading to a merging of the old and the new. This technique begins to develop a visual language internal to the painting dialectic between the imagined finished image (desire), the dissatisfaction with the resulting image (lack), and the return to the image (desire) in an attempt to draw something new out from it.
These paintings develop through a combination of chance and active choice, and, through engaging with the processes of creation and destruction inherent to painting, begin to give expression to the constant cycle of desire and return to lack. Much in the same vein in which Francis Bacon and others approached image making, something must be destroyed, or covered in order for something new to form or emerge.
Please see Cycles of Desire for more paintings from this series.
To many women beauty comes to represent so much more than being pleasing to the eye. It comes to represent success, happiness, acceptance etc. and although the pressures of beauty aren’t exclusively directed towards women, pressures to be young and beautiful are still much greater for women than for men. The concept of a peak of life or moment of perfection, is something I believe women have been subjected to and have possibly internalised in a way men haven’t. Consequently women are particularly aware of the transience of things. As Naomi Wolf says, historically women have always been more in touch with their own mortality because of the dangers of childbirth. These perils associated with childbirth have also been transferred onto the fear of losing youth and beauty, and thus fear of symbolically dying has often been substituted for, and comingled with, fear of actually dying. I therefore feel that the female, even when young and beautiful, suggests a constant fear of loss and mortality. This is not a new idea by any means, as Tobias Quast’s book ‘Der Tod steht uns Gut’ describes. Images of young beautiful women were often used in the tradition of vanitas paintings alongside other symbols such as ripe fruits as Memento Mori. A significant difference however is that the traditional use of the young woman as vanitas motif came from a male perspective, in which she is used as a symbolic object representing worldly pleasures and vanity, rather than an individual who carries with her an awareness of her own transience.
These paintings exist on the cusp between a supposed peak and its passing. The basic materials of the painting, it’s skeleton so to speak, remain visible. The use of natural linen canvas with the layers of ink, acrylic, oil, sand and wax all remaining at least in part visible allow the creation or dissolving of the image back to it’s bare building stones to be imagined. Reminiscences of my ideas developed for the site-specific exhibition at the Crypt are also present here, in which I began to think about our desire to leave something of ourselves behind as a major factor of portraiture and my own work.
Please see Transience and the Image for more paintings from this series.
The Interim show at the Crypt Gallery in Kings Cross introduced new elements into my practice as a whole, through drawing attention to a specific site that then enriched my already existing interests in transience and iconisation with new elements. Researching the history of the Crypt, and it’s role as a place of remembrance for the dead drew my attention to the historical human desire to leave something of ourselves to posterity. Portraiture as a means of providing us with a continued presence beyond our death in the form of funerary monuments, gravestones, portrait busts and death masks inspired the installation ‘set in stone’, which consisted of a circular painting along with several concrete spheres saturated in salt water. There was originally going to be a pane of glass mounted on the wall, which, when viewed would place the viewer’s reflection into the crypt, merging their image with the site’s aged brick walls, alluding to our common fate. I therefore decided to place myself within the crypt also; the resulting self-portrait’s colours and materials reflecting those of the crypt along with it’s mineral deposits and patina. The circular shape of the canvas mirroring the shape of the concrete spheres alluding to our desire for a sense of continuity, permanence and the creation of idealised versions of the deceased.
Please see Lexicon for more information on the symbolism behind the materials used.