Lisa Brice

Lisa Brice I Goodman Gallery I Johannesburg

Sitting in a darkened cinema, an audience lives vicariously through the roles being played out by the actors on the screen. Strangely familiar scenes can induce a feeling of sudden déjà vu and a flash of self-enlightenment might occur when an acted interchange recalls an emotional moment in one’s own life.Lisa Brice’s new show of paintings Night Visions might be seen as stills from a movie subtitled My Early Years. Some five years ago, the artist left South Africa to try living overseas for a while, and now divides her time between London and Trinidad. Part of a close group of artist friends living in Trinidad, a regular feature of island life is the Studio Film Club, a weekly showing of classic movies for which artist Peter Doig would paint a quick poster, Brice taking photos in greenish night shot mode. Studio Film Club is a participant on this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York, with the photos taken by Brice an integral part of the catalogue.It is this cinematic palette and approach that informs Brice’s paintings. Drawing both on her own old photos and those of the daughter of a friend who reminded Brice of herself at that age, the artist has created a nuanced look at childhood, a period of awkwardness, innocence and trauma. In one of the most fully realized paintings on the show, Wilderness, a pale image of a young blonde child clad only in knickers faces the viewer. This child is the centre of attention, the object of scrutiny from the audience, a row of darkened silhouetted figures in the foreground of the painting, and a second row of figures at the back. A line of drips running horizontally across the painting like television interference form a screen, which serves to further distance and isolate the child under observation. The relative transparency of the figure, her disproportionate size in relation to the watchers, indicate that this is not the reconstruction of an actual scene, but an expression of an emotional landscape of vulnerability and uncertainty.On the facing wall of the gallery hangs Garden, a night time scene in a picket fenced suburban garden. Floodlit by a powerful street lamp, alone in the garden, a toddler gazes upwards. The elevated viewpoint of the painting puts the child at the mercy of the viewer. There are those who might have protective feelings aroused, but the way is left open for a more predatory approach. A child does not understand the parameters of the adult world, and has few defences against those who would exploit her or him.This feeling of potential menace appears again in a number of small oil sketches of the artist as child, in which the dark shadow of a figure in the foreground could represent the photographer – or, a watcher. A trio of large self-portraits on paper seem melancholy and haunted.Night Visions represents a remarkable breakthrough for Brice, technically and conceptually. Graduating from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in the early 1980’s, Brice’s first postgraduate show, images based on sex industry signage in Thailand, attracted the attention of two German gallerists, who bought the entire show and started showing Brice’s work on exhibitions and art fairs across Europe. Locally, Brice’s reputation was growing with her participation on such shows as Laager, on the fringe of the 1st Johannesburg Biennale (1995), and Scurvy, at the Cape Town Castle (1995). At this time, her themes were social imbalances, the strangeness of race relations, crime and violence, and how that impacted on daily life in South Africa. The materials the artist used to construct her pieces included steel, plastics, linoleum, video, found objects such as smashed windscreens, and drew heavily on popular signage and symbols. Moving to London, Brice started a small business called Bread Boards, painting television storyboards for advertising agencies. This activity, too, helped to form Brice’s appreciation of the cinematic viewpoint. Night Visions, then, is Brice’s first show in which oil paint on paper or canvas is the only medium. Before this, one would not have referred to the artist specifically as a painter, but here she has used the paint with maturity, fluidity and assurance, knowing exactly where to stop, sometimes when a figure has been barely sketched in an expressive tangle of lines. The exhibition was a virtual sell-out at the opening.Brice has always been a highly regarded artist, and with this exceptional show, with its fine painting and universal themes, she has reclaimed her place in the South African art world with authority.Sue Williamson is an artist, writer and founding editor of artthrob.co.za
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