Lisa Brice: Embracing Uncertainty

In 2005 Lisa Brice presented her first solo exhibition of paintings in South Africa. Although trained as a painter at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art in the late 1980s, throughout much of the early post-apartheid years she worked in less traditional media, garnering rapid success. In this interview with fellow artist Godfried Donkor, Brice, who lives between London and Trinidad, discusses the dilemmas posed by early success and how the uncertainty inherent in painting drew her back to the medium.

Garden, 2005, oil on canvas, 183 x 173cm Godfried Donkor: Lisa, although our paths crossed when i was assisting Okwui Enwezor at the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in 1997, we only met properly in London in 1998, when you came to work in the Gasworks studios. What brought you to London?Lisa Brice: A three-month residency at the Gasworks which was part of an invitation by Robert Loder to be one of four South African artists to take part in presentation of worksfor Nelson Mandela’s eightieth birthday celebrations at the Royal Festival Hallin London. It was the first time I had done a residency of that sort (althoughI had worked in Germany more informally before that) and I was excited by theidea of working in London.The hype around the London scene was growing then. It was still very inward looking, pro British, pre Frieze. The first Frieze Art Fair opened things up internationally. At that time working in an environment like Gasworks was amazing, as it immediately gave one a sense of belonging in a city notorious for having a very cliquey art scene… it had a particular andrespected place within that scene but was fundamentally inclusive, and I foundit inspiring working alongside artists from all over the world, such asyourself. I learnt a lot during those months even though they weren’tparticularly productive in terms of producing work. I painted the Ghanaianbarbershop inspired portrait of Robert – “Mister Makeithappen” – for fun,remember? Interestingly onarriving in London I immediately started painting again.Coming into London was stepping into the unkown? That’s what it felt like. In some ways it was quite overwhelming but incredibly stimulating at the same time. It was totally different from my experiences in Germany or SouthAfrica – London was very particular. A bit like Trinidad later on. Two Islands.How was the Gasworks able to facilitate this shift?It is very valuable what a residency affords you as an artist, when you are taken out of your usual context and given time to just experiment, and take in and respond to where you are. Somehow it isvery difficult to do that when you’re in your normal routine in yourstudio. Often artists make quitestrange work on residencies or workshops, different to their usual output, andthat’s when breakthroughs often occur. It is a luxury to be given that periodof time, which is purely about exploration with no real pressure on theoutcome. Like many artists, I tend to work to deadlines, using the urgency tofocus. This way of working allows little or no time for play orexperimentation, really.I find that when artists use that word “playful” it becomes very interesting because for me it actually means that their work becomes more serious. When you are able to play you are really able to then make art.Good painting encompasses chance and mistake, and a lot of looking. Acombination of control and the lack thereof is imperative, and one needs to allow time for this. The problem is you never quite know how much will be needed, which is very deadlineunfriendly! It is different to executing a conceptual idea. Looking back that is what the residency in London was about for me: just absorbing being there,and doing something that I had clearly really wanted to do for a while, paintagain.So signage and use of the barbershop language, simply painted images with text, was really a vehicle for you to come into the medium of painting again?Well, it wasn’t such a conscious thing, but it proved to be a starting point. In a way it wasn’t ‘true’ painting because it was still about having an idea or an image inmind, mapping it out and painting it in a particular style, such as abarbershop painting ­- it just happened to be in paint.So maybe you could call it painting in transit, if you like?Yes. Funnily enough, a variety of work I made between 1998 and 2004, when I produced myfirst “proper” painting show, was definitely about being in transit, in moreways than one. For me it makes sense now, what was happening. I think thatother people were not quite sure what to make of the shift.I get the feeling that this uncertainty is a powerful driving force in your work? Some artists work very powerfully like that, other artists need a resolution. How were you able to use this uncertainty to develop artistically, particularly regarding painting?Uncertainty is central to painting, and it’s strength, and that’s very much what attracted me back to the medium, ultimately.We attended a workshop in Trinidad together the following year, and I remember the impact that it had on everyone. I had been on three occasions before, but it was your first time. It had a profound effecton you.It did. I remember there was this element of sadness for me because it was like experiencing somewhere or something that South Africa might have been like but forapartheid. It had this dated feel to it, a kind of Fifties feel; it’s a littlelike being in a time warp in a way. It really struck me. It felt immediatelyfamiliar, almost like a place I had imagined as a child, somewhere that I hadfantasised about. It was the most integrated place I had ever been to in mylife. On successive trips over the last 10 years, most of which have been withyou, I have witnessed it changing. That was a very idealistic take on it, butnot completely. Much of that still holds true for me but it is a multilayered,complicated place, like anywhere I guess. There is a kind of darkness there,”shadeism” as they call it: racial integration is not totally as it appears.Gloss, 2007, oil on canvas, 60 x 42 cmDuring that workshop in Grand Riviere, on Trinidad’s north coast, I noticed that you became particularly engrossed withthe environment and with the people there. I remember you collaborating with somany of them. Can you tell me about that process?I was quite nervous: I had never done a workshop before. I didn’t really know what it would entail, and we had been told that we were going to have a show at the end of itso we had to produce something. I had made some work before I left South Africathat was related to gang violence, incorporating sporting logos worn as”uniforms” by local gangs. Drugs fuel that brand of violence, and I had theidea of doing cocaine logo drawings on mirrors, which I arrived with as abackup. With this underway I noticed how many of the guys in the village, whoare now good friends of ours, aspired to American gang culture, the gear, musicand sports brands. It amused me that these logos had even infiltrated this tinyvillage in the jungle in Trinidad. So I pushed the idea further, and begancollaborating with them in a variety of local materials they were craftingwith, using these logos. They were all quite playful experiments.You mentioned that when we arrived in Grand Riviere it was also a very mystical place for you.It is an incredibly mystical place. I was invited back the next year with Andy Miller, Peter Doigand Chris Ofili, who were equally struck by its magic. That residency markedthe opening of Caribbean Contemporary Arts (CCA7), a studio/gallery building ina warehouse in the industrial area of Laventille, Port of Spain, where we alllater had studios. Urban and quite rough, it’s very different to theoverwhelming nature in Grand Riviere. What strikes one most on arrival is thepopular culture, the music and the dance. After a while, though, the inherentmysticism begins to creep under your skin. One hears stories told by locals ofmanifestations of the unknown, even sightings in various forms. It is certainlya powerful aspect of being there, which finds its way into the work.I recall your collaboration with the Trinidadian artist Adele Todd, which came about during this residency but only materialised around 2003. Although this was not related to your mode of production at the time, it was very interesting.I met Adele in 2000. We discovered uncanny similarities in themes in our work dealing with common issues found in both South Africa and Trinidad. We considered a collaboration around the idea of “paradise” and the problematics of that notion of Trinidad – how different it was in reality (depending on your idea of paradise). After two years of email communication, it came about during a three-month residency in 2003, culminating with an exhibition at CCA7. The most rewarding aspect was the process and the dialogue it generated, not only between Adele and I, but also Embah, yourself, Richard Bolai and Natalie Mitchell. It was essentially more of a group collaboration.What was happening with your own work during that period? I was travelling, showing at biennales and institutions, but not being particularly productive. It was a transit phase marked by decision to terminate my 10-year workingrelationship with the Hänel Gallery, as I had become quite disillusioned withthe commercial gallery scene. I didn’t show commercially for the following twoyears.It’s difficult not to have a working relationship with a gallery, as that is generally how we disseminate our work.Ostensibly you are then going to make art outside of the mainstream system,which is a brave thing to do in as much as who is going to see the work?As disconcerting as it was, it was a very important period. I was looking back at all my work over the last 10 years, how I had arrived at it, and where I wanted to go fromthere. Having met the Hänel’s at 22 and having my first show in Germany as Ifinished art school, I feel like I didn’t have time to develop independently.It was very unusual, certainly in South Africa at the time, but I’m sure ithappens a lot now. Personally, I am not sure it was that healthy for me. Eitherway, the break was.We dream about working with a commercial gallery when we leave art school, and don’t really consider a break. I wentinto art history and curated for years instead of showing with a commercialgallery, so I was able to take a break from making. When I came back I knewexactly what I wanted to do and why I wanted to show in commercial spaces.And what the value of that was for yourself and your practice.It’s very difficult to tell young artists not to rush into going into commercial galleries; it’s an individual decision.It is, because obviously it’s seen as a sign of success, and financially as an artist you need to generate money to make new work. I do however think it is equally valuable to develop a dialogue with your contemporaries (artists, writers, curators) and a context within that, and to generate artist driven group shows outside of the commercial scene.Having extracted yourself from a relationship with a commercial gallery, what was the state of your production/practice at that time?Finding myself alone in London, without gallery support, I was encouraged by several director friends to do storyboarding as a means of generating extra income. As much as Iresented it at the time, because I felt that it was keeping me from my work, itin fact fed into it, as most things do, although often this is only apparent inretrospect.I remember you thinking that you were just doing that to live in London, and it wasn’t creative enough, but many of the photographs you took later on were very cinematic, sometimes quite literally. Your storyboarding was actually a prelude to some of the work that was to come later?Very much so, and that was the reason I bought a digital camera because I needed it for storyboarding, having developed a style incorporating drawing onto photographs. At that point I had become obsessed with global politics – it was post September 11, just pre the Iraq war, a very politically charged time. I wasbuying around three newspapers a day, to compare the journalism and images usedto illustrate the words, questioning their validity, and role. It was aroundthis time that I came across the green infrared photographs used by themilitary to document nocturnal combat activity. By chance I found a “night vision”, infrared setting on my digital camera and started to shoot in that mode. I was living in a loft three stories up, in central London, on a rough street surrounded by council estates. At night I observed and obsessivelyphotographed the events on the street below: racial violence between estatekids, murder, page three shoots, suicide, a lone fox. The photographic modesuited this kind of voyeurism and subject. I also photographed photocopies oforiginal images from newspapers and magazines, and through this process theybecame a new unified body of work, disguising their truth. Returning to Trinidad in 2004, again for three months, I started photographing at the StudioFilmClub, the weekly film club runby artists Peter Doig and Che Lovelace in Peter’s studio. I was really inspired by the way the night vision mode captured the screened images, and the figures moving in front, the strange distortions caused by reality fused with the projected image. I continued to shoot thousands of night vision images of everything around me, including kids that I was very close to, one of whom reminded me very much of myself at a particular age, growing up in a place that is so similar to South Africa. It really took me back. Untitled E, 2005, oil on paper, 82 x 58 cm So those images that were initially military-based images almost took on the feeling of black and white pictures from our childhood. It is of a world that is again quite mystical. Much of our childhood is memory, but we don’t really know if it is real memory or imagined memory.Exactly. Collectively those photographs contributed to a large body of work, painted in greys and greens, which I titled Night Vision and showed at the Goodman Gallery in 2005. It was my first solo show of painted work in South Africa. I finished the majority of the work when I came back to London. Often one can only begin to consolidate accumulated reference material with somedistance from both the experience and the source. Back in London I also startedlooking through my own childhood photographs, so that exhibition was derivedpartly from those biographical images as well as ones that I had taken inTrinidad.What was the painting style for that exhibition, because you were developing a distinct style?It was quite varied. I was struggling, in a way, with getting back to being comfortable withpainting. So some of the work isvery much in the style of work that I made in my final years at Michaelis,quite expressive. The show also included other kinds of work that I felt wasless successful, where I was trying to imitate the grainy appearance of nightvision photographs, using spray bottles in an attempt to create the effect.Those works ended up too close to the photographic source.Which was not the result you wanted?No. The problem with working from a photographic starting point is the necessity to move awayfrom it. They didn’t succeed sufficiently. Significantly, I have begun showingphotographs recently as independent works alongside my paintings, which has hadthe effect of freeing me up from that struggle with the photographic source,which is a relief.Part of the struggle of working in paint is that one never ultimately resolves anything. Does that bother you as a painter? You know that you are never really going to defeat the process of painting?It is humbling as a medium, because you never quite get on top of it. And if you do, in one way or another, this generally means you’ve developed some kind of prescriptive formula, a mannerism, whichinevitably is painting’s kiss of death, becoming a problem in itself, which youhave to work against. Painting is unforgiving, instantly revealing levels ofintegrity, which can be veiled in other mediums.This Night Vision series picks up on all these things we have mentioned: the mysticism and mystique, ofTrinidad, of cinema, of photography, of childhood. Even the normal becomesquite mystical just through the night vision process in your photography.Yes, and within that there are mixed emotions. Thrilling, intriguing, yet potentially dangerous, but the fear element is potentially very closely linked with magic too. Both positive and negative.Do you feel that much of the work that you have been making since the Night Vision series stems from this mode of working and its particular mood?Possibly. The Night Vision work was uncomfortable because it ended up being quite personalon many levels, leaving me feeling more exposed than usual, without the reliefof humour or irony often present in earlier work. Perhaps, as a result, thework that followed was more detached, while also playing around with thatnocturnal vision. It was similarly voyeuristic, although thematically it hadmoved from childhood into adolescence. There was still the idea of the unknown,of exploration and discovery, but with a more sexual bent, still relativelyinnocent. Not explicit. It was about those first adolescent urges. But the workitself became very caught up in technical virtuosity.The palette you used for the Night Vision series was quite minimal.It was essentially tonal; colour was limited. While it was appropriate, the challenge of workingwith colour in a real way would have been too much to take on at the timeanyway. To work well with colour is incredibly difficult, it is a whole otherrealm that I am still grappling with. I attempted to work with colour in mylatest show, More Wood for the Fire (2009), begun inTrinidad, which influenced my palette. I tried to use it in quite a symbolicway, as colour is used in Trinidadian carnival culture, and appears in thelandscape as code. I don’t think that it was entirely successful. I think I’mquite far from getting anywhere with it really.It seems that regardless of the palette there is often this feeling of darkness in your work, and although darkness can be read in a bad way, it is also something to be explored and enjoyed.There is that thrilling aspect to darkness. Unknown possibilities that you can’t quite see, literally, but also that you can’t quite imagine either. I guess even withearlier work there is also this idea of fear, fear of the unknown, as in who ison the other side of the burglar bars. And I suppose there are definitelyparallels between my earlier, pre-London works and the paintings that cameafter I left South Africa. The Night Vision work alludes tofear, but more of an intriguing fear, in the same way one would be thrilled bya horror movie. There is definitely an element of enjoyment. It’s about allowing yourself to be takensomewhere emotionally, of experiencing heightened sensation, and abandonment.So it’s not a new element in your work, it’s always been there?I guess it has always been there, even in the paintings that I made in my final year at Michaelis in 1990 after my housemate was stabbed 15 times, at home. I still have a little portrait from this time, of me, home alone. I titled the work Waiting (1990). Even though I showed it again recently, I’ll never sell it. This painting’s darkness refers to a more sinister fear, thekind that eats the soul. I did a body of painterly works on this violent domestic act, and then subsequently went on to make work that was much more detached, about the domestic security industry, which touched on similar themes but in a totally different style. The student works were much more personal, in the same way that the Night Vision work is. For me, your work comes alive when you talk about ideas of darkness, the fear and celebration. I find that intriguing.The night is definitely my preferred time of day. Since I was a child, I found it much more enchanting.What came after Night Vision?After Night Vision I went on to make Base 1, 2, 3 (2007), which I referred to earlier, largely based on a group of photographswhich a friend gave me of drunk teenagers at their final year school party,snapped in the dark in pools of light much like infrared. As I mentioned, theywere quite technically uptight.Do you find them less successful than the Night Vision series?I relate to them differently, I’m less moved. They are quite engaging technically, and that wasthe overriding response to them: people were curious as to how the effect hadbeen created.Is that because you find it easier to work technically?Perhaps. Personally I feel an overcomplicated technical process distances me from the subject. In asense photography is like that for me: showing photographs is more comfortable,in a way, because there are all these technical layers between myself and thesubject, printmaking too. Although the denim works are paintings, the processwas essentially similar to intaglio printmaking, like a mezzotint for example.For me there is something very particular about painting that has nothing to dowith executing an image, or else you might as well be drawing it up in blocksor just painting by numbers, which is not what interests me ultimately. In asense it is a way of avoiding the difficulties presented by painting. It’sfrustrating struggling repeatedly with the same medium, within its limitations.That’s why I diversified from it before, and started pasting objects on thework, and eventually broke out of the rectangular format completely. I realisenow the infinite possibilities in what seemed then like very confinedlimitations.You have mentioned a few other artists that youhave been associated with in London, Trinidad and to a certain extent SouthAfrica. Can you talk a little bit about who they are and how their work hasinfluenced you, particularly regarding painting?Specifically in terms of painting, I had been looking at thework of Dubuffet and Guston at art school. Malcolm Payne was a huge influenceon me when he arrived at Michaelis to lecture in the third year of my BAFA in1998. It was before the internet and today’s access to global information, andhe introduced me to contemporary painting in London, Europe and America, withbooks such as A New Spirit in Painting (1981). He facilitateda challenging painting dialogue which inspired my decision to major in paintingeven though I was more accomplished at printmaking at that stage. Anotherinspiring influence around then was Michael Hattingh, a close friend andcontemporary who started showing with me at the Hänel Gallery in Germany, anally in a strange new world.In London and Trinidad, Johannes Phokela, Embah,Chris Ofili and particularly yourself and Peter Doig, provide engaging andinformative discussion, technical information and shared knowledge which hasproved to be invaluable. More recently, meeting, working alongside, and developinga stimulating dialogue with painters such as Silke Otto-Knapp, Tomma Abst,Varda Caivano, Caragh Thuringh and Tasha Amini, all of who’s work tackles theproblematics of painting in very different ways, has also played an importantpart in establishing a sense of context for me here in London. (1.35 MB)Godfried Donkor was born in Kumasi, Ghana and has lived in London since 1973. He studied art and art history at St MartinsCollege of Art (1989) and the School of Oriental and African Studies (1995). Hehas held several solo exhibitions since 1995 and appeared on numerous groupexhibitions, including SPace: Currencies in Contemporary African Art (2010), Venice Biennale (2001), Havana Biennial (2000) and DakarBiennale (1998).