THREESOME – an exhibition of three women painters and 3X3 – an exhibition of nine women photographers curated by Anna McNay

Thu 11 Jan 2018 - Sat 03 Mar 2018
Featuring:

 

Courtesy Linda Mason www.eggandspoonfilms.com

 

Threesome 

A collaborative exhibition by three women painters, in association with critic and invited curator Anna McNay, exploring the female gaze.

Sadie Lee, Roxana Halls, Sarah Jane Moon

Sadie Lee, Roxana Halls and Sarah Jane Moon are figurative artists, each with a distinctive and unique style, whose queer identities inform much of their work. These painters engage with the theme of sexuality in singular and compelling ways and offer arresting interpretations of the ‘female gaze’.

For this show they will, for the first time, paint portraits of one another, alongside a new self-portrait. In addition to these three works by each artist, they will each paint a fourth work, a portrait of Ursula Martinez.

Differing notions of queer identity are explored here and this group invites aesthetic as well as ideological scrutiny. These gay women make bold, alluring, witty and deft works, which seek to foreground the idea of the female gaze and explore how they look at each other and themselves. The show’s title, ‘Threesome’, makes a coolly sardonic reference to the voyeuristic aspect of lesbian representation: any eroticism in these works is strictly intentional.

This exhibition follows on from the ground-breaking exhibition of Queer British Art held between April and October 2017 at Tate Britain. The cut-off date for inclusion in that show was 1967, this exhibition seeks to look at the female gaze now in 2017-18 and to address how these histories thrive in the contemporary art of today.

3×3

Emli Bendixen – Imogen Crew – Lisa Gornick – Liz Helman -Rachael House -Marta Kochanek – Bronac McNeill – The Naked Artist Suzie Pindar – Sarah Pucill

Running in tandem to ‘Threesome’, ‘3×3’ showcases photographic self-portraits by nine queer female artists, whose work, to varying degrees, and consciously or not, interrogates the notion of the female gaze and self-identity. By concentrating solely on their own image, the artists seek to untangle, distinguish, and, in some instances, deliberately re-confuse their own subjectivity and objecthood. This is further teased out through a series of nine questions, posed by critic and curator Anna McNay, and responded to by each artist in turn. These highlight the broad and varied spectrum of considerations at play when, in a world unavoidably influenced by the history of the patriarchal male heterosexual gaze, a woman who likes women turns her gaze upon a woman to produce an image.

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Threesome: In Conversation 

9 February 2018

Artists Roxana Halls, Sadie Lee and Sarah Jane Moon in conversation with critic and invited curator Anna McNay

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 Anna McNay: Let’s look back at how this project came about. You approached me with the idea fairly well conceived. How was it initially born?

Sarah Jane Moon: In a nutshell, a couple of years ago, I organised an exhibition of 12 women painters at the Menier Gallery called ‘12 @ Menier’, which Roxana was also involved with. I thought that as independent professional artists it would be really great to pool our resources to hire a space, rather than hiring one independently, which is quite pricy. I picked artists whose work I admired and we all got together and we really just exhibited whatever we wanted to, so it wasn’t curated in any sense, it was just about pooling our networks and coming together to organise a show. I came away from that thinking it was really great. I loved that we’d made space for women to take up space. I would have loved it more, however, if it were politically more in line with what I see my work as addressing, and I wanted it to be queer particularly.

I’ve always really liked Roxana’s and Sadie’s work and so I sent them an email and asked them if they’d like to do something together, not really knowing what it might be. Then we had a few meetings, where we came up with the idea of painting ourselves and each other, and also of working somehow with the idea of the female nude.

Sadie Lee: That happened quite quickly, didn’t it? I think it was the first time we met in the pub, actually, that we just kind of threw that one out there and it happened. Quite swiftly we came up with the general theme for the show. A one-pint decision.

SJM: We didn’t labour over it for a long time. I can’t remember who came up with it exactly but…

SL: I think we wanted it to be quite structured and not just have work that we’d made before or just sort of cobble things together. We wanted it to have a very clear identity, but also to make work in response to this theme. It’s all completely brand new work just for this show, which we all found quite exciting. We didn’t know what was going to happen. For a long time we were talking about this hypothetical show, hypothetical images, and it was much more about the concept. I mean, we literally didn’t see the work until the night of the private view. We were working that much in secrecy. We obviously sat for each other, but then we had a big reveal. We came down those stairs and saw it for the first time 10 minutes before everybody else did, which was quite shocking.

Roxana Halls: The question about the nude, and what it would mean to paint a nude, as a woman who identifies as a lesbian, was something I’d been mulling over and that we had a very good chat about too. We realised that none of us had painted that many nudes, actually, certainly women in states of undress. I’d painted male nudes before, but the question about the female nude was one that we were all puzzling over.

AMc: And that became a key part of the show, and it’s something we’ll come back to later for the wider discussion.

You’ve mentioned why the exhibition came about specifically in your life right now, Sarah Jane, but also there’s a particular moment for it in the current climate. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Wolfenden Report and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, and a lot was made of this in terms of exhibitions across the country. The report referred, however, to male homosexuality, and this certainly seemed to be at the centre of the majority of the shows. Was this part of what made it seem timely to step forward as three lesbian painters?

 

SJM: Yes, we really thought it was timely with Tate’s ‘Queer British Art’ show, and we had initially thought it would have been a bit earlier than it was, but these things always take longer to organise than you imagine. So we then had the idea that it would be a good follow-on from ‘Queer British Art’, which cut off at 1967 and, as such, had prioritised gay men and their painting, and so we wanted to have something that was very female and lesbian-centric.

AMc: You’re all very much figurative painters and you’ve all painted your friends, families, and people of varying sexualities before. How much of a factor would you say that sexuality plays in your work?

RH: I think in the way that it’s at the core of your being, it’s at the core of everything, but it may not necessarily mean it would be obvious. I think, with my models, I look more for people who are feminist over anything else. That’s really at the core of things for me. If I were looking for a criterion, I think that would be more important.

SJM: Our work is all quite different but there are these very strong similarities – there’s a sensibility there and a kind of a queerness for me. That is what I really liked about Sadie’s and Roxana’s work, and why I initially approached them was because they’re very out about who they are, and that does quite heavily influence their work, I think. That’s definitely important for me.

SL: Sexuality has always been very important in my work – my early work in particular. I started painting about 25 years ago, and I started out by making self-portraits – self-portraits of myself with lovers – and I worked in clubs so I documented the people that were coming to the clubs. It was just about people that were around me. And then I gradually moved into other areas, like older people and the representation of women in art. It was still about sexuality, but it was about the sexuality of the sitter, not necessarily in relation to me and my sexuality. But it’s always been there in the background. There’s always been some reference to it.

RH: I think the queerness and otherness is there, it’s as present in your work as it is in yourself, whether or not you are explicitly dealing with it as subject matter, it’s intrinsically part of you.

AMc: Was that a theme that you perhaps focused on more in this project than you have done in previous works, given the concept of the show, and given the sitters as well?

SJM: I think that that was something we were really aware of – the commonality of all being women, all being painters, and all being lesbians. We were definitely aware that it would be a show that would have various conversations around those themes. But thinking about my portraits particularly, they’re queer and they’re feminist and they’re lesbian, but I’m not sure how that comes across. I don’t think I heightened that specifically for the show. I was really just aiming to make a portrait of us all individually.

SL: I heightened it! I was all about the sex! Obviously we’re all painters, but the thing that I felt was really cool was that we all identify as lesbians and I really wanted that to be very, very clear in the work. I know and respect Sarah Jane and Roxana, but we’re professional colleagues, we don’t really hang out, so, for the images that I made of them, I projected quite a lot on to them. In a way, it’s about my sexuality and what I want them to be acting out for my sake. I very much directed them and decided how I wanted it to be, and then they played the part of themselves in that project, if you like. I was drawing on my own experiences in my own fields about my own sexuality and then just applying it to them. I don’t know whether it actually applies to them or not, but I wanted it to be really clear that that’s what it’s about.

RH: I’d say there was a lot of overlap with me also. This is the first time that I’ve really explicitly dealt with other people’s visual imagery of lesbians, representation of lesbians, and have used that as part of my work.

AMc: You’ve worked with theatrical stagings, narratives and mannequins before, but this time chose to examine the relationship between male film directors’ representations of lesbian characters and how this imagery is absorbed by audiences. Why was it important that the directors in this instance were male?

 

RH: Because it is so much more discomfiting, because of the strange disconnect that you have with the work, which is often beguiling, interesting, arousing sometimes, and yet often problematic. So many of the films that I’m drawing upon are films which have inspired me and which I greatly admire. I’m very influenced by film. I respond to film quite a lot in my work, although it’s not often explicit. But often I find that with the representation of lesbians there is a strange, disquieting sense that although the imagery can be really enticing, it often goes hand in hand with really problematic character trajectories. The narrative arc is often really difficult, and the same tropes come into play. We have suffered very similar fates over and over again, and we’re portrayed in very similar problematic ways. So it’s something about that discomfiting feeling that you have from that material. As much as you love it, often we meet dark ends, and I wanted somehow to deal with that material and deal with my own problematic feelings around it.

AMc: How did you select which films, and which characters, to give to each of you?

RH: I chose three characters for each of us, relating to the threesome theme. I wanted there to be some kind of distinct element within each of the paintings. There’s a lot of overlap with the kinds of narrative arcs that take place within these films. But I wanted to loosely put them into strands. So Sadie – lucky her – got the sexually depraved S&M characters. I got people who were involved in murder and who are mentally ill, which suits me, and Sarah Jane got some innocents. I was using us as material, you know, we are ourselves, we are physically ourselves. They’re not comments about us, we become part of them. In the imagery, in the positioning of our hands and our bodies, I rather wanted to suggest that we are somehow emulating them, but we are other. So there is this sense that we are both human and yet we are of them, and so we are either turning into mannequins or we are potentially mannequins. The use of mannequins was very deliberate. As objects, I use mannequins a lot in my work, they interest me greatly. I never reveal when I use them because I really like that sense that you don’t know what is real and what isn’t. This is the first time I’ve used them explicitly, and that was really important. Mannequins recur in male cinematic representation of lesbians. Sometimes it’s really obvious, like in Fassbinder, and then, in response to that, Peter Strickland, who made The Duke of Burgundy, which I had to give to you, Sadie, because I know it’s a particular favourite of yours. Petra von Kant is a really important film to me, it inspired me hugely, so I had to have that one. I don’t know which is your favourite, Sarah, so you got what you got and I hope you’re happy. But mannequins recur. Why? There’s been a lot of critical discussion around that, about how, by likening us to mannequins, it’s like saying we are somehow not quite yet to be, or somehow not quite fully alive. It’s no accident. To make the paintings I recreated those characters in my studio, using mannequins, and I recreated their costumes. So currently Petra von Kant and Countess Báthory are in my studio, they’re still there. I haven’t had the heart to disrobe them yet because I like their outfits.

AMc: Sarah Jane, you’ve put mannequins in your portrait of Roxana.

SJM: Exactly. We all sat for each other, and we all worked from photographs, so there was a photo session for each of the paintings. I knew that I was going to be in my pants in Sadie’s picture, but I had no idea whether she was going to do a close-up of my eye or what she was doing with those photos. But knowing that Sadie often works with people in a state of undress, and on a bed, this very intimate sort of space, and knowing that Roxana was going in a more theatrical direction, I knew we had this light on us and we were wearing a boob tube…

RH: That’s all you knew!

SJM: That’s all I knew. But knowing your work and your penchant for cabaret and theatrical motifs… My work is very much straight portraiture – well, not straight portraiture, but it’s quite blatant, I suppose. I wanted to really prioritise the fact that we’re all painters, so I wanted to set each portrait in the studio, and so the photos originally are taken in our respective studios. Obviously I’ve taken massive licence with the colours. There’s a part of me trying to get back to a more intuitive approach to colour and mark-making, as I feel my painting has recently become somewhat more controlled, and I wanted to loosen it up. So Roxana’s portrait is from her sitting in her studio. There’s a wonderful sofa and there are stretcher bars below her feet, and the mannequins, which I know she uses an awful lot in her work, were there in the background. The photo was taken the week that you thought you were going to have to leave the studio, and so there is a sort of heaviness to it perhaps. It was quite a frantic time.

RH: It was a desperate time.

SJM: I wanted the mannequins to reference something about Roxana’s work. Similarly, the paintings behind Sadie were in her studio space, the one on the left being a self-portrait, and the one in the middle being a work-in-progress. So I’ve taken licence, but it was very much about us all as painters and our having that agency. The things we’re holding, as well, point to that.

AMc: How much were you referencing the history of portraiture – specifically women’s self-portraiture – by putting the tools of the trade in each of your hands?

SJM: It happened quite accidentally. In my 20s, I thought I would be a curator and I was organising exhibitions and running galleries in Australia. I have an art theory background and when I’m painting I really try and forget that totally. So I just turned up, took the pictures quite intuitively, and then noticed that in Sadie’s she had the mahl stick and Roxana had the brushes. I thought that was quite nice, really, and so in mine, which is slightly more constructed, purely because of the pragmatic elements of making a self-portrait and having to photograph yourself, I had the palette knife. I wanted to redirect the gaze, so have the object, the objectified, the one who’s being looked at, return that gaze, while pointing to something that expressed agency and our collective ability to create and to picture and to author images.

AMc: Sadie, your subjects really seem to be objectified as well as subjectified. Is that a fair comment?

SL: Yes. I set them up. I think I should probably just explain that the one of Sarah Jane was the one that I did first of all. I went to Sarah Jane’s flat – this is her actual bed – and I said: ‘I want to do it at night, I want it to be really dark’, and I brought some little angle-poise lamps, very domestic, and put them very low down, so it’s an incredibly raking light, from underneath, which catches every single thing. It’s really, really harsh and not in any way flattering. I just said I wanted her to wear black underwear and invited Roxana to wear black underwear as well. Apart from that, I didn’t really tell them how I wanted them to be, so that was the only thing that they really got to choose. I wanted to base the paintings on Venuses and started out by thinking I’d do them on specific Venuses and call them things like Sarah Jane Moon after Botticelli. But then I thought there were so many similarities in the images of Venus that I was looking at – they all tended to have their arm raised, sometimes the other arm being across their bodies in a slightly protective way, but also exaggerating their curves, and generally they’d be looking away – so that became the continuing theme. I did the one of Sarah Jane first and I wanted the others to match, because I was aware that they were going to be a trio. The one of Sarah Jane set the template, if you like. I positioned myself quite low down, so not only is the light from underneath, but your vantage point is from underneath, so you’re not directly on top of her, you’re down somewhere between her legs. It’s the view that a lover would have – a very, very intimate view – and the words that I gave to Sarah Jane and Roxana were ‘sexy awkward’. That’s what I was going for and I wanted that intention of it being like the first time you’ve undressed in front of somebody.

When I came out to my mum, the first thing she said to me was: ‘You’re a lesbian, you know it’s a very lonely life’. I think people hear that a lot and it really stuck with me. And actually I have been quite lonely a lot of the time. When I first started going out to clubs and working clubs, I would be on my own in the corner, looking at people and, for the most part, fantasising about them, then going home on my own. That stuck with me and I now just look at people for a living. I’m a professional voyeur. But it’s that sense of looking at someone, and the thoughts that you have, and maybe the thoughts that they’ve got in their mind, and not necessarily having any kind of physical engagement, but just that whole longing and the distance between you and the connection between you… I wanted to get a sense of that into the paintings, so it’s a very, very intimate view, it’s not flattering. It’s as if from candlelight or a bedside lamp or something like that.

I’m really sick of women always looking at pictures of themselves and other women and saying: ‘Oh, it’s not very flattering’ and ‘Obviously you’re much more beautiful than that’. I hate the fact that we’re supposed to make it flattering. It’s a woman, therefore she’s attractive, so let’s make her as attractive as possible. That’s bollocks. I hate the fact that we have to be judged by the way that we look and the way that we present ourselves and whether it’s conventionally beautiful or not. It’s just so irritating. So I wasn’t interested in that at all. I was interested in the dark of the night, the whole drama of the situation, the sexual tension of the situation, the fantasy of whatever is going on in that person’s mind. That’s much, much more important to me than a flattering likeness of somebody.

AMc: What about your self-portrait?

SL: That’s a whole different kettle of fish. That one is specifically referencing an actual painting. The painting is probably not recognisable in it, but it’s Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus of 1510, which was one of the first reclining Venuses where she’s in a pastoral landscape. She’s lying in such a way, again with her arm behind her head, and her hand is supposedly covering her genitals for modesty, but actually she’s cupping her fingers in such a way that it really looks like she’s pleasuring herself. Maybe that’s just me! Originally I tried to recreate that with my hand down the front of my pants but then I thought it was much too full on, much too bawdy and funny. It just looked comical. So, I thought: ‘I wonder what would happen if I turned my back and the view of it was still clearly doing that?’ And it became much more disturbing for people because you know what’s going on but I’m not doing it for the viewer. It’s not for you. I’ve got autonomy in what I’m doing. It’s actually about the act and turning my back on you. But I still know that you’re there. So I’m performing, but for some reason not doing it in view, which makes it much more private and threatening for people. And I really wanted it to look frumpy and boring, with the little label of the bra sticking out. It’s so not glam, it’s not Agent Provocateur underwear, it is what it is. And, again, I haven’t flattered myself. I look quite porcine in it. I’ve really exaggerated all the creases on my back and my dimpled arse. It’s just about the mundane boringness of that.

AMc: The three of you have also all painted a nude portrait of the performance artist and cabaret diva Ursula Martinez, who is here in the audience somewhere. Do you want to come and join us up here? Thank you. Thanks for joining us and thanks for being part of the project as well. I want to know how it was for the three of you to be painting a nude in this context, but also it would be interesting to hear from Ursula about how it was being painted as well. The paintings obviously belong to your respective series, but they’re distinct as well. Was there anything in particular that you were trying, any of you, to catch in your nude painting, that perhaps was something that wasn’t so present for you in your other paintings?

RH: Mine was something really specific. Many years ago, I saw a photograph, an advertisement for one of Ursula’s performances, and found it incredibly striking, and it really stayed with me. I wasn’t sure, when we met, whether or not you [Ursula] would be okay for me to use it, and we had a long discussion about it, because I was really concerned that it was another artist’s work and that it would be cannibalising her work if I referred to it. But you said no, the set up was your idea, so it was okay to go with that. I had a backup plan just in case is wasn’t okay, but I really wanted to refer to that image because it had stayed with me and I found it a really potent image of agency and self-possession and a hotness. I thought it was fabulous, and so I thought it would be wonderful to paint a version of that, that was my own, using this new technique that I had developed. I’d never painted like this before, using all this neon malarkey, and I thought it would be really interesting to paint Ursula using the same palette as it was so powerful. But I thought it would be really interesting not to look at the original image before painting the picture, but just to refer to my memory of it. And, when we had our discussion, my memory of the photograph was that you were showing your sex, but you said that you weren’t in the actual photo but that your original intention for the image had been to show it.

UM: In the actual photo that was taken, I did show it, but then I decided that for the publicity shot for the show that I’d made the photo for it felt too much, so we photoshopped the curtains into cardboard theatre cut-out in the photo. But it’s interesting – and it makes sense – that in your memory it wasn’t there.

RH: Maybe I was channelling your original intention! But I thought actually there’s something really interesting about that. That this is an image I’m basing my painting on, an image that I saw many years ago, but now, at this point, your original intention is there, and mine also. I didn’t tell you, but later, once I was painting the picture, it suddenly occurred to me that that photo inspired me to paint another painting some years ago, that was in a show I did for the National Theatre, of a woman who has enormous underskirts with puppets. Her skirts are a theatre, and the small cut-out theatre that you had, that you held in that painting, is one that I used in my other painting.

Mainly I wanted to refer to Ursula in the only sense in which I know her – as a performer. You are such a powerful performer and I didn’t want to shoehorn you into some other image of my own, some other image of my devising. I wanted to refer to the image of you that you choose to project.

SJM: I suppose I was trying to go for something confident and self-assured and powerful. Unfortunately I hadn’t heard of you before the project – I’m not from this country, so that’s my defence! It’s obviously my loss and I’ve missed out on a huge amount. I was heading off to New Zealand to visit my family and it was all quite hurried. I mean, the painting of all the portraits, for all of us, was quite intense, and over a pretty short period of time. I remember I went round to your flat, took these photos, and then I had this time away, so it was quite a quick undertaking for me, less time than I would usually have. Partially because of that, and partially because I really wanted you as a figure, on the canvas, to make a bold impact, there’s no background detail. And I didn’t feel that I knew you well enough. I tried to do a bit of research and came along to your very wonderful Wild Bore show at Soho Theatre, which I loved. But, other than that, I didn’t have the same knowledge that Roxana and Sadie had of your history of performance. So I really wanted it to be about that encounter that day when I first met you and we took the photos.

UM: Yes, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah Jane.’ ‘Hi, I’m Ursula.’ Okay, and then five minutes later I’ve got my clothes off!

SJM: I think there was coffee involved as well! But my overwhelming impression from that encounter was how confident you were in your physicality, and I wanted that to come across, and I was very admiring of that, and you seemed pretty self-assured. So that’s what I was going for really.

UM: Presumably that was part of the choice in choosing me as a subject – because I am self-assured and comfortable with nudity and with my body?

SJM: I think so, definitely…

AMc: Had you posed nude for artists before?

UM: I used to do a bit of life modelling as a student just to earn some money. But, you know, nudity is very present in my stage works. It’s not obligatory, but it tends to be very present.

SL: I’m a fan, I’m a massive fan. I was so excited it was you. I think you’re the perfect person for us to respond to. I really admire you so much. I’d seen you going back a long way…

UM: 20 years…

SL: Yes, I think the first time I remember being aware of you was when you were appearing at Pride. I saw you, you were quite a long way away, but you were on stage and you were dressed in this Spanish outfit with a big round hat and you were playing, what I now know is a classical guitar, but in my mind it was a ukulele, and you were singing Guantanamera, which is a Cuban song, but you had changed the words to ‘wank on a mirror’. I just remembered that and so, when you were nude, I had that in my mind. I guess it’s quite literal. Roxana said earlier about how she was looking at male directors, who made films with lesbian plots, and I completely agree, because I’ve long been subverting images made by men, which feature lesbian couplings, for which I know I was not the target audience. But, when I was growing up, that’s all there was, so, you know, I had postcards by Helmut Newton on my wall. Anything. I was hoovering up Vita and Violet on the telly, straight actresses kissing, I find that quite thrilling, because I couldn’t find myself represented in things that were made by people like me. So I would take things…

UM: Take whatever you can get?

SL: You do. Well, I did. I find things that were not made for me and find myself within them and change them and put myself there.

RH: Isn’t that rather what we do? We repurpose what is available to us.

SL: Absolutely.

RH: Whatever the material may be.

SL: Completely.

RH: And it’s cinematic and televisual images that we are most exposed to, that are most readily available, that are more immediate. And we mainline these, much more readily than necessarily painted images.

SL: Completely, and I did that with the reference images that I used for the portrait of Ursula. I looked at The Origin of the World, which, if you look at the image just in the reflection of the mirror, if it were just that, it has a similarity. But obviously the main composition is based on Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, and it didn’t slip my mind, the sense of irony, that that was also the image that was hacked to bits by one of the suffragettes, who entered the National Gallery with a meat cleaver and attacked it. I quite liked that. It’s been subverted so many times, it’s almost a cliché, but I thought that by taking it, and reframing it, and Ursula recreating it, it’s not appropriation, it’s not that I’ve just taken it and re-presented it without changing it in any way. We recreated it and I wanted to know what it felt like to be the artist in that room with that person, that close, in that position, but with the sense of empathy. It was also a collaboration, it was referencing what Ursula does in her work. And I have to say what athletic prowess you have, actually getting into that position, and holding that really heavy mirror in that position so that I could see the reflection. You actually couldn’t see what was reflected in the mirror yourself. It was for me, and that’s why it’s called the Venus Effect. It was killing your wrist, wasn’t it, but you persevered… So I’ve taken those images and we’ve rephrased them, if you like, and re-presented them with a feminist twist.

AMc: You’ve touched on something else I wanted to ask about, which is how different is it when the person looking, as the artist or as the audience, but in this case the artist, is a woman looking at a woman? You said about the suffragette slashing the painting because of its representing the male gaze, but this is the female gaze, and even the queer female gaze. How different do you think this is? How much of a difference does the gender of the artist make?

SJM: I think it makes a huge difference. You mentioned empathy just now, and I think the female gaze is more than just in opposition to the male gaze. It is different, it’s not just objectifying men, not that we would anyway necessarily, but it embodies some kind of empathy with the other, whether that is your sitter, or, if it’s in a film or literature, with your protagonists.

RH: I’ve been really puzzling over this one. I think there is an inherent difference but I can’t put my finger on it, and I always think that to try to find an answer to this question could slightly do us a disservice in a way. There are so many multitudes of reflections of what the female gaze may be. It isn’t the male gaze, I know that. But all of these different reflections, they come together, and sometimes they reflect one another, but they reflect so many different perspectives. Something is very different in it, but I can’t put my finger on what that is. It’s very difficult. I mean, it’s partly what these paintings are about. It’s so hard to tease out the part that is yours. But actually what you’re doing is you’re performing a kind of alchemy using the materials that are available to you. How do you tease out what is the truth? It’s like the peeling of the onion to find your core self. All of these things that I find really problematic. It is different. I think empathy is involved, and kinship, togetherness, truth, I’d like to think. But to try to quantify it simply, I can’t do it. There are so many multitudes of reflections.

AMc: And do you think it’s complicated further by the fact that you are three women who like women? I mean, you’re looking at women in a potentially different way than a straight woman might…

RH: Yes, and do we want to ask ourselves: ‘Are we looking like men?’ I don’t even want to ask that question. I’m not, and so I’m not. We’re so steeped in existing material. What is ours? I know that we remake what we find and hopefully find something true in there and hopefully the fact that we love and respect women, that we adore women, is there in the work that we make. This respect is really crucial. The kinship is really crucial. But if I try to put my finger on what makes that different, I don’t think I want to try to find an easy answer to that.

AMc: It would be too facile?

RH: I think, maybe, yes.

AMc: Ursula, for you, as the person being looked at, did it made a difference that they were women artists?

UM: Look, if three straight white men had come to me and said: ‘We want to do a project and we want to paint you naked’, I would have absolutely said ‘no’, because I wouldn’t have understood the intention, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me. I can’t speak about the end product. Is the end product more a product from a female artist? I don’t know. But, from my point of view, yes, I wouldn’t have been interested, I wouldn’t have trusted it somehow, I wouldn’t have trusted the intention, I wouldn’t have understood why they were doing it, or why they’d chosen me. They would have had to have presented a very, very good argument.

AMc: Do you feel that that trust that you placed in them was borne out? Are you happy with the results? Are you happy that you chose to do it?

UM: Absolutely, yes. What’s not to be happy about? Definitely.

AMc: One of the things that was written in the original brief about the project was that any eroticism is deliberate. Did you seek to make your portraits – your portraits of each other, but also of Ursula – erotic in some way? Was there an erotic element that you were trying to pull out?

RH: There was in mine, absolutely, yes. You come across as being incredibly self-possessed and attractive. Why shouldn’t you be that? In your performances, you have enormous sexual power, and I wanted to try and get some of that to come across. I’d like to think some of it does. I’ve had good reports!

SJM: I think likewise I’ve emphasised the things that I appreciate in women and the things I find attractive – that confidence and self-assurance – and I’ve emphasised some of your muscular tone. To me, all of that’s quite sexy.

SL: Well, obviously Ursula uses her body in her art a lot. She puts herself in a position that could be vulnerable, but she’s in control, and it’s really interesting the way that she uses the audience and maintains control of the situation and it really provokes a lot of thought, it’s very challenging, really brave, and I just think it’s actually brilliant. But in handing over your body to someone else to do what they want with, that was really amazing that you did that, although I see it as being a collaborative piece, and we discussed it beforehand – which was excruciating. I had to explain what I wanted you to do and you said: ‘Oh, right, so you want me to look at my vagina in a mirror, that’s what you’re going paint?’ You thought about it and you said ‘okay’, but you were handing control over to me, so it was slightly different from what you do within your work.

UM: Yes, and that’s where it comes back to the trust thing. And I don’t think I would have been able to do it in the same way in the hands of a straight man. I just wouldn’t have had that level of trust.

AMc: You said earlier that some of you had painted nudes before but had felt a little uncomfortable about it. Do you feel differently now having been through this? What were some of the key feelings and thoughts that arose for you during the process?

RH: Before, I almost felt like I don’t wish to paint them unless I have a very good reason for doing it. It’s not something that I could just do because I feel like it. There had to be a clear rationale for it.

UM: I’ve not always had a very clear reason for taking my clothes off…

RH: No, but if you’re painting yourself, which I have also done, then that is different. You don’t need necessarily to indicate what your rationale is. You have it, and it’s your body, and you may use it as you wish. You don’t have to justify anything. In a sense, maybe, I don’t have to. Everything in history says this is a male domain, so just the fact of doing it yourself, maybe that’s enough. But I did feel, and this is part of what our conversation came out of, we all felt, we want to know why we’re doing this. In a way, we were waiting to have a discussion around it, and for other people to be party to that discussion, for something to grow out of that. It is odd actually. I have since then been thinking about doing more nudes, yes. I know the question of licence – the licence that you give yourself, the permission that you give yourself – is something which comes up again and again for me and I wrestle with that and encourage other people to wrestle with that. Students and so on. And I feel I give myself licence now, if I wish to do it. Maybe I posed the question and I don’t need to answer it again. I can just do it.

SL: The subject of the female nude is something you get throughout art history. Generally a nude is just a faceless, nameless, series of shapes that just is a nude woman that people can look at and enjoy and consume. I teach life drawing at the Wallace Collection and we’re just responding to the figure and getting her to move and looking at the light on her body. I think that what we were doing here was very much a portrait of someone who has a sense of their own identity and an autonomy, and that’s very different from just some decorative female shape that’s there just to be adored and exploited and appreciated for her idealised form. I think what we’ve done is a much more politically charged exercise. It’s a known person who’s in it with us on an equal billing.

RH: And the collaborative element is really key to it. We’re not just posing someone like a doll, like a mannequin, they are part of the process. That’s a crucial element.

AMc: I think this might be a good moment to open proceedings out to questions from the audience, if anyone has any…

Audience member 1: The initial discussion you had when you came up with the idea of painting each other and painting yourselves, you glossed over that quite quickly, but it seems quite central. How did you reach the decision to paint these paintings?

SL: I think Sarah Jane had decided that we should have the show, and we all thought that was a really good idea, and then we thought we need it to be something that’s really structured, so we threw a few ideas out and… I can’t remember whose idea it was…

RH: I can’t remember who said what…

SL: …but we thought maybe if we all did this, and we all did that, and then we all did this, it might actually be a really interesting concept. So we just bashed a few ideas out and eventually, through conversation, we thought, well okay, a self-portrait, a portrait of the other two, and then a portrait of somebody else is probably a nice concise idea.

RH: And then immediately on the back of that we had the conversation around the nude and how you deal with a female nude and our discomfort around that, our questioning around that. It was all part of the same conversation and it did happen very quickly.

SL: It just seemed quite neat, you know, like a nice idea for a show, and we all, when we were discussing it, got quite excited and thought: ‘Wow, actually, yeah, I can imagine it and I really want to see that now’.

RH: It’s a nice structured way to emphasise the difference between us as artists. We’re representational artists, we’re lesbians, but beyond that we are quite different.

SJM: I think it was also about making a space to investigate the female gaze. Part of the problem with defining the female gaze is that there just hasn’t been enough female representation generally, or lesbian representation specifically. Culture is saturated with male voices and male paintbrushes, images by men, that reference the world from a male standpoint. We all just really wanted to open up space to see what might happen. We didn’t know what the work would be. We didn’t know who we were painting. We didn’t know what was going to happen really, but we wanted exactly this event to happen. We wanted to make the work and then have it be discussed by other people, open it up. There’s going to be an event with some writers as well, further on, and to have the work be an impetus for these sorts of discussions, and for other work to respond to in return, was crucial to the main idea. It seemed like a nice concept, a nice number of paintings. There was enough to get to grips with – self-representation, the representation of the other, and the nude.

I had been struggling with the idea of painting a nude. As Sadie just said, we all teach, and I teach at Heatherley’s in Chelsea, and we do still life, landscape, portraiture and the nude. It’s quite traditional. And, through my teaching, I’m seeking ways to disrupt that and to do it differently and to do it with a feminist contemporary ethos. I’m not sure you can in that setting, where it’s an academic exercise, and that bothers me, and, in my own work, I’d wanted to paint the female nude and, as a lesbian, I thought: ‘This is ridiculous. I love women. I should feel celebratory about that fact.’ And yet it was complicated because of its history. The picture on the easel behind me in my self-portrait is an example of my attempting to paint a female nude, where I took a number of pictures and, in the end, the one topless with the jeans on was more powerful or interesting for me, and more queer, more ambiguous. It’s not clear whether she’s undressing or getting dressed, and there was something I liked about that, and something with agency.

Audience member 2:  You said earlier on it was really stressful and intense from the moment when you were given this project until the moment you finished. How long did you actually have to do it?

RH: Not nearly long enough! It was partly our schedules. We had so many other projects. I’d just had a solo show and we are all just endlessly busy. It actually, in a way, ended up becoming part of the project. We were bolstering each other up in our studios. We knew that we were all going through the same thing. We were painting them at the same time, for the same length of time, and there’s something rather lovely about that also. I mean, had one of us finished, you know, that would have been terrible, really awful. There’s something really lovely about the fact that we made these works with the same intention and we made them together in a sense. There were lots of emails…

SL: …sent at four o’clock in the morning…

RH: It was rather lovely, actually.

SJM: I started in about October. I think we all started around then, and there was a lovely solidarity and camaraderie. Painting is a very solitary pursuit and you’re there in your studio for hours on end. Knowing that other people were creating these images of us, that we didn’t know about, was kind of exciting. And obviously the show was scheduled and I definitely work well to a deadline. It was a really productive impulse for me.

AMc: Any other questions? No? I was going to ask why it was that you decided not to reveal anything to one another until the final moment.

SL: We’re weird like that, aren’t we?

SJM: I’ve got a habit of showing things part way through though and I don’t know if it was you who came up with the idea of not doing this…?

SL: Probably.

RH: I can’t bear people seeing things before they’re finished. I’m very secretive.

AMc: You didn’t feel at any point that you wanted to ask the others which film characters they might like in their pictures?

RH: No, because it was nothing really to do with them! And I do like the element of surprise.

AMc: And how did it feel when you all came in and saw yourselves?

RH: It was exciting, it was really exciting, and shocking. And it also rather foolishly was 10 minutes before everybody else came in for the private view, so we didn’t have very long to process it. I was really excited to do it like that and, I suppose, if we’d shown each other the work in progress, we would have felt then that we were in dialogue with that person, and we might have felt obliged to change something or to gauge their response to it, and so it actually just meant that we did what we were going to do and that was it.

SL: We gave each other the freedom to use each other as material. We trusted one another and that was really crucial. There was no ego, no flattery, nothing. We placed no expectations on each other at all. We let each other do whatever we needed to do. I think part of the pleasure of it was the thrill of the reveal, actually.

SJM: It was wonderful painting other painters, because there was such a trust. I do commissions for various people, portraits and things, and I wasn’t nervous to the same extent that I usually am about revealing a picture to somebody.

RH: We’re not going to make the standard issue comments…

SJM: But I thought you’d be looking at the technical aspects and various other things and you have an appreciation anyway and a knowledge of that process of what it is to struggle with and grapple with a painting and create something.

RH: We’re going be looking very differently.

SL: I have real trouble with people seeing my work initially from reproduction, so if there’s the opportunity to see them in the flesh, then I’d much prefer that anyway.

SJM: I was just so pleased and proud of us all – proud that we had done it in the timeframe and proud of what we’d produced.

 

From the Brush the Pen 

Thursday 22nd February, 7pm

Threesome (The Writers).

Three writers – Julia Bell, Laura Bridgeman and Sogol Sur – explored the page and the Queer female gaze and read an especially commissioned piece to accompany the exhibition. Each writer used words to explore one of the artists’ portraits, a self portrait, and a snapshot of themselves in their work.

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Laura Bridgeman

Modern English

it’s a cave it’s a chasm it’s an eye

it’s a coil of pulp it’s a fold of skin

it’s a flush of flesh

it’s a multi-layering of meat

 

of hair

of blood

of adipose tissue

 

it’s a region of glands

it’s a hood

it’s a cleft

it’s a concentration of carnality

 

it’s an inside

it’s an inside made outside

it’s an eruption from the lower body

it’s a release of rock from the earth

or a release of earth from rock

 

it’s the fury of larva

tectonic plates

ash plumes

pumice

rings of fire

magma chambers

 

it’s plate boundaries

it’s the volcanoes across the globe

Mount Vesuvias

St Helens

it’s Krakatoa

Mount Tambora and Nevado del Ruiz

 

 

it’s the swell of cliff

it’s the clutch of weed

it’s the gull’s nest the raven’s nest the magpie’s nest

it’s the dragon’s lair

it’s the moss and the lichen and the algae

 

it has a pink entrance and a red exit

it weeps on your leaving

it sings on your entering

it bleeds from time to time

 

it commands you to come closer

and it traps you

with fullness and form

 

it draws you up

it draws you arrested

it draws you inside

it sucks you in like a vacuum cleaner

it scoops you up through front door of the building

to the sideboard of the kitchen

the fan oven

the counter sticking

with honey fingers and marmalade knuckles

and spicy tips

and ginger rubs

and mottled cloves

 

and

 

outside

it’s the garage door booming bright after the summer’s strength

 

it’s the trap door

in the centre of the floor by the staircase

where all the family secrets are stuffed

all the journals

the jotters

the photo albums

the clothes from yesteryear

 

the straw hats

the flat caps

the raincoats and the broken trainers

the faraway toys that were long since forgotten

 

it’s the sucked ears of teddy bears

the broken bits of dolls

the rubbed paws of stuffed rabbits

the board games and the books

the Wild Things

the Silent Hills

the Snakes and Ladders

the Wendy Houses

with the pots and the pans and the multi-coloured home-made flags and bunting

 

who has gone there?

conquered there?

who has attempted to colonise?

me

you

many of us

 

foolish

haphazard

brave beyond belief

you cannot govern it

it defies you

enslaves you

war beats you

leaves you stinging against the nettles in the field

and the barbed wire fence

 

it leaves you bloated

with its bulbous abilities

 

 

it cannot be taken

or tamed

it falls still in the rosy harvest of its own oneness

 

still in its sour-sweet cherry blossom

still in its Oriental recipe of

Szechwan shrimp

snow peas

egg drop soup

satay

katsu

teriyaki

 

 

sip sip sip

 

on the lips of it

the run of it

the nub of it

the lengths of it

the punctuations of it

 

the full stops

and the commas and the semi-colons

the new paragraphs

and the thumbed pages

 

the rolled up canvases

the cracks of it

the inner labia

the outer labia

 

the mons pudentis and the mons

the buttocks underneath

 

the sloop

the curve

the crevice

 

and all those surgeons

that want to snip at it

cut at it

tuck at it

against the 2cms

the 3cms

the 4cms

the 5cms

 

so that there are no hanging bits

lopsided bits

flaps and hoops and unsightly lines

things that might drip and leak

 

and if you dare

should you dare

to touch it there

press it there

turn it there

see how it makes noises at you?

 

gurgles

splutters

 

and all those others that it might have been party to it

the punters that have passed through

in rushes like torpedoes

in rushes like Concordes

with Olympus jets made of aluminum

 

 

 

and all the boats that sailed in there

loitering in the harbour

swimmers who have found caskets rich

divers who have harvested oysters

razors and mussels and clams

 

mermaids

have lost their way

the sailors that can’t quite find the shores

and sometimes how angry it gets

 

snapping down

snapping off

snaffling you away

 

then it informs you on nervous days

that it has had others that have gone higher

longer

faster

than you

but you still lock into the taste of it

like the tang of

a dank river

ripe tadpoles

fresh marmite

fish

 

and it feels like every season

of the smooth innards of avocado

peaches

figs

 

it feels like snails and snakes

and toffee that has been boiled too long

 

 

 

and you can put your fingers in it

your tongue in it

your teeth in it

your toes in it

your fist in it

your flesh in it

 

 

your silicone dicks

your silicone probes

your ticklers and your scrotums

your real dicks and your long dicks and your fat cocks

 

and you can listen to the musical parts

symphonies

moonlight sonatas

requiems from Verdi

Faure without violins

Mozart in D minor

 

and dreams may issue from it

painted with the swell of stars

impossible to govern

stratospheres of light

impossible to follow

hemispheres of planets

all twirling on it

 

Jupiter Venus Earth Mars Neptune Saturn

 

with nightmares from those planets

Fuesli night terrors

with the golem on the top

and the horse’s

head screaming through the curtain

 

 

 

it has sleep cycles bended

it has branches of woodland

 

oak structures

maple barks

keen fresh ridges of pines

the forests and jungles

 

thick swinging ropes

 

creepers and animal nails

animal bones

skin and flesh

head hair

arm hair

leg hair

shin hair

 

it has filaments and calibrates and textiles

botony

bristles

and crinous

and metal

all tumbled together

 

and the smells emitting from it

are pungent odours

like damp flowers

sweet morning

musk

liquor covering in ice cubes

liquor covering autumn nut kernels

cherry wine

harvest wine

pulpit wine

new beginnings

 

 

and it makes you think of hope

and it makes you think of starting over

going back

right back

to the ancient place

it makes you think of the time that you began on the inside

tiny tiny

small

on the inside

growing on the inside

deep on the inside

 

and who had the first one?

who had the one that started it all off?

 

it feels like we are always looking for her

seeing her

asking to be back with her

between the legs of her

and the lips of her

 

the first female that ever was

 

and the first one that ever was

taken

teased

played with

hurt and pinched and slapped

argued over

 

and the first one that was ever grown and made hairy

winking at the outside with its orifice

and was asking to be

pulled back

sucked up

skimmed over

fucked up

widthways

sideways

anyways

 

savaged into

 

and clung onto

 

and now to

the names of it

and the calling of it

from across history

 

Botany Bay

Chum

Coffee-Shop

Cookie

The End of the Sentimental Journey

Fancy Bit

Fumbler’s Hall

Funniment

Heaven

Hell

A Nasty Name for a Nasty Thing

Itching Jenny

Jelly-Bag

Low Countries

Nature’s Tufted Treasure

Parenthesis

Penwiper

Prick-Skinner

Seminary

Tickle-Toby

Undeniable

Wonderful Lamp

 

 

a bottom

an arse

a Cave of Love

 

in nautical terms

the splice and the rope

and the line and the knot

 

in slang

the bankers

the evil men

the greedy men

the worst kind of woman that ever lived

the snaffling multi-nationals

all the male writers writing it

 

Lawrence

Joyce

Beckett

 

it’s sacred and profane

it’s a self-cleaning oven

it’s a Hindu Goddess still worshipped

 

all the female writers writing it

Faithful

Ensler

Dworkin

Greer

 

and all the mouths of

politicians

the drunks

the wobbly-eyed

the cross-eyed

 

 

 

 

it exists in every tongue

as

 

 

Kunda.

Con.

Kut.

Vittu.

Fotze.

Figa.

Cunnus.

Puki.

Fitte.

Pizda.

Conas.

Chocha.

Am.

 

And in Middle English

as a wedge-shape or

a Kunnard

a Vulva

a Grope

a Kutta

a Kotze

a Gunne

 

and in Modern English

quite simply

and lovingly

a cunt

 

Sogol Sur

Hologram

 

I am in my blackest mood, and she

lies on the whiteness of my sheets in her

blackest bra, staring at the air I am supposed

to breathe, except that I cannot breathe.

 

Her black jeans are as tight as my lungs

I have coughed and fought all my sable life

My visions of her have become holographic bars behind which

I am trapped.

 

Like every melancholic captive, I love my dungeon

Like every claustrophobic patient, I loathe it

at times, I crave escape, but when she turns her pensive

head towards me, the darkness of her eyes hit mine, I

 

collapse to my knees, pulverised under her silver thunder.

Upon being touched by her flame fingers, and her tongues of fire,

I explode. She celebrates my combustion by collecting my ashes

from her cool ceramic floor, warming them in her powerful grip

 

before sniffing me away. Later on, in a sunny concert hall,

she will lie to her envious friends, saying it was just cocaine.

I know I am her drug and it’s what I have wanted to become

since I was a child.

 

Sogol Sur

The Leather Sun

 

It is five a.m. and there is a woman growing

inside my head. Not like a tumor –

but a flower that feeds on power

she makes me tremble

 

Words devour me. I open my mouth,

thirsty for more, this is a sweet-tasting storm

I know someday this bed of hers

will be my comfortable tomb

 

For now, this monstrous bed is a gilded ship,

a surreptitious ship, my shelter,

I stare into her eyes until they are the sun and

I melt, melt, melt. It is true:

 

I am like Icarus in my ridiculous ambition and lack of abstinence

in my love of flight, height, and light,

but she calls me Napoleon, and

laughs in my ears

 

her leather scent fills my throbbing nostrils like cocaine,

she kisses my neck and worships my shamelessness, she says

I am arrogant and licks my lips. Outside, the sun,

a blood red orange, waiting to be peeled by us.

 

Sogol Sur

Two Is Lonely, Three Is Company

 

As my two boys kiss each other, their petal lips

expand into a wine ocean

in which I sink

 

I am sober with desire

soaking wet with thrill

Scarlet rose buds are erupting in our ceremony

 

Now that my natural dream has become my unnatural reality

I am not ashamed of it

Their twenty-year-old tongues dance on soft flesh

 

My breath wrapping around my neck

I gasp for air as I caress the hard trees outside my reality

Their necks entangle

 

A velvet lake I swim in

Eternity is naked

And the three of us are inside it

 

 

 

Julia Bell

 

Threesome

 

It’s a strange feeling, watching yourself being watched,

when she’s not even looking at you.

I mean, you took your clothes off,

but she’s over there, hiding behind her canvas,

typical first date nerves, can’t even meet your eye

while she assesses your curves, fixes you into position.

 

You have the sensation of someone scratching you into being,

You have submitted to adaptation, becoming made with thick

jabs of the brush, every forensic part of you, stroked.

Here’s a thigh, here the breast bone. Here, your vagina.

 

You shift your position, your flesh cold and sagging,

sitting becomes an imposition that you forgot you asked for.

Perhaps some conversation? but language dies in your throat,

the heater makes the dust scratchy, you sneeze. You wonder how much longer.

 

Finally, she turns the easel, and something moves,

in the smooth slick of pigment and way the paint

covers the cellulite of canvas, and the light and line of skin,

and you are alive in a way your cool bones are not.

And into the space between you, emerges a new, third person,

who is both you and not you. A projection, a transmission, art.

 

 

Not Another Dead Lesbian Movie

 

Let this be my confession. I too, have killed lesbians in my stories.

Forgive me, I was too much of a realist.

I thought I understood the chambers of the heart,

that happy ever after never belonged in queer art.

 

I thought it was a plot necessity, an inevitability.

I mean what do you do with the story when you’ve finally got them off?

Now I know I lacked imagination so let me bring them back,

breathe life into their bones. Apologise to those that I have murdered,

to other people’s ghosts, sitting on my shoulders, whispering untruths.

Your mother telling you you’re weird, or your father’s porn magazines.

 

Let me make them fleshy, lucky, give them back their sheen.

Allow them multitudes, personalities, opportunities, sexualities.

So much more exhilarating than tragedies, so much more obscene.

And here’s the edge. If we’re alive not dead we’re different and we’re dangerous.

We’re here.

 

 

Hunger Pains

 

I think it must be the worst word in the English language: me.

Like that bad joke about the narcissist,

especially the bit where they turn around

and say enough about me. Let me tell you about me.

& while you are still talking I wonder if the damp ring

where you put your cup will leave a stain.

As a test, I told you I had cancer twice.

That’s nice, you said and carried on.

 

In your mouth the self is weaponised: Mee.

Like the mewling of a kitten,

a kitten that I imagine you want to stab with your stiletto.

There are parties so bored and decadent where people do this.

It gives them a thrill to kill with their heels.

When I read that, it gave me a funny, tingling feeling,

like someone had taken a razor blade and scratched between my thighs,

in a bedroom with pink soft toys piled high against the doors.

 

Maybe it was because I liked to hide in the gaps of your attention.

Maybe I liked to feel abhorred.

Maybe I wanted to crawl on my knees through beige kitchens,

still starving, having forgotten what I’d gone in there for.

 

 

 

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