Saturday, 23 October 2010

Sex, lies and illusions

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People do ask me what my work is really about, but sometimes they're better off not knowing. These paintings are about me, they're about people I know and mostly about the dark peculiarities of the human condition and sexuality. They're about the theatre of sex, the performances people put on and the lies behind the act.

People do remark that they're obviously painted by a woman, and I know that's true. Men painting these things are often as happy with the illusion as the viewer. Again I must clarify, this is not an anti male rant, in the private world of sex there's equal responsibility, the games are part of the fun and eroticism can be the antithesis of honesty.

It occurred to me while I was reading eroticism and art by Alyce Mahon that the position I find myself in has interesting echoes in art history. She recalls the paintings of Ingres (1780-1867) and his contemporaries who pandered to a fantasy ideal of a world in which women were sexually available and libidinous, and more importantly a world which wasn't readily checkable for factual accuracy. If they were portraying women in Wales, people would have just gone to have a look and returned deflated and disillusioned.

There was a recent resurgence in the popularity of orientalist art. The Tate hels an exhibition in 2008 "british orientalist painting" One of the featured paintings is by a female artist also working under a pseudonym. Henriette Browning's "harem interior" caused some consternation. Alyce Mahon mentions that in 1861 Olivier Merson complained that Browning's paintings showed "silent and bored women... chaste in the muslin of their long dresses" and that "these paintings somewhat disrupt our dreams of the orient"

Shame. The interesting thing is that in this description of the reaction to the disappointing reality that people are basically the same the world over I am reminded of my own experience and that now it's the west which has the capacity to disrupt dreams currently very active in the orient. The most casually offensive messages I get are from the middle east. This isn't because men there are fundamentally any different. It's just that they're believing the advertising of the western porn industry and lack the ability to come and check. There are more than enough men in this country who believe that women on the internet are from a strange and wonderful world where girls just desperately want to see badly taken mobile phone shots of  nondescript body parts. (I know I go on about that a lot- but I get many less photos in my inbox these days so I just thought I'd throw it out there again and repel a few more.)

My work focuses on these illusions. The large scale ones I've already mentioned. And the smaller ones. The reality of being alienated or connected  and the ways sexuality is used in honesty and in lies. My paintings are often lit as if they show a stage performance. Sometimes the subjects are confrontational and direct. Sometimes they're anonymous and turned away, but still aware of the viewer. Sometimes people are more honest in sex than in life, sometimes the opposite. Sometimes people will engage in levels of intimacy in the bedroom but will be unable to communicate with their clothes on. Sometimes women will put on the sexual performance of a lifetime and not see it as absurd that they can't ask their sex partner if they're in an exclusive relationship. Sometimes men are tender and sweet in the bedroom in a way you just wouldn't recognise if you saw them in a pub with their mates. It's a different world, a mystery. And the reality of it can be uncomfortable. The reason my work is "obviously done by a woman" is that I talk about these things with my friends and I'm always amazed by the illusions we weave.  A question I'm often asked by men is why women seem so much more sexually experimental at the start of a relationship and suddenly the more exciting and forbidden acts are birthday treats. That's a common thing to happen. It's part of the game for many people.

I'm fascinated by the dissonance which sex causes in the power balance of relationships. How far women will go to convince themselves their man is different to those others and doesn't look at girls while strangely feeling the need to check their every move by some fairly extreme cyberstalking.  It takes some effort to achieve something erotic within the constraints of modern life, insecurity and domestic normality.

But there's a double bluff in my work, it's deliberately staged, but there's an underlying truth. It actually depicts what women are when there's no men around at all. It's aware of the eventual viewer but it's not contrived to deceive. Some of my best paintings are of phoos taken in moments just before massive laughing fits. Because in my experience with every single one of my models is that girls left alone just don't take themselves all that seriously. And that's why my paintings look obviously done by a woman. Men just don't really know what that world is like because it changes when a (straight) man is present. It's a world as remote to the viewer as Ingres' turkish bath, but it does exist. It's a lot more real in essence than the art copied from pornography or glamour shoots by male photographers, that's for sure. It's just different, that's all. I'm a girl painting girls, because that's what I know and understand.

Ok maybe "understand" was taking it too far ;)

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