Strange What Love Does: Lisa Brice’s “Boundary Girl”

Lisa Brice, Between This And That, 2017 (Courtesy the artist and Salon 94)

“So strange, what love does
When your all alone
Strange, what flies with ghosts of love”
David Lynch “Ghost of Love”

Blue and red make the hottest of color combinations. Oppositional yet no less alluring, the passion of these contrasting colors is perhaps best exemplified by the opening scene of Jean-Luc Godard’s chaotic domestic classic Le Mépris. Laying in bed with her husband Paul, Brigitte Bardot’s Camille questions him on how much he loves her body, while bathed in a red glow. Working her way up her anatomy (“You like my ankles?…And my knees too?”), the color suddenly turns realistic. The camera lingers on Bardot’s peerless  sex kitten beauty before again switching to blue. The darker shade shields Bardot’s image, refusing the viewers’ hungry gazes as Paul finally responds, “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically.”

In their interpretation of this opening scene, Mehruss Jon Ahi and Armen Karaoghlanian write in Interiors: “The incorporation of red, white and blue as the color scheme of the film is an obvious reference to both national flags (France and the United States) but is also evocative of the thematic elements of the narrative. In some sense, red signifies tolerance, committal and love, whereas blue represents coldness, separation and disdain.”

Of course, red and blue have always been symbolically linked–hot and cold, fire and ice, Republican and Democrat, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, etc. The list is endless. This juxtaposition seems representative of a certain intertwined eroticism–the passionate high and the inevitable frigid descent.

Installation view of Lisa Brice’s “Boundary Girl” at Salon 94 Bowery (Courtesy the artist and Salon 94)

It’s no mistake, then, that artist Lisa Brice wields this color combo as a sensual, voyeuristic inspiration in her current exhibition Boundary Girl at Salon 94. From her eponymous cool cobalt blue to a bright, almost fluorescent red, Brice’s paintings depict an erotic world filled entirely with women. In his eponymous ode to the golden age of sleaze Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Samuel R. Delany quotes Bruce Benderson, himself no stranger to the then-porn theater, hustler-filled neighborhood, who wrote in the Lambda Book Report 12: “the true Eden where all desires are satisfied is red, not green. It is a blood bath of instincts, a gaping maw of morality and a basin of gushing bodily fluids.”

Like Benderson’s notion of Eden, these desired and desirable tones flood Brice’s works with an unnatural luminosity, recalling the artificial glow of neon signage advertising red light districts. It’s as if her figures inhabit an atmospheric and dark world of moody and mysterious nightlife–one that the viewers can only fantasize about penetrating.

Lisa Brice, No Bare Back, After Embah, 2017 (Courtesy the artist and Salon 94)

Born in South Africa, Brice’s works in Boundary Girl are heavily influenced by art history, pop culture and the artist’s time in Trinidad. For example, in No Bare Back, After Embah, a sulking figure lost in thought is culled directly from Manet’s The Plum, while behind her, another woman glances over her shoulder in a pose that highlights her…ahem…particular ass-ets. If that “thick ass, give him whiplash” looks eerily recognizable, that’s because it is none other than Nicki Minaj herself.

Even small details in the paintings refer to local Trinidadian products such as Stag Beer, which sits on the table in No Bare Back, After Embah. While plopped in front of a lady, this beer is typically known as a “man’s beer.” Like female reclamation of Stag beer, the only indication of men are in these minute details.  A sign emblazoned on the wall of a bar reads “No Bare Back.” Meant as a warning for men, this could mean no service without a shirt or, well…need I explain how I first interpreted it?

Lisa Brice, Boundary Girl (Natalie), 2009–2017
Oil on archival paper (Courtesy the artist and Salon 94)

Whether in her smaller blue drawings or large-scale multi-figured paintings, pussies abound in Brice’s Boundary Girl–both literal hissing and prowling cats and partially nude women. In fact, there are so many pussy references in the paintings that one figure in the blue-tinged Between This and That even wears a pussy hat, made popular by the now distant Women’s March.

Luckily, these women-centric paintings came at the right time. I don’t know about you, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, but after this week of reading numerous accounts of sexual assault and harassment by a range of disgusting men including our own art world Harvey Weinstein, ArtForum’s Knight Landesman, I’m about ready to move to a lesbian separatist farming commune. Thankfully, Brice’s paintings present a sleazier reprieve from recent grabbing and groping creepiness for those of us who prefer more lurid digs.

Brice’s work seemingly refuses to tread that same boring territory of female nudes as a form of resistance. Instead, the figures, as seen in Boundary Girl (Nathalie), look like they could care the fuck less about the gaze, which is what makes them so refreshing. While the gallery’s press release compares Brice’s interiors to Matisse and Bonnard, I see a link between Brice’s sumptuous clubs and the (homo)erotic pool halls of Charles Demuth. Like Demuth’s paintings of slow-dancing sailors, Brice’s pieces contain a palpable same-sex eroticism with their all-women bar-scapes.

Installation view of Lisa Brice’s “Boundary Girl” at Salon 94 Bowery (Courtesy the artist and Salon 94)

While Demuth’s figures interact, Brice’s, however, in the communal scenes, seem completely isolated from one another, involved in their own self-reflecting gazes. These women are not in a state of undress for you or any viewer–they are performing eroticism for themselves.

These internally fixated figures, both lounging together and entirely alienated, are reminiscent of a surreal scene in David Lynch’s Inland Empire. With the colors red and blue imbued throughout the film (likely the Godard callback wasn’t lost on Lynch), Laura Dern’s Nikki finds herself at a brothel with numerous sex workers, who, at one point, perform “The Locomotion.” A glowing red lamp–a reoccurring symbol throughout Lynch’s oeuvre–sputters and flashes like a strobe light before a blue lightbulb whisks through the scene. Later, in semi-darkness, various sex workers spout out short lines with their faces partially hidden (“In the future, you’ll be dreaming…In a kind of sleep”).

“When you open your eyes, someone familiar will be there,” recites a sex worker in Inland Empire. This reflection of the, at once, strange and familiar resonates with in Brice’s visual fantasy worlds. Take for example her blue painting Between This and That. The sailor cap-sporting figure in the foreground comes directly from Felix Vallotton’s suspect La Blanche et La Noire. Rather than a prop to bolster the ideals of white womanhood, though, Brice transforms to figure to take the form of a, as Jack Halberstam terms in Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability, “aristocratic butch.”

Installation view of Lisa Brice’s “Boundary Girl” at Salon 94 Bowery (Courtesy the artist and Salon 94)

Similarly, in the background, a figure draped in fabric smokes a cigarette–her face blocked by another female figure. Many viewers might feel the eerie twangs of recognition, noticing her shape as the robes covering Gertrude Stein in Picasso’s famous portrait of the writer. Nearby, Brice does her own version of Stein’s face from Picasso’s portrait. Here though, her Cubist features begin to disappear into ghostly nothingness as if melting or fading from memory.

As another sex worker says in Inland Empire, “Do you want…to see?” Brice’s paintings present a similar obscured frustration–many of the women’s faces are barely rendered or covered by shadows, as well as an opening for subjective interpretation. Brice herself explains in the gallery’s press release, ambiguity remains a significant part of her practice. As she reveals, “I am interested in the viewer’s reading of figurative information and as a result my narratives remain ambiguous.  In my painting process, I am constantly circumnavigating a didactic reading, erasing, replacing, repositioning. The viewer’s perceptions and preconceptions might determine several readings equally as valid as anything I may have intended, or might have motivated a work’s making in the first place.”

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