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London Regional Art Gallery, July 13 – September 15


Alice Mansell's raison d’être for this exhibition of seven large oil and mixed media paintings begins in the same place her exhibited work does — with the viewer's encounter of monumental iconic structures presented in the mausoleum-like space of a self-contained gallery. The viewer enters by descending a flight of stairs which overlooks the installation Cultured Identity. This descent provides a metaphorical entry into the very basis of art knowledge and curatorial practice which supports a strategy of cultural display.

Mansell believes that painting is a way of knowing, that cultural forms can be read as a culture thinking out loud. Collectively and individually, paintings can be a site for open dialogue, one that is sometimes ironic, as Mansell's is, but is important mainly for opening a space of questioning. This site reflects both social setting and psychological predisposition. It's a space where meaning is produced. Even the particular process of formation, the manipulation of paint, the individual gesture (a squeeze of brush which forces intensity), is a site for investigating the way a work of art's meaning veils a set of aesthetic canons. These, in turn, correspond to a set of political decisions made in a cultural context.

How do I respond to these paintings which question the art historical tradition, methodology, iconography, and formation of "subject"? Mansell's paintings Warhol: Reflecting Pool: Marilyn and de Kooning: Pool: Marilyn reflect ironically upon the subject these artists have made into an icon. Each "reflecting pool" mirrors a set of choices: the artists' and society's. The painted canvas surfaces — piled and scraped, gouged and bled — "speak" of these artists' aggressive energy and their cutting away to each icon: a woman's face, a body disenchanted and misinformed about itself, isolated and embedded into an irreversible, multifaceted surface, a configuration of the cultural context of its making. Thickly enclosed in heavy "icon" frames, each "Marilyn" subject is caught and made fast in paint. Each woman subject is repressed and manipulated by the gesture of the painter. In this way, the subject becomes an icon; her identity merges with the paint medium. As icon, each "Marilyn" is memorialized. Each metaphorically drowns, consumed by her material context. Confused by society's illusory and reflective surfaces, each "Marilyn" sinks into pools of paint which cannot be penetrated. However, each "Marilyn" finds safety in this fixed state as an eternal painted subject which continues to influence and dictate culturally formed representations of "woman" and "her" conceptual framework of glamour, beauty, and subordinated identity.

Mansell approaches her woman-subject as a woman. She invades the medium of her painting "fathers" to claim her own gesture, her own use of the painterly medium. She explores the making of her "subject" and the process by which "she" comes to be an icon — the icon of "great" art - that famous archetypal woman as whore subject. With Selbstbildnisse: As Artist, Mansell takes on the symbolic law of her fathers - the idea of high art, of the painting master. She breaks through the closed doors of the "great tradition" and probes the icons which make it. At the same time, Mansell plays with "serious ideas" of the "picturesque" landscape and its "sublime" inheritance as revealed in Ingres: Cascade: La Source and Courbet: Inglis Falls: La Source. Both paintings evoke a passionate, masculine response — these paintings were made to be purchased by gentlemen. The painted surfaces are sensual and seductive. They are substitutes for the real thing — the body cannot own but desire: icons of trapped beauty.

The cell-like space of the lower viewing gallery, with its modern ambience of austerity and respect, exposes the traditions of "high" art to the viewer. These paintings/icons possess a self-conscious meaning inherent within their own "making." Each forces an encounter with the cultural context which gives its art historical referent significance. For example, in de Kooning: Pool: Marilyn, de Kooning's gesture, his methodology and his manipulation of medium are probed for their role in directing this signifying process. Each contributes indexically to its meaning. Each gesture constructs a subject that is "woman," a subject which has female identity in this iconic/painterly context. By assuming that painterly means by which meaning is given significance, Mansell steps into the "making" process to assume its agency. For a woman painter, this process is always "other." Mansell reforms the subject. Her "woman" is wise, sensual, less seductive, and more serious as, for example, in Kahlo: Takaka Falls: Tehuana. Her tactile surfaces are rough, cutting and spontaneous. She adds scraps of fake fur, sequins, glass, epoxy, cotton, and emblems to this high art surface and makes it her own source of revelation.

In her Selbstbildnisse, Mansell works with the paradoxical role of the master/meister painter to which she subjects her own position as a middle-aged woman painter making art that reflects her own "lived" experience. Thus, her painterly gesture addresses the viewer's attention to a female artist subject that is "other" than what the art historical tradition describes. "She" questions her own cultural inheritance, her identity. Mansell hesitates as she steadfastly looks out from her icon frame, unsure of the worth of this or any other art historical mode or presentation. "She" rejects the trappings of an identifying tradition which constructs a body of knowledge that not only excludes her from the ranks of its practice, but constructs a "woman" subject her female viewers neither comprehend as "self nor identify with as individuals. This woman subject is to be gazed upon, manipulated, frozen in time and painterly space. She is made an icon; her oil medium is forced into an elite but absolute tradition where "she" is excluded from knowledge of her "self." This pool never reflects her identity, but suggests an "other" who is remote, beautiful and objectified. This woman never changes, never ages. She is secondary to her subject.

If, as Mansell believes, art is a way of knowing about things, then her work must be read as the means by which she confronts this tradition. Clearly, she refuses to ignore her own discomfort as a woman painter in its midst. She keenly engages its enterprise as painterly, political production supportive of its capitalist and patriarchal underpinnings. With this body of work, she invades such enterprise. She investigates and reconstitutes the visual language which "makes" meaning and she opens the space where this semiosis occurs. Her main field of inquiry, then, is the relationship between identity, culture and painting - thus opening up a medium which, until recently, seems to have ignored anything other than itself.

- JANICE ANDREAE,   Parachute  66, 1992