As Frieze week approaches there is plenty to see in London, from Old Masters to cutting edge contemporary art, one exhibition that should definitely be on your radar is yes I said Yes, a solo show by the acclaimed US artist Elise Ansel, opening 1 October at Cadogan Contemporary.
Central to Ansel’s project is her practice of translating Old Master paintings into a contemporary pictorial language through the lens of feminine subjectivity. Comprised of over fifteen paintings, the exhibition includes responses to masterpieces by artists such as Titian, Rubens and Delacroix transforming scenes of violence against women into images of consensual pleasure.
‘Painters of that era used mythological content to explore eroticism — my attack is on sexism, not on sex. My intent is to reclaim the erotic energy and discard the violent coercion.’ — Ansel
In Titian’s painting [see above], the strength of the male aggressor is re-enforced by the agency of the male painter. I reverse the polarity. The heretofore silent object (of the male gaze) is granted agency and becomes the subject, the author of the narrative, which she has the power to change.’ — Ansel
At face value Ansel’s work is not overtly political or feminist but by applying her contemporary female perspective to centuries-old male works of art, Ansel addresses art history’s hegemonic, and often misogynistic, narrative, as well as the continued gender inequality in our society.
‘I flip the orientation and use abstraction to interrupt a destructive narrative and transform it into a revel of colour, movement and asymmetrical balance, building on what’s already there to create something new.’ — Ansel
Ansel’s ability to turn the tables on these images is aptly summed up by the American novelist Rick Moody who has produced the catalogue text In The Affirmative to accompany the exhibition. Moody comments: ‘One thing I love about Ansel’s approach is that it seems like automatism is a feature, aleatory practice, that is, the paintings are produced repeatedly, improvised, with variations that mark the day of production, each with its aleatory energy, they are the site of a negotiation with the patriarchal history of art, but are made in a collision of painter with pigment and form, and against a model of rigor, exchanging the stable for the unstable, the canonical masterpiece for there placeable sign of the immediate.’
It is the balance between social statement and painterly process that gives Ansel’s work its compelling combination of depth and accessibility. Her political message may be strong, but it never overshadows the sheer beauty of her paintings, which act as a dialogue not only between artist and viewer, but also artist and artist.
‘My paintings are not a critique of the Old Masters but rather a use their depth and resonance to shine a light on disparities that plague our society today.’ — Ansel
The exhibition title, yes I said Yes, is carved from the last line of James Joyce’s Ulysses, specifically Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the end point of the novel. Slicing and re-arranging words from this text manifests the transformative energy, the sparagmos, the tearing apart, weaving, unravelling, and re-weaving that is the heart of Ansel’s activity. However the context of these words — their position within the novel, who said them and their meaning is also significant. As Moody comments:
‘It’s clear that one essential feature of Joyce’s action on the page is the imposture of the feminine point of view, and that by borrowing the ending, and subtly redeploying it, or recasting it, especially manipulating the feminine consciousness against a novelistic tradition of story orientation, Joyce subverts a masculinity of story structure, and Ansel has borrowed back this feminine perspective, this subjectivity, from the classic modernist, somewhat in the same way that Joyce borrowed the narrative of the Odyssey and retooled it for early twentieth century as it occurred in Europe and the West, in Eire, a site of imperial meddling.’
This exhibition may coincide with London’s busiest art period but there is no doubt that it should be high up on your list of exhibitions to see. Throughout these works Ansel uses an idiom of energetic gestural abstraction to mine art historical imagery for colour and narrative structure, abstracting and interrupting the representational content, in order to excavate and transform meanings and messages embedded in the works from which her paintings spring.
While the Old Master counterparts have been included here alongside Ansel’s contemporary works, these new paintings should be and will be viewed independently allowing viewers to reach their own conclusions and find there own references / stories within. You will have this chance from 1 October at Cadogan Contemporary.