A selection of works from the Menopausal Paintings Series and extracts about the series from a forthcoming book by Sandra Gibson.
LIVING IN A GALLERY
ELIZABETH COPE: ARTIST
By Sandra Gibson
Extracts from a forthcoming book
about Elizabeth Cope’s recent work.
LOBSTERS AND TENNIS
I have to acknowledge the impossibility of preparing the viewer for Elizabeth Cope’s Menopausal Paintings. Uncompromisingly visceral and imbued with a dark sense of humour that just about rescues you from the grand shudder, these are large, seriously powerful works, with a strong experiential emphasis.
Dee with Lobster is a study of endurance – whether it be pain or the acceptance of biological destiny. There is a shocking amount of red flowing from the vagina of a prone woman and the artist has transformed this into a predatory creature by means of a few deft black lines. Lobster on Nude shows a human-sized lobster squatting on a submissive nude’s back – you can feel the weight – and another of Elizabeth’s recurring vanitas images: a measuring tape. (cont. below)
Domestic Bliss with Sweeping Brush depicts a kind of Vaudevillian domestic tyranny with the earth goddess handcuffed to the scarlet lobster, whilst the horizontal broom becomes a trapeze. The buttocks face us and her open legs reveal an under-carriage of four breasts with red-tipped teats. Anchored by the weight of her udder and by the manacle of pain, she hangs there: immobilised. The mammary extravaganza is further extended in Woman with Teats where the artist gives the heroine a bizarre halo of twenty-one breasts (you’ll need to count them twice), obliterating her head and extending to her open vagina. And this all rendered more disturbing by the proximity of flesh-threatening implements – another repeated motif – counter-pointed by brightly coloured, zippy diagonal striping. Fortunately, it also makes you laugh – something you can barely manage when it comes to Elizabeth Cope’s most savage painting in this series. Man, Tennis Racquet, Woman reverberates with sexual and competitive violence: a male figure, already displaying the skull beneath the flesh, holds a fan of frenetic orange racquets, whilst the supine female figure he is grinding into the ground grasps his blood-red scrotum. There is a disconcerting background of blue circles: our lobster is doing a pretty poor job umpiring this extreme ball-bouncing. But where to begin when someone without a head is trying to join in and the court is strewn with bones?
We are a long way away from the description of Elizabeth Cope’s work as: “spontaneous, spirited still lifes, views of interiors, animals, portraits and domesticated landscapes”. The world of Expressionist grotesquery, together with a Northern European sense of life’s brevity and absurdity is where we find ourselves in the paintings exhibited in the Fis 2008* exhibition I reviewed in Liverpool. Frenetic comic exaggeration in pictures of human beings engaged in ludicrous or humiliating performances evokes the black humour of the cartoon. But here’s the anomaly: the artist combines this sense of desolate inevitability with a confident use of light and vibrant colour and a masterly feel for composition and celebratory pattern that is life-enhancing.
Should we take the feminist perspective and see these paintings as studies in cultural and biological entrapment? I think the artist stops us from taking so detached a position by rubbing our noses in the experiential extremes. Guantanamo Man exemplifies this by addressing the status and reaction of the viewer. The cheerfully orange picture plane is flattened and the figure is foreshortened, outgrowing the space – very much in your face, as the expression goes. The arresting combination of exposed genitalia and cartoon baby face – whose details have been masked, leaving only the upturned mouth and blue, eye-lashed eyes – generates an uneasy feeling in the viewer. It is uncomfortably sexual, having a masturbatory element – an impression amplified by the shapes of the genital area repeated in the legs. It reminds us of those people whose physical development has greatly outgrown their mental capacity and who often make no distinction between public behaviour and private behaviour. This painting creates apprehension in the viewer because the subject makes one a potential voyeur. (Are those chains round the ankles?)
So we become embarrassed and vulnerable and unsure of our mirth: unsure through self-recognition because those measuring tapes define our horizon; those indulgences chain us to our guilt and that damned lobster pursues us all across the arena of hysterical powerlessness that masquerades as control.
Into the grave.
- Fis 2008: Celebration of Irish Culture in Liverpool, curated by Eamon Colman and Derek Culley at the Novas Centre, Greenland Street, Liverpool. 25th July – 7th September 2008.