“Sissy Grafitti’ and “Sappho Fragments”

The title Sissy Grafitti and badges with the word ‘sissy’ on them to be given to the viewers provided the context for an exhibition of outrageously pink paintings by Rose Frain. But despite these playful elements, Frain wasn’t playing games with these works: the word ‘sissy’, with its dictionary definition of an effeminate man, and etymologically derived from ‘sister’, keys us into a rigorous analysis of the feminine and the state of being female. It was an analysis subversively using those iconically masculine materials of twentieth century art: large brushes, oil paint and canvas. The ‘grafitti’ element (the writing on the wall, as it were) derives from Frain’s appropriation of what is again a typically masculine twentieth century technique of using those materials: unashamed gesture through which presence and self can be affirmed, and which became the mark and sign of the heroic (male) artist. Frain was trained against a background of abstract expressionism; it has evidently taken a struggle (as an artist) and the experience of the women’s movement for Frain to resolve (as she does in these paintings) being a woman and a painter.

Frain’s titles are all-important, inviting questions and engaging the viewer, rather than being cryptic, exclusive or neutral. The most De Kooning-esque painting, for instance, is titled Knowledge of Jouissance. This reference to French psychoanalytic and feminist theory provokes thought about the excessive nature of pleasure, and female pleasure in particular. For Jacques Lacan, women’s lack of the phallus connoted the ‘excess’ of pleasure he was unable fully to come to terms with, and named jouissance, Helene Cixous urges women to explore this aspect of the feminine, to deny Lacan’s notion of lack, to write from the body and even more extravagantly to write the body. Frain paints a dissolving of ground, a dissolving of the body in excessively precious vermillions and madders (‘I can’t afford to use cheap pigments’, she is quoted as saying in the catalogue), thereby stressing a valuing of excess, of pleasure and of the feminine. It is apparent that De Kooning’s aggressively (and ultimately destructively) represented Ladies are light-years away from the risks and explorations going on here. Over the past thirty years the agenda possible of gestural painting has changed almost beyond recognition.

The Hard Mother, an earlier, transitional work, introduces concerns explored and argued against more fully in the later works. The phallic shape of a Roman Catholic Father and a sacred heart contextualise the diminished figure of a woman struggling within a phallic outline. To refer to Lacan’s theory again, to enter into his construct of a Symbolic Order (or in other words, to accept language) is to accept the Law of the Father, and as a consequence to accept the (status-connoting) phallus as its representation. Women, lacking the phallus, have to make a negative entry (as Lacan constructs it) into the Symbolic Order; yet no refusal of the Law of the Father is possible (he theorises), as to refuse that law is to be in a state of chaos and madness–to be, in fact, unformed as a subject. But one would not have to know Lacan’s work (or accept it), or know of Frain’s concern about such theories, to derive meaning from this painting. The reference to the celibate Catholic heirarchy; the uncomfortable woman struggling within a phallic outline; the memory of the Cleveland affair all provide differing and valid ways into an understanding. These issues were dealt with more successfully, I feel, in the later Sins of the Fathers, shown twice recently and unfortunately missing from this exhibition. This is a more successful work precisely because Frain’s painting had at that point become less fixed (less phallic?), allowing greater fluidity of response on the part of the viewer in terms of constructing a narrative.

And that is where Frain’s work ultimately has its greatest strengths, in the layers of entry into a dialogue with it, whether in an immediate, sensual response to the colour, or an empirical understanding of femininity in relation to the Law/s of the Father/s, or through a reading of writers such as Cixous, or a knowledge of the positioning of women in relation to mainstream twentieth century art. The most recent work in the show, Honour, Power and the Love of Women (The Artist as Hero) is a good example of this. The first half of the title refers ironically to an article by Craig Owens which concerned Freud’s positioning of the viewer of art as being that of a masculine, desiring subject; the second half of the title continues the comment on Owens, but also problematises the position of women within the mainstream art world. The size of the painting (the largest in the show) demands attention and space in a moderately sized gallery. The subject of the painting, Rose herself, with hints of personal symbols (a bicycle, faces etc), with red hair and in these audacious colours, affirms her presence, her history and her subjecthood. The structure of this painting, centred upon a figure with arms outstretched to either side, eventually echoes some of the other, less obviously representational works with their central axis, sometimes clearly developed into a clef.

This is a structure that is continued into Frain’s latest exhibition, ‘Sappho Fragments’. Superficially this exhibition seems different to the earlier one of her large, gestural paintings, but there is a clear similarity of intent, carried over into a different scale and different materials. These works are no larger than A4, mostly made from cast paper pulp with additions of silk fragments, hair and coloured plant fibres; they are in fact the sheets of an artist’s book, but are here suspended between sheets of perspex so that viewer can see both sides.

Sappho wrote in the sixth century BC, in what was possibly the last unimpeded European flowering of women’s creativity. Her writings come to us in fragments, tantalising, sexy, tender and passionate, decimated by time and by the ministrations of early Christian scholars. ‘By teaching me their art they have honored me’ she wrote about the muses. In this book Frain takes Sappho as her muse, honouring her with works that are as delicate and fragmentary as the earlier woman’s surviving words.

Each sheet corresponds to one of Sappho’s fragments and is titled as such. They do not illustrate so much as respond to the spirit evoked by the words–such as the melting of the body with desire, or facing a lover, or describing Adonis.

Grouped around the walls are further pieces, responding to Sappho, or forming a link between her and contemporary writers. Again reflecting the concerns in the large paintings the titles quote such women as Helene Cixous (‘We are stormy’, ‘Silenty she grows and multiplies’) and Luce Irigaray (‘This sex which is not one’). Their exploration of reality as fragmented, and of femininity as fluid, resonates through Frain’s paper pieces and Sappho’s words, linking back in both form and content to the paintings to give a satisfying wholeness.