‘Among world-class female writers, woman as victim has always been a big theme: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the Brontës, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath. There is nothing comparable in painting, because for all sorts of social and economic reasons – chiefly the ease of writing in a room of one’s own versus the hazards of male-run art schools and the expenses of setting up a studio – history has produced no great female artists and, indeed, few female artists at all. But now that is changing, and the rise of women painters, film-makers and sculptors is a significant feature of 21st-century culture. Sure enough, just as pioneering women writers had to exorcise the victim-demon as they appropriated traditional male literary genres, so a prime, inevitable topic in the visual arts today is woman as victim. This is marked among the swathe of female artists at the current Venice Biennale, from Tracey Emin to Sophie Calle. It is also there in the violent images of the female body by hard hitters (and big sellers) Marlene Dumas and Jenny Savile, and it lurks behind the girly curlicues of fashionable painters such as Karen Kilimnik or Elizabeth Peyton. But queen of victim-artists is surely Stella Vine.’
Jackie Wullschlager – The Financial Times
‘Look at her Kate Moss, for instance. The spaces between her cutely imperfect teeth are crammed with darkness. Her smile is as taut as a sneer. The babydoll palette of Vine’s pictures turns acid. The colours are souring. The mascara runs with tears. The dreams are curdling into the ghastly self-confessional parodies of the reality. The highly polished Vogue aesthetic is turning into the trashy Heat snap. We can’t dismiss these paintings as a mere racket – not in a world in which the racket has become the real thing.’
Rachel Campbell-Johnston – The Times
‘The quality that critics use to undermine the credibility of Vine’s art – that it is adolescent- is actually the source of its indisputable emotional impact. Without question, her art is adolescent – in the same way that Holden Caulfield’s observations about a world filled with phonies, and Kurt Cobain’s acid outrage over adult lies and injustice, and Sylvia Plath’s over-heated anger and bitterness at the world’s betrayals were adolescent. At first Vine’s art appears clumsy, but look longer and it is less careless than bitterly honest.’
Ana Finel Honigman – The Saatchi Gallery
‘She’s bang on the money.’
Richard Dorment – The Telegraph
‘Stella Vine is direct and honest, rather like her paintings.’
Simon Kelner – GQ
‘I think she’s the real deal.’
Lynn Barber – The Observer
‘She is clearly extremely intelligent, and educated too, though late in life and unconventionally.’
Hermoine Eyre – The Independent
‘There’s a vitality and truth in her work that can’t be faked.’
Richard Dorment – The Telegraph
‘I think she will come to be known as one of the most important artists of our time.’
Andrew Nairne – Modern art Oxford
‘They say that painting is back. By ‘they’ I mean the usual gaggle of minor players who have a vested interest in making these sorts of claims – writers of Sunday supplement headlines, fresh-faced dealers made noisy by callowness and so on – and one big player, Charles Saatchi, who, we keep hearing, has been selling off his YBA holdings and buying paintings instead. As a reader of The Sunday Times, you will want the truth on this matter, not more spin. You may have encountered excitable twaddle elsewhere in the media about painting’s return, but in Culture, you expect to discover how it really is. So it’s my duty to tell you that painting cannot be back: it never went away. There has never been a time on these islands when someone, somewhere, has not somewhere, has not been producing worthwhile paintings. But, these days, painting is just one way of making art, not the only way. For the past two generations or so, other ways of making art – sculpture, installation, video, photography, conceptual manoeuvring – have interested our best young artists more than painting. However painting appears to have discovered fresh energy recently. It is, therefore, an area of art worth paying extra attention to just now. That’s how it is. It may sound dull, but those are the facts. So, your dutiful reporter has duly been trudging around the painting shows this week, weighing up their real worth. I’ve focused on two women painters of the same generation, both born in 1969, both old enough, therefore, not to be trying it on, yet both at the point, just past their mid thirties, where their lives will be feeling critical: the perfect time for a visit. I started with Stella Vine, because she has the strongest Saatchi connection. You may remember the media stormette erupting around her last year because she was an ex-stripper, self taught, who did paintings of Princess Diana and that unfortunate heroin addict, Rachel Whitear, whose notorious final photograph, crouched pathetically on her living-room floor, made such a distressing frontispiece to our morning papers. Saatchi bought these paintings and put them in a show called New Blood; and, although I didn’t much want to like Vine’s contribution, I found I did. It had something. What had happened to Vine after that, I didn’t know. So the news that a fresh new cluster of her paintings has gone on view at a place called Hiscox Art Projects, in EC3, tempted me into the East End, where I expected to find one of those Feral art spaces – a run-down warehouse or converted meat-packing plant – in which so much of the real action of the London art scene unfolds. Boy, was I wrong. Hiscox turns out to be a giant insurance setup in the City, and it’s art space is a glassed-in trophy foyer at the bottom of a multistorey corporate HQ, surrounded by banks, and opposite Norman Foster’s gherkin. Stella Vine, on this evidence, has become a blue-chip City investment. The paintings in the flashy corporate foyer, however, tackle an unlikely subject for an insurance HQ: they are the ruminations on celebrity and the weird wounds it inflicts. A couple of portraits show the post-lapsarian Kate Moss, looking wide-eyed and anxious; there’s a hilarious scene of frantically waving detox patients trapped inside the Priory; and a charmingly skinny group portrait of the Rolling Stones, taken from one of their early album covers, when they really were snake-hipped and sexy. All this has been painted with a drippy directness and not much in the way of picture making subtlety. Moss has been enlarged from the photo, the smudgy eye-liner around her eyes heaped on with a trowel and the words ‘Holy water cannot help you now’ scrawled next to her, a tad creepily. Is this empathy or accusation ? The gesticulating female celebs, trapped like Rapunzels on the upper floors of the Priory, consist of a few blobs of colour squeezed straight from the tube, while the glaring white castle in which they have been incarcerated has been shaped with a palette knife, as if the Priory were a huge iced cake. It’s all done pretty crudely. There’s not much give in Vine’s fingers. Her emotional range covers a narrow band on the Bridget Jones spectrum. She copies her images from existing sources. Her colours are a cake-maker’s – girlie pinks, Alice-band blues – and the way she writes on her pictures learnt from a bakery. But there’s something there nevertheless: a combination of empathy and cynicism that can be startling. After much energetic googling, I tracked down the quotation about the holy water to a song by PJ Harvey about vulnerable beauty trapped in The Desperate Kingdom of Love. ‘Your mysterious eyes cannot help you/Selling your reason will not bring you through,’ continues the melancholy lament. Thus, Vine presents Moss as an Ophelia figure, Princess Diana Mark II, a breakable victim of love whom the thuggish forces of modern life are out to crush. It’s an unexpectedly snippy and independent characterization, fuelled, I fancy, by lots of fierce transference. Vine, you feel, learnt all she needed to learn about blokes during her stripping days. The sweet-shop colour schemes lend an unhealthy toxicity that suits the subject matter. And the emblematic bits of cake-writing offer helpful clues to each picture’s emotional pitch. In the case of the Priory painting, the telephone number of the clean-up castle has been cheekily included, as well as the price of a night’s stay, including VAT. Thus any toxic celebs owning this painting need only look at their wall to find the daily rate of salvation and the number to ring. Vine’s sympathy has turned to scorn. Chantal Joffe is the same age as Vine, copies her images images from photos too, and is just as interested in models and beautiful people, but her paintings have none of that alarming sense of personal involvement that yanks your attention in Vine’s direction. Her new paintings, are elegant, co-ordinated, beautifully made and subtly nourish. I remember she used to make small paintings with lots of hot coupling in them: porn mags were a favourite source. In her new show, however, the porn action has been replaced by scenes from a fashion shoot; and when you walk into the Victoria Miro gallery, you find yourself ringed by a set of giant Audrey Hepburns, 7ft tall, big-eyed, beautiful brunettes in Chanel cuts, who train a particularly elegant lonliness on you, as if Bergman were directing a spread in Vogue. There’s something Picasso-like, as well, about these curious paintings: the two tone heads, the Africanised expressions, the totem-pole formats. But where Picasso brought a sense of voodoo to his female idols, Joffe maintains an emotional coolness that is most unsettling. I’ll be back for a second look, and maybe a third. Something has hooked me.’
Waldemar Januszczac – The Sunday Times
‘Jean Harlowe lounges on top of an orange tiger skin rug across a sea of electric blue paint, her face a carnival mask with sharp teeth, blood-red lips and clumpy mascara guarding her startled blue eyes like barbed wire. These and other grotesqueries find their mirror in the tiger’s blue glass orbs, exaggeratedly arched eyebrows and hastily rendered fur.The painting has nothing at all to do with Jean Harlowe and everything to do with Vine’s apparent aversion to either mixing colors on the palette, or leaving any paint in the tube. Her affection for celebrities, combined with the brazenly unacademic ambitions of her figurative style, triggers comparison to her contemporary Elizabeth Peyton. Vine is far less sophisticated, but that is precisely the point. The artlessness Peyton strives for as a conceptual frame work, Vine achieves without even trying, and her emerging voice does not seek to overcome her outsider status. Rather, her research is really appealing due to the awkward and utterly unselfconscious enthusiasm with which she proceeds.’
Shana Nys Dambrot – Tema Celeste
‘Ever since women have dared to vie with men by setting up as artists, they have been mocked by the fact that historically the female is an object of art rather than a maker of art. The muse who took up the pen found herself writing about herself, or, rather, the version of herself that she had already learnt from the works of men. The situation of women painters was, if anything, worse. First of all they were required to look the part. All female artists were young and beautiful, and as such they were required to merchandise themselves. Vigée Le Brun began by making beautifully finished images of her fetching self, and went on to fashion unforgettable ikons of the female celebrities of her time. Angelika Kauffmann, in between entertaining her clients by warbling to her own accompaniment on the harpischord, painted ravishing portraits of herself by way of advertising the fact that she could supply even more ravishing portraits of fashionable noblewomen. More recently Frida Kahlo, Evelyn Axell and Pauline Boty have carried on the tradition of female artist as her own subject, each in her different way.
When Stella Vine paints herself she is Melissa, blurred, pale and small next to her mother’s vividness, innocent of the power of the artist. Though Stella Vine remains viscerally connected to the facts of her life, she is not her own hero. Her art is not a performance. The exploration that Marlene Dumas and Jenny Saville make through imagery of the body, Stella Vine makes through the iconography of the face, the two-eared badge of identity. So vivid are the faces that she makes for her heroes, that her own face seems to wobble, to fade in and out like the Cheshire Cat’s. We shall all know Frida Kahlo when we encounter her in the lowest depths of Hell, but Stella Vine will float by unrecognised.
The woman artist who is a feminist is already conscious of the necessity of concealing her womanhood beneath the disguise that is called femininity. We should not be surprised then if she finds her subject matter in that disguise itself. As a woman paints her face every day, Stella Vine paints the painted face, the mask behind which celebrity females take cover even as they flaunt themselves. Paint cannot lie. Every brushstroke threatens disintegration. The mascara runs. The rouge stands out on the cheeks like a bloody bruise. The eyes glitter with unshed tears or is it terror? Or rage? The paint wells and dribbles like the blood of the self-wounded. The surface heaves and slips. Underpainting grins through.
Stella Vine did not spend her youth being conscientiously alienated from her personal vision by teachers at an art school. She was too busy getting a life, as a single mum, an actress, a cleaner, a stripper, a waitress, director of her own theatre company and performer with her band, all high risk occupations. All of them would be held against her. She was and will always be the ‘single mum, ex-stripper’ of the art world. It was not until 1999 that she began to take art lessons but already in 2003 she felt the necessity to break free of the art-marketing system and start her own gallery. A few critics insist that she is not a real artist, but just trying it on, just as she tried on all her other avocations, not noticing that she has never given any of them up. They think her work is somehow fake, not seeing that it is about faking it, faking everything, from virtue and innocence to orgasms.
To position Stella Vine as the intellectual heir of the female portraitist tradition is partly to minimise the mysteriousness of her way of projecting a likeness. All the measurable details will be wrong; eye colour, hair and complexion will all be changed and yet the figure remains identifiable, as if seen in water or through a distorting glass. Because we recognise the celebrities in the works, the images are anchored in our shared reality, but the distortions make us aware at the same time that these well-known figures are fictitious, merely virtual, endlessly replicated as identity cannot be. She who is known to everyone is known to no-one, especially not to herself. The sphere of reference in each painting becomes delusional; our delusions about the subject meet her delusions about herself. We see her as she might see herself stoned, drunk or hysterical, bleared and blurred in her bathroom mirror.
Vine’s fascination with her subjects is real, but fascination is a complex feeling, composed in part of hate and fear. To be ‘fascinated’ is to be spell-bound, trapped and entangled in the sticky threads of glamour. The word ‘glamour’ originally meant ‘spell’. Enchantment is seductive and destructive. A certain kind of knee-jerk feminism blames men for the erection of the female stereotype. As the consumers of their services and the merchants and marketeers of their images, the corporate world of men must bear some of the responsibility for the ubiquity of the fake female, but nowhere near all of it. Males don’t often collect Barbie dolls; they are lusted after by little and not so little girls. The eternal female is a fraud perpetrated by women. The female masks that Stella Vine manipulates are of the same order of reality as corporate logos. They are pernicious illusions that annihilate the real women who occasioned them, even as they seduce and mislead their female worshippers. The whole drama of attraction towards and repulsion against the female stereotype is played out in Stella Vine’s deceptively unassuming work.
Stella Vine paints her big-eyed subjects with as much intensity as any dazzled fan could muster and as much tenderness as if they were kittens on a chocolate box, but the painted gesture is driven by something darker, something bitter, something that makes the surface bulge and slither. Other women artists reworking the feminine inheritance express their adult distance from virginal obsessions in different ways. Karen Kilimnik adapts commercial and illustrative styles, as gently mocking of her true subject as the deliberate naïvetés of the poet Stevie Smith. Elizabeth Peyton turns her boy subjects into the androgynous heroes of pre-pubescent fantasy, much to the discomfiture of grown men trying to come to terms with work that inhabits an imaginary dimension of which they have never even heard. There is nothing new in a female artist’s feminising her male subjects; Fuseli noticed the same tendency in Kauffmann’s work. In Stella Vine’s images, Pete Doherty is as it were rendered down, melting into receptiveness.
A painter cannot be a painter without libidinous desire; the preremptoriness with which any painter appropriates the human likeness, male or female, is essentially aggressive. For the woman painter as for every other painter the object of desire, whether garnished with a penis or otherwise, is feminised. When Stella Vine is asked whether she thinks her art is girly or womanly, she cannot make sense of the question. She knows that when she seizes on her celebrity subject and throttles her into paint, smearing her lipstick and melting her eye-makeup, she is as implacable as any rapist.’
Germaine Greer – ‘Mirror Mirror’ – Fuel/Modern Art Oxford
The Bailiffgate Museum, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Norwich Castle Museum, Indiana University Art Museum, Goss Michael Foundation, Kent University Print Collection, Saatchi Collection, David Roberts Collection.