BY Celia Hempton in Influences | 26 SEP 17
Featured in
Issue 6

Artists' Artists: Celia Hempton

Maria Lassnig, Two Ways of Being (Double Self-Portrait), 2000 

BY Celia Hempton in Influences | 26 SEP 17

In many of Maria Lassnig’s paintings, there is a desire, I think, to express human inadequacy, both intellectual and physical. States of being are schizophrenically polarized – from self-loathing to comical, irreverent and tender acceptance, and the confrontational demand on the viewer to ‘accept this’, ‘accept me’.

The colouring in this work is neon, luminous, chemical and modern. Oil paint doesn’t lend itself easily to fluorescence, so I have the impression that Lassnig made a great effort to keep her paintings fresh, not allowing the bright pinks and greens to mix into brown. Paint appears to have been applied once and not agonized over. It has an uncompromising white background: why apply paint for no good reason, or create a world for the body to exist in when the concerns are internal?

In many of Lassnig’s self-portraits she stares out gormlessly, brain-dead, mute, limbs often half-formed, handicapped, stuck in an ocean, or on her back, or cowering in a fetal position, immobile. In Two Ways of Being (Double Self-Portrait), a body sits aside what we recognize as the image of the artist naked. Her double has a vagina or anus-ish orifice in the middle of a half-ham-shaped, half-book-shaped head – a tongue lolling from beneath this lump makes a Cyclops cat. I can identify with the descriptions of human form in the sense of the struggle to articulate an understanding of consciousness, of what it is to live and think and feel, and the failure to communicate this, other than perhaps through painting.

Neither way of being appears particularly powerful or appealing in a conventional sense. I have sometimes found Lassnig’s work alienating for that reason. Rather than the possibility of drawing comfort from a shared problem between artist and viewer, she presents something painful and urgent without a solution. These are both naked ways of being. All her paintings depict the artist’s nakedness in the pure sense of the word: vulnerable, flawed, positioned unselfconsciously – belly protruding, shoulders bowed, concave, breasts pointing earthwards, vagina slumped. She is often a baby, or aged and senile, or a wounded animal – at once aggressive and vulnerable. But the aggression and defiant confidence in her paintings, particularly her self-portraits, is what I find exciting – perhaps this aggression is the solution she offers. These are stark images of quite straightforward expressions of not-straight-forward states of mind. 

Maria Lassnig, Two Ways of Being (Double Self-Portrait), 2000, oil on canvas, 1 x 1.3 m. Courtesy: the artist, Hauser & Wirth, London, New York and Zurich, and Petzel Gallery, New York  

Celia Hempton lives in London, UK. In 2017, her work has been included in ‘31 Women’, Breese Little, London, and ‘Transmissions from the Etherspace’, La Casa Encendida, Madrid, Spain. In 2018, her work will be shown as part of ‘Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today’, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, USA.