There’s a weird stain on the ceiling of Lucy Stein’s London studio, and she thinks rats are to blame. We stare at it as if it were a riddle twisting above our heads: rust-coloured, thin as a comet’s tail at the start, smog-like in the middle and suddenly disintegrating towards the end in a convulsive flurry of little spots. After a small, daydreaming pause, Stein decides it looks like a primitive version of a Rorschach inkblot: the monster’s shadow still waiting to come into focus. Knowing her work, its presence seems like a comic and feverish coincidence: psychiatry and the allure of certain perverse textures are just two of the artist’s many obsessions. Her latest paintings look equally sickly and enigmatic; 12 of them were included in ‘Big Farmer’, her recent show at Piper Keys in east London. The girls who previously inhabited Stein’s paintings – wonky, glue-huffing sisters to Rita Ackermann’s glamorous waifs – have vanished, replaced by a discombobulating sequence of abstractions, rich with slathered paint, repeating symbols and a creepy pastoral glow. Corrosive marks skitter across their surfaces. Stein may have embarked on a new phase of painterly derangement but, in all their punk mischief and textural thrills, these pieces are wholly concordant with the last ten years of her career. Few other young artists have been so consistently funny or strange in their attacks on all the gloomy platitudes that surround female painters. Stein’s paintings appear to get wicked kicks out of living up to these myths, looking at once snottily unserious, lovesick, deranged, kittenishly pretty and proudly grotesque. In her 30s, Stein cracks acid jokes about being discovered when she reaches old age. ‘I always want my work,’ she says, ‘to look as if it’s on the brink of hysteria.’ Often she accomplishes this with tongue-in-cheek menace; it adds up to one of the most vivid accounts of girlhood, in all its special terrors and disorientations, that you can find. Her recent work sees this project taking a more oblique, and discreetly playful, shape.
Stein’s studio is a fascinating mess: postcard reproductions of works by Leonora Carrington are pinned to the walls and pages covered in Stein’s looping scrawl cascade across the floor as she flicks through a fat monograph on Alice Neel. These are followed by a drawing where the sun looks like a misshapen eyeball, another of a ram’s head mask and a collection of woozy nudes; a ragged copy of Jean Rhys’s novel Good Morning, Midnight (1939) is studied, then switched for a sheet of puns. For a brief scene in Polventon (2013), the short film she made with performance artist Shana Moulton, Stein appeared in the déclassé costume of a Rhys heroine, all bobbed black hair and drooling mascara, with boozy wreckage strewn on the breakfast table.
Victims (2014), which was included in Stein’s show at Piper Keys, looks as if it emerged from a head jagged with hangover: the bleary degeneration of green and blue into something like mud is charted across the canvas as the splatterings of acrylic paint spark fitfully like a heap of wet fireworks. Meanwhile, Nuggets (2014), with its splotches of explosive brown and dissolving gold, is a delicious hint of trashy glamour; flashes of blonde synthetic fur and streaks of purple aerosol look like a magical kind of bile. ‘That’s the best one because it’s the ugliest,’ according to Stein. Going for ugliness is one of her smartest tricks, and its effects are strangely captivating. Everything comes in the lurid colours of a faintly rotten psychedelic experience. Manic abandon hasn’t seemed so full of writhing difficulties since Joan Mitchell’s lonesome grey paintings in the mid-1980s. Where Stein’s past works conjured up the eerie psychic aftermath of adolescent hedonism – these were girls deformed by pills and drink but thrilled about it – her new creations retreat further back, finding a childlike excitement in paint’s gooey sensuality. This regressive feel is coupled with Stein’s fascination for what she calls paint’s ‘erotic potential’, neatly describing the lubricious energy of her swirls and splashes. I’m aching to call in a full Freudian carnival and discourse on the good Doktor’s theory of polymorphous perversity – how small children find shape-shifting erotic pleasure in the oddest of things – but psychoanalysis always sounds like a half-dead system in Stein’s world: too male, too earnest. When it creaks into life, it’s a dusty mythology full of clownish symbols and bizarre fantasies.
Mocking a certain ogreish masculinity used to be a courageous occupation – we all miss Niki de Saint Phalle – and Stein resurrects this spirit with wit and exuberance. Her new paintings are littered with gnarly approximations of the face from The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, which she carved in paint-soaked potatoes then printed on the canvases: Expressionist anguish gets dragged back to kindergarten. In her studio, she points to the dreamy mess on another canvas and tells me, ‘I wanted to go for multiple orgasms, not just one big ejaculation.’ These are caustic renovations of tired forms. But everything seemingly raw about them comes from Stein’s sly Conceptualism. She insists: ‘My work isn’t about me anymore,’ and explains how it’s become instead a masquerade of shifting selves, a place where she can ‘perform’ as a painter by inhabiting different roles. Maybe in the course of creating these intoxicating experiments she might start mimicking Agnes Martin’s opiated cool or crossing her nymphs with Carrington’s fantastical hallucinations, so they grow wings and glitter. There have been inklings of this activity all along, snuck into the noisy surfaces and contradictions. It’s a brave subversion, half-smudging herself out of focus so she’s free to cavort through the history of painting. The wayward heroine of Good Morning, Midnight tells us: ‘I must get on with the transformation act.’ Lucy Stein has decided to do just the same.
Lucy Stein lives and works in London, UK. In 2014, she had a solo show at Piper Keys, London; her exhibition with Shana Moulton at Gimpel Fils, London, runs until 17 January. She is artist-in-residence at the Porthmeor Studios, Tate St Ives, UK, until June.