N°94 Now or Never

Anat Stainberg & Norberto Segarra / Lucy Stein

24 September - 5 November 2006

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Lucy Stein

Paintings and Drawings

Anat Stainberg / Norberto Llopsis Segarra

Now or Never

Chris Evans

Militant Bourgeois: An Existentialist Retreat


Lucy Stein’s paintings are redolent with characters and icons that appear to constitute an oddly innocent lebenswelt, one which resonates with the surreal universes found in comedy and comic books alike. When exhibiting as part of a double act with her friend Jo Robertson as Blood ‘n’ Feathers, there is certainly, as they admit, “an element of the little and large” about them. But Stein’s work isn’t entirely escapist, there’s no recourse to mythopoetic fallacies, it’s full of ordinary things we recognise from the present: Diazepam, Mount Evian, career women, art-school-girl-of-doom haircuts and black bunting. These narrative tropes often work as shorthand for the ugly-glossy world we live in and the ways we use our imagination, and the odd benzodiazepine, to deal with it.

Bobs v Waves (2006) proposes a hairdressing dialectic as a means of comprehending 21st century womenhood, an amusing proposition that nonetheless has its serious followers in cultural studies. The metaphor here, however, is straight from the peculiar world of cartoon humour as the presence of Betty Boop, Max and Dave Fleischer’s rebellious 1930s flapper cartoon character, indicates. A tousle haired Boop sits in the centre of the picture space looking more worried that doe-eyed. She is surrounded by professional young women sporting very angular ‘asymmetrical lesbian bobs’. These women look headstrong and strike power poses. One young woman talks confiendently on her mobile. They seem prepared for a potentially dangerous world of ‘spotlights and searchlight, nightclubs and rapists’. On the face of things, Boop’s once threateningly sexual persona appears to have been superceeded by a gender identity that is harder, colder and more anxious (or, to put it another way, by something more masculine).

Of course, there are ideological advantages in conspiring to make the present appear more hostile and threatening than the past. Boop’s cartoon universe was often just as troubled, especially during the trails and tribulations of the Great Depression. In Betty Boop, MD(1932), we get a snapshot of Depression era America, and a satire directed at the false promises of those who seek to cure our modern day ills. Boop travels in a wagon up and down a mountain with a group of young patent medicine hawkers, selling Jippo, a fake health cure. Despite it’s surreal side effects, the miracle cure turns out to be nothing other than tapwater. In Stein’s lexicon Mount Evian represents the modern equivalent of the quackery of the American Midwest. Mount Evian is a false Valhalla, source of the contemporary craze for organic produce and related ecological causes that run rife among the new middle classes. Signifying a quick-fix theraputic concern with the body and the self rather than with the body politic, ‘Evian’ is the anodine substitute for more long standing bourgois social democratic guilt. Belief in quackery and green utopias isn’t respesented as entirely bankrupt however, there is joy in this romantic desublimation. Stein’s images of Mount Evian are abundant and joyful precisely because we are so aware of their status as luminescent stage-sets. The paintings invite us to play creatively in front of the illusionary space they offer. Similarly, Boop’s use of her overtly heterosexual femininity to get her own way is central to the pleasure of Betty Boop M.D.; for here Boop’s risque looks and calculated dizziness empower her just as much as they reinforce the gullibilty of the crowd (until the 1934 Hays Code put a stop to the fun.) This is a sharply charismatic if highly ambigous form of intelligence, a tounge-in-cheek Pretty Power(2005) that we repeatedly find exercised in Stein’s titles and tropes.

Boop’s ideals are more absurdly contradictory than grandiose and thus a more amusingly barbed critique of the status quo than those associated with masculine technological utopias (or with the squeeky clean Walt Disney). In Betty Boop for President(1932), Boop’s manifesto promises to give dustmen their own chauffeur and limousine; lay carpets to allow horses to wear high-heels and turn the electric chair into a make-over salon as a means of reforming convicted murderers. A prolific co-author of what Blood ‘n’ Feathers jointly describe as “pretentiously anti-pretentious manifestos”, Stein’s paintings offer similarly ideosyncratic solutions to the world’s problems via International Enthusiasm(2006). There is also in here a recognition that the grand-schemes of career-driven utopians tend to be counterproductive and miss the urgency and subtlety of living; as One Touch of Humour Would Have Saved Her From Such Comprehensive Suffering(2006) would have it.

Neil Mulholland

(is Director of the Centre for Visual & Cultural Studies, Edinburgh College of Art)

Lucy Stein (Oxford, 1979) recently completed her residency period in De Ateliers in Amsterdam. She is also part of the duo Blood ’n Feathers (together with musician Jo Robertson), that was recently nominated for the British Beck’s Futures Prize.

Betty Boop MDon view at www.youtube.com

Opening: Saturday 23rd September from 5 to 7pm