Heart Shaped Guts - January 2010
Artist - Brigid Noone
Author - Mary Knights
'â€¦the little mermaid drank the burning, stinging draught, and it was like a sharp two-edged sword running through her tender frame; she fainted and lay as if she were dead. When the sun rose on the sea she woke up and became conscious of a sharp pang, but just in front of her stood the handsome young prince, fixing his coal black eyes on her; she cast hers down and saw that her fish's tail was gone, and that she had the prettiest little white legs any maiden could desire, but she was quite nakedâ€¦' 1
To be vulnerable is to be in danger of physical or emotional damage. Brigid Noone explores vulnerability in her artwork, but rather than considering it to be a weakness to be concealed or minimised, she insists that it is a strength linked with generosity, intimacy and the capacity to take risks. Fascinated by girlhood, in many of her paintings Brigid explores the fraught transition from girl- child to young woman. Although wearing frocks, posing obediently, perhaps holding a posy, internalised conflicts and tensions are revealed. Demure sweetness is emphasised and simultaneously undermined by a subtle gesture or grimace that reveals sullen rage or nascent desires.
Fascinated by girlhood, in many of her paintings Brigid explores the fraught transition from girl-child to young woman. Although wearing frocks, posing obediently, perhaps holding a posy, internalised conflicts and tensions are revealed. Demure sweetness is emphasised and simultaneously undermined by a subtle gesture or grimace that reveals sullen rage or nascent desires.
A slight girl with a bunch of white daisies is sketched on canvas in Pretty enough (2005). She has childish features, a pert nose, big doe eyes, rosy cheeks, rose-bud lips and a flower in her hair. Brigid writes of her strategic use of 'cuteness' which she employs with 'a soft 'twist of the knife' to bring the viewer 'into an emotional space they might otherwise resist [and] offer a slow revealing, a leakage of ambiguous uneasiness.'2 The girl quietly glowers under her fringe. Obedient but despondent she sits on a patch of weedy grass, her legs entwined awkwardly like a mermaid's tail. The horizon is drafted loosely, as if no more than a wistful idea of the world beyond.
Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Mermaid explores the perilous journey of adolescence. The story pivots on the hopes and dreams of the littlest mermaid, the youngest of six princesses. Fascinated by her older sisters' stories of adventure she desperately wanted to escape the restrictions of her watery childhood. However, she was not allowed to venture to the surface of the ocean until she was fifteen. Finally, on her birthday the old queen dowager declared 'you must endure the pain for the sake of finery' and, in a simple ritual, adorned the mermaid's head with a pearly wreath and clamped oyster shells to her tail before allowing her to swim up to glimpse above the waves.3 Entranced, the little mermaid saw the sun setting, a ship wrecked in an electrical storm, and a young prince sinking towards the bottom of the sea.
Brigid's paintings resonate with mythological archetypes and seem to allude to fairy tales and dreamy narratives. Reality slips into whimsical vignettes: two children, they could be changelings, lazily bask in a bucolic landscape; a lonely black bird sings to the morning sky precariously perched on a thorny spike; a couple in a tiny coracle fishing by a single fluttering lamp, seem to be adrift on an endless expanse of dark water.
Mermaids are the subject of mysterious sightings and sailors' tales. They suggest virginal inaccessibility, exotic sexual allure and death by drowning. Like unicorns, platypi and other implausible fauna they illustrate ancient maps and, once upon a time, were highly sought after. Shrivelled specimens, made from monkeys' heads sewn onto the bodies of large fish such as cod, were traded in the Far East and ended up in European collections.
'They had lovely voices, much clearer than any mortal, and when a storm was rising, and they expected ships to be wrecked, they would sing in the most seductive strains of the wonders of the deep, bidding the seafarers have no fear of them. But the sailors could not understand the words; they thought it was the voice of the storm; nor could it be theirs to see this Elysium of the deep, for when the ship sank they were drowned.' 4
Unlike her sisters who were satisfied by luring sailors to their death, the little mermaid wanted to become a girl and marry the prince that she had saved and left unconscious on a beach. Tearing through the web of childhood stories and half-truths, the little mermaid left her sisters, and swam alone past boiling eddies, through whirlpools and polyps that had 'tentacles like wiggling worms'in order to make a lethal pact with a sea-hag. In return for her lovely voice and naÃ¯ve innocence the witch 'punctured her breast and let the black blood drop into the cauldron' mixing it into a toxic potion that would transform the mermaid into a young woman. As well as cutting out her tongue, the witch cursed her: every step would feel as if she was 'treading upon sharp knives, so sharp as to draw blood' and, if she failed in her quest, she would die.5
Although mute, nuanced gestures and postures reveal pent-up, intensely felt emotions. Many of Brigid's figures meet the gaze of the viewer and look as if they are want to blurt something out. Some of the images are raw. In The pink girl (2008) a child dressed in a frilly crimson dress for a beauty pageant appears to be crushed yet she glares out defiantly. She has dark shadows around her eyes, a bruise-like smear of blue make-up. Precocious, and sexualised beyond her years, the image is ominous and seems to allude to exposure to danger and sinister tragedies, such as the murder of Jon-Benet Ramsay whose body was found in the basement of the family home.
Brigid is interested in the way colour and the material qualities of paint can express 'quiet languages or emotional states that can be difficult to articulate.' 6She uses a distinctive colour spectrum of rich pinks, greens, blues, yellows and pastels and takes an intuitive and spontaneous approach to the application of oil paint. Grounded in a technical proficiency, Brigid's use of transparent watery washes create penetrable surfaces and her loose brushstrokes, like hand-writing, reveal individuality and the emotive intention of her painterly gestures and mark making.
The little mermaid enchanted those around her with her graceful demeanour and light step. When, inevitably, the prince became betrothed to a princess from a neighbouring kingdom, the little mermaid's sisters exchanged their long silky hair for a poisoned knife and cajoled their little sister to kill him while he slept and sprinkle his blood on her feet in order to undo the curse and magically restore her silvery tail. At dawn, as the wedding party sailed across the sea, the little mermaid peered at the prince asleep and vulnerable beside his new bride. Despite her sisters' pleas and their wails of mourning she dropped the knife, threw herself overboard and drowned.
Many of Brigid's images depict people sleeping. The close proximity and veracity of the exposed and susceptible figures is disconcerting. A young man in a dewy slumber is oblivious to being watched. A girl curled into pillows seems to be wrapt in dreams. As well as taking her own photographs for source material Brigid scours the media for images that have a particular emotional resonance. Not her boys (2007) was inspired by a magazine photograph of the newly adopted children of a celebrity. Two toddlers are snuggled together fast asleep in a cosy bed with fresh white linen.
Exposed to the world, their privacy undermined, the painting infers a betrayal of trust and rupture of security. Trust, vulnerability and intimacy are also explored in Brigid's portraits of Adelaide based artists, her family and friends. There is a special quality to these images as everyone portrayed has a close connection with Brigid. She is cherished, and they look at her with openness and trust. Intimate moments when the people have revealed their love and friendship are captured.
The drowned mermaid transformed into wisp of air, a barely discernable gentle breeze, and a wish that one day she would become an immortal soul. Musing on ancient connections between eroticism, ecstasy, religion and death, George Bataille in The Tears of Eros included images of prehistoric pubic triangles carved into limestone, ancient female figures sculpted into the shape of a phallus, the ivory Lespugne Venus and the famous Venus of Willendorf. The shapely Venuses are modelled on full-breasted, generous, fecund woman.7 Curiously, their legs are joined and shaped like mermaids' tails. Sexual awakening and eroticism has been woven into myths and women's stories throughout the ages. Perhaps the hand-held ritualistic figures were used as a talisman to draw a lover closer, promote fertility, induce pregnancy and birth. Echoing depictions of female desire across the centuries, a beautiful, voluptuous woman stands naked in Heart shaped guts (2009). As if cut with a knife she is bleeding, her emotions and inside life are spilling out. A tattoo of a sailor's love-heart is etched on her skin, the name of her one true love yet to be inscribed.
Tattoos like those on the gnarled body of an ancient mariner, are etched into the fragile white skin of a baby in Birthmark (2007). Blue line-drawings of a mermaid, a masted-ship in full sail, knotted ropes and an anchor, a skull and cross-bones, fish and a pierced heart cover the child's body. Incongruously, they speak of life-experience. Just old enough to take his first steps, the child is physically and emotionally vulnerable, yet seems knowing beyond his years. Insisting on vulnerability as a strength linked with generosity and intimacy, and acknowledging the entangled web of culture, histories and mythologies that influence the risks we take Brigid frequently integrates tattoos in her work: 'we are born marked with old stories.'8
1. Hans Christian Andersen, 'The Mermaid', The Classic Fairy Tales of Hans Andersen, London: Studio Editions: 1992, 36.
2. Brigid Noone, Vulnerability & Generosity: Sensibility in Contemporary Figurative Painting, unpublished Research Masters exegesis, 27
3. Hans Christian Andersen, 'The Mermaid', The Classic Fairy Tales of Hans Andersen, 25.
4. Hans Christian Andersen, 'The Mermaid', The Classic Fairy Tales of Hans Andersen, 25.
5. Hans Christian Andersen, 'The Mermaid', The Classic Fairy Tales of Hans Andersen, 33-36.
6. Brigid Noone, Vulnerability & Generosity, 30.
7. Georges Bataille, The Tears of Eros, City Light Books: San Francisco: 1990, 23-31.
8. Brigid Noone, Vulnerability & Generosity, unpublished Research Masters exegesis, 30.