Cob Gallery presents Hot Water, the UK debut solo exhibition of American artist Frances Waite, and the second to feature in the gallery’s 10-year anniversary programme.
Waite's graphite drawings are characterised by confrontational voyeurism, often weaponised by the artist to dissemble patriarchal structures. Depicting transgressive behaviour in startling verisimilitude, Waite constructs ‘near-truth’ alternate realities that scrutinise human anxieties.
Despite the appearance of being suspended in fantasy, Waite confesses that her works are somewhat rooted in the autobiographical – expressing internalised, personal angst, immediate experiences and the socio-political tensions of her generation. With this in mind, and created over the past year, this new body of work is intrinsically bound to the experience and isolation of lockdown.
Hot Water sees Waite explore the domestic bathroom setting as the backdrop for a new suite of drawings, exposing the ambiguities of this secluded space and private activity. It is this environment, traditionally associated with cleansing and ritualistic purification, that becomes fertile ground for her main conceptual concerns: the stage on which scenes of pleasure and pain can take place. Waite depicts her cast of bathers – in pairs or in solitude, unapologetic and hyper-sexed – performing for the viewer as much as for themselves, whilst cut adrift and revelling their own eroticised fantasy worlds.
Tense ambiguities underpin each work heightening absurdity and distorting meaning – reflection, introspection and tenderness are poised on the brink of isolation; sexual empowerment opposes innocence and vulnerability; eroticism froths above a latent violence, the pornographic image collides with the traditional nude in art. Hot Water itself signifies danger as much as it holds the capacity to soothe and cleanse.
Much like the preoccupation of previous drawing series, Waite reclaims a version of female objectification by way of challenging a tradition associated with the the male gaze. And although gender ambiguity is apparent, Waite mutates the most common visual tropes in art history, redeeming the canon from historic male painters of the early 20th century and updating the demure ‘Woman at her Toilette’ and ‘Venus De Milo’ stereotype with an uninhibited gender cryptic counterpart. But perhaps more we are reminded of Frida Kahlo’s pivotal work What the Water Gave Me (1938) - a painting where the artist’s biography is seen floating in the bathwater. Viewed as a potent symbol of self discovery - this self portrait was used by the artist to ‘expel her demons’- the bath, at times, her only respite from the pain of her physical demise and an arena for deep contemplation.
Rendered in monochrome, Waite removes the easily recognisable comforts of a domestic bathroom interior. Homogenising the backdrop in this way makes it seem like a cell. As we encounter the averted gazes and subverted behaviour, a certain dehumanisation takes place, and these characters appear as caged animals. Something shifts and the works sit somewhere between snapshots of personal pleasure, portholes into a ward, and peepshows. It is unclear if we are spying or invited to watch. This sense is furthered by our restricted view and the cropped body parts, decapitated and dismembered, somewhere between the nude selfie and a cadaver laid on the mortuary slab.
This enclosed domestic setting is interesting to compare to her previous series Escape Fantasy that depict visions from a sweepingly epic world following a climate catastrophe. It’s arguable that Escape Fantasy and Hot Water flank the collective mood on both sides of the pandemic – the former representing and criticising attitudes towards an escalating environmental emergency, and the latter, the stark realities of a surprisingly domesticated apocalyptic experience.
That being said, while set indoors, Hot Water communicates with the elemental – the power and unpredictability of natural forces that recur in Waite’s work. Fire and water often feature as active participants, reminding us that we are never really in control. After all, it is water that baptises, spa is the acronym for ‘salus per aqua’, or healing through water, and the world was redeemed when God sent the floods to wash away the sin of man. It is arguable, that Waite seems preoccupied across all her series with a contemporary reimagining of The Last Judgement, and certainly there is a recognisable religious undertone to the works. More significantly in this series, a set of works introduce a flock of devilish winged creatures. In cartooned contrast to the hyper real portraits, they recall a Boschian 'Garden of Earthly Delights' style absurdity. Undefined as either stereotype - devil or angel- these clearly recall animation or comic book depictions of the ‘shoulder angel’ - a plot device used to represent the human conscience. Where this commonly depicts both good and bad tormenting their host- here Waite’s depictions seem to sit somewhere in between - non definable in gender or unclear in motivation, they are protectively arranged around their subjects and seemingly indulging in the throes of ecstasy or encouraging deviance. With a certain desensitisation that is apparent, it seems unclear if they reflect any sort of inner ‘conflict’. However, do they still caution the viewer on worldly fleshy indulgence? Are they dire warnings on the perils of life's temptations? Or oppositely, do they represent our instinctive drive for carnal pleasure and our longing for uninhibited liberation of the flesh.
For Waite, during lockdown in her Los Angeles apartment, bathing became an escapism ritual, a retreat from the monotony of the day and a temporary relief from her solitude.She began to contemplate the bathtub itself as not only an altar of relaxation and calm, but also an arena where terror played out. The bathroom’s role in horror films is a familiar trope: a violent murder, at the victim’s (woman’s) most vulnerable, blood diluting to water, both thrills and horrifies. Guaranteed to captivate. On a more mundane but no less gruesome note, the bathroom is so often the locus, the tub the bomos, of most accidental home deaths. For Waite, the bathroom became a portal to liberation, a freedom to play out her worst fears, as the walls closed in.