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A speech made about Sadie Lee by Cherry Smyth - Art critic/writer and author of 'Dam Fine Art'

Sadie Lee is one of the foremost portrait painters of her generation. She has been selected for The Hunting Prize twice and for the BP Portrait Award a total of 5 times, resulting in a commendation in 1998 and the BP Travel Award in 1996. She has had 5 solo shows - at the National Portrait Gallery, Aberdeen City Art Gallery and recently at the Museum of Modern Art in Slovenia, among others. The series entitled 'Don't Look' which includes 'Pinky' and Amy's Room', the bold striking portraits were so greatly received in Slovenia, that the show was extended due to popular demand.

What continues to be so powerful and distinctive about Sadie's work is not simply her increasing virtuosity with paint and technique but her ability to access the heart of her subjects without stripping them of an ounce of autonomy. Often highly exposed, the figures always retain a sacrosanct core, a quietly defiant presence which twists the assumptions of the subject-object gaze. Amy in 'Amys Room' may be lifting her dress to reveal her panties in a highly ambiguous manner, but she utterly controls the gesture. She may wear little girl's clothes, but her face is sullen, almost goading, cleverly disrupting anty vulnerability in her pose and clothes. It's the confusing combination of gutsiness and surrender that makes Sadie's work so particularly hers and so intriguing. The dark palette and sensuality recall the early work of Balthus while the eroticism subtly references Rembrant's 'Woman Bathing in a Stream'.

With 'Pinky', Sadie explores the world of a fat girl whose shying away is impossibly tender and almost, but not quite, shameful. It's the way Sadie treads the highly conflicted territory of strong, familiar emotions, without an easy resolution, that draws us back to investigate the puzzle of the painting time and time again.

In 'Toffee Nose', the toffee-coloured subject takes on the epiphet which cannot be applied to her since it signifies the white, rich, privileged world from which she's excluded. By making her nose snubbed, she playfully snubs the rules of white money.

The theme of exclusion is a common one. Sadie's subjects, whether they are fat dykes, burly butches, aging burlesque stars or black girls, all challenge the stereotypes that hold them back or in. Yet there is no trace of didacticism. Sadie knows that each of us inhabit stereotypes about race, age, colour, sexuality even as we strive to live beyond them.

'Cross Dressers' also revels in a cheeky tension between appearance and the gaze. Framed apart by the green line within the composition of the portrait and by spatial distance, these lovers deconstruct the apparatus of the gaze in just one look. The nude, often the subject of male portraiture, concedes nothing of her nakedness, while the clothed woman, in conventionally male attire, is exposed by societies expectations of what women should wear and how they ought to behave. A double blow, the subjects reinforce each other, providing a visual sock on the jaw that forces you to pass from one figure to the other, to determine who's the most naked, the most exposed. Sometimes, it feels like you. It's the extraordinary way that Sadie seduces you into a dialogue with the subjects, almost in spite of yourself, that makes these painting resound and reverberate long after you have turned away. Their pleasure is a complex and trangressive one, like all lasting joys.


Cherry Smyth (2000)
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