Corinna Spencer, Portrait of a Lady (2015)

corinna spencer

There is something maddening about Corinna Spencer’s installation. Her 1,000 portraits have a compulsive, destructive streak which would surely destroy the mental equilibrium of any sitter.

The lady in question is already disintegrating. Eyes look out from somewhere behind the face. The lipstick is smeared on quick, perhaps as if for a public appearance in Bedlam.

Each board is 21 by 15 cm, a modest size. But there is nothing modest about their cumulative effect. The artist has spoken about her interest in obsessive love. Well, here it is, grandly embodied.

It was Gertrude Stein who once claimed there was no such thing as repetition. And yet the pre-eminent American writer made a specialism of repetitive literary portraits. Why should this be?

Unlike landscape, the face generally contains half a dozen similar features in a similar arrangement. A spot of flâneurism will confirm that urban life is an endless procession of this essential pattern.

Spencer’s own brand of portraiture is somewhere between the impressionistic or visually fleeting and the expressionistic or psychological. We are possibly too late to use the relative ‘isms’.

Above all, it is monomaniacal. In an interview with Yvette Greslé, the artist claimed her four figure sum of portraits represented “a reasonable number of paintings”.  But no, 1,000 is a crazy number.

Really, it is “the madness of art”, to quote Henry James, whose own, Portrait of a Lady, another epic example of portraiture, appeared, much like these paintings, in serial form. So many quotes today…

As John Cage said of music: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Spencer has never been boring. But it’s fair to say she is getting more and more interesting as she expands on monolithic series like this one, a fascinating, skewed take on traditional portraiture.

Portrait of a Lady can be seen at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery until 17 January 2016.

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