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August 7, 2017 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Feeling Blue

In the exhibition Feeling Blue, Harriet Bright’s Kayte (2009) is surrounded by famous faces, hanging opposite Jenny Shipley and next to the Queen. Despite being unknown, Kayte manages to attract attention and assert her place among these powerful women. Kayte stares directly out of the canvas with a nonchalant expression, confidently returning the gaze of the viewer and inhibiting us from enjoying the comfort of staring at her undetected.  

In this painting Bright acknowledges the depictions of female nudes that have dominated much of the history of painting. She presents her subject reclining without clothes on, much like the numerous goddesses and prostitutes who have been painted before her. However, instead of conforming to the sexism of this tradition, Kayte’s body confronts the viewer and challenges objectification. Like her gaze, her body is directed straight out towards us. Rather than posing so as to accentuate the curve of her hips or the pertness of her breasts, she sits so that her breasts hang to either side of her body, and her stomach forms a series of undulations which end in a glimpse of her pubic hair. The wrinkles on her face and short brown hair on the brink of grey reveal her age, rejecting the beauty industry’s infatuation with youth. Instead of being a sign of her sexual availability, Kayte’s frank nakedness and her assertive stare force us to accept her body as exactly that — a natural human body.  

Kayte’s legs are stretched out towards us, propped up on the footrest of her La-Z-Boy. This large blue chair links Bright’s work to the others in Feeling Blue, an exhibition dedicated to the colour. It also serves to assert Kayte’s power over the way that we view her body. Her arms are spread apart, placed firmly on the arms of the chair, like a monarch seated on her throne. This powerful stance, combined with the the gendering of the very name La-Z-Boy, encourages us to view Kayte as a masculine figure. She stares out at us with all the power of the male gaze, subverting the long history of female figures rendered nothing more than sexual objects. Her portrait confidently asserts “I am here”, “I can see you”, and “I decide how you see me”.

As this exhibition centres around colour, the portraits feature a variety of styles and subjects.  Kayte herself is a Blues musician from the Kapiti Coast, a fitting career for the subject of a blue exhibition. Feeling Blue is currently showing at The New Zealand Portrait Gallery and runs until August 24. Entry is free.   

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