This painting sits directly between the exploration of gender identity and presentation in the intimate portraits of the Dress Codes series, and my latest series examining the powerful narratives of the anonymous body.
I chose to paint her twice, in a pose that resembles a mirror image. I wanted to leave the interpretation open; is this an inner conflict, the self divided, or is it two people in competition? Is this a woman, or a man in drag? The dress nearly slips from the shoulders, lace revealing bare flesh, and yet nothing is really exposed. Dressed in her armour of lace, protected within the citadel of the feminine mystique, she prepares her weapons and defenses in the battle of the sexes.
The model in this painting is Jen Rae, a performer with the New Jacobin Club, a very theatrical, dramatically dark musical group. This costume is one of her stage concoctions, although in her version, it is smeared and stained with black and spattered with fake blood. I was really drawn to this outfit because of the contradiction of the delicate, ultra feminine symbology of the wedding dress, and the way in which Jen has chosen to present it, all bloody, torn and stained. Originally I was going to paint it that way, but as I drew the image, I felt the power of it lay in the mystery, the remote, impersonality of ‘the bride’ behind the veil, and the weight of history, patriarchy and girlish fantasy embedded in the virginal bridal role. Jen’s androgynous appearance, and the tough look of her extensive tattooing contribute to the dichotomy.
For the theatrical numbers of NJC shows I search for costumes that have a strong visual impact and use commonly understood icons and archetypes. I have been wanting to wear a wedding dress for an NJC show for some time: it's recognizable, and carries an emotional weight for many (including myself). My vision to make it tattered and bloody was of an innocent seeing some horrors that she was never prepared for. She seeks to escape or embrace the reality of living, destroying her white dress in the process. The Battle Dress painting illustrates that I'm too big for that dress, and the tattoos and androgyny clash with the archetype of a naïve, veiled bride. Wearing that dress in itself was a battle; I could not shake the image of childhood dress-up where we practice societal roles with my own conflicting emotions over a failed marriage. That discomfort and emotional weight was captured beautifully in this painting, especially with the pastoral background where I could imagine a lavish wedding was taking place.
Jen Rae 2017