Born in Amsterdam in 1957, Renee came to England in
1977 to study drawing and painting at the Camden Institute in London under
Richard Cook. After further study at The Byam Shaw School of Art where she
gained an L.D.A.D. and B.S.Dip. Hons. She completed the first year of
an MA at Goldsmith's College in 1987. Since 1986 she has lectured and taught
first at Byam Shaw and then mainly in schools and colleges around Cambridge
where she now lives. In 1996 she was appointed Joint Head of Art at Kings
College School, Cambridge. The following is an appreciation of Renee's painting:
Walking into a room of Renée Spierdijk’s recent paintings is at first a little like walking into an album of old family photographs. The moments they frame – a Mexican girl’s first communion, Swedish sisters on a family visit in their Sunday best, an Afro-Caribbean girl on points in a tutu and ballet shoes, American sisters draped in the stars and stripes, a Dutch mother and baby in their native landscape - are on the face of it celebratory, even proclamatory.
But there is something else. The girls’ faces are often bleached, even grey, their expressions blank or absent; a vague sense of constraint is everywhere, from the heavily pollarded trees of the dutch landscape to the tight frills of the mexican girl’s whiter-than-white dress and socks. The contrast between these and her sour expression, or between the bright-as-a-button “little red book” and the bewilderment of the chinese toddler holding it aloft, are astringent and uncomfortable. We sense irony. Bit by bit, we are led beyond first appearances and obliged to notice that these girls, with their different skin colours and nationalities and environments, are trapped.
The greyed-out children appear almost cut out and stuck on to their strongly decorative backgrounds. Figure and ground jar, as though each were struggling to dominate the other. The grounds have a flat, two dimensional feel,like wallpaper, or symbolic, pared-down dream landscapes, but are bright and compelling; whereas the fully three dimensional figures appear energetically effaced – sickly or under threat. Threat of what? Loss of liveliness or independence? A kind of castration or psychic mutilation, perpetrated by their innocent seeming environment? It is almost as though those jolly seeming backgrounds are somehow responsible for the figures’ wanness. Some of the paintings were based on discovered, old photographs; but as well as photographs, these portraits are reminiscent of dead butterflies pinned in glass cases or caged animals in zoos.
But though wan, these girls are not dead. There remains a sense of their potential for breaking free and recovering from their half-hidden psychic imprisonments. Just as they are sexually latent – prepubescent – they are also energetically latent. Some appear patient, others quietly mutinous, as they wait, and hope, to become themselves.
Why does Renée Spierdijk paint only girls - formerly women, and animals? Surely there can be no shortage of young boys equally trapped, equally worthy of attention; but these do not appear in her work. Their absence is quietly conspicuous, and invites us to wonder whether it is a peculiarly feminine psychological predicament Spierdijk wants us to see. She has been referred to as a “painter from a woman’s perspective;” and certainly, her work seems to connect with that of Marlene Dumas and Frida Kahlo, both painters who have been alternately feted and patronised as “women’s painters.” But this is not “feminist” work, in any simplistic, banner-waving sense; it is too intimate and too truthful to each individual subject’s situation to be explicitly political. Nonetheless, it does seem to refer, with the quiet authority of distilled experience, to the cost of the constraints within which women-to-be find themselves bound. Constraints which are benign in their intentions, but malign in their effects on liveliness. Liveliness which craves freedom.
As a body of work, it is both attractive and disturbing. In an accomplished, painterly idiom, it speaks uncomfortable truths about unwitting abuses. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” or Lars von Trier’s protagonist in “Festen,” the work is brave because the forces it dares to accuse are both powerful and - in part - well meaning. The message would appear to be this: absolutely anything -religion, politics, nationality, art, family, gender, motherhood-and-apple-pie – is capable of being misused to crimp and confine the human spirit. But also this: the human spirit is not easily defeated. The work is both a warning, and a gesture of solidarity to anyone who has ever felt psychologically trapped. For all its darkness, it is heartening.
Dr. Sandy Goldbeck-Wood
Copyright Dr. S Goldbeck-Wood 2009