Miss Van shows us her ‘Lovestain’

Miss Van Love Stain

The work of Vanessa Alice Bensimon, better known as Miss Van, has always been a conundrum for feminists. On the one hand, when Miss Van (a native of Toulouse, France) began painting her buxom and rather arrogant looking ‘poupees’ in the mid 1990’s she was doing something really fresh and new. Along with fellow graffiti artist  Mademoiselle Kat, Miss Van created a vibrant feminine scene within the normally male dominated graffiti world. Her work, and relatively unusual artistic practice (Miss Van favours latex paint and brushes to spray cans), has since inspired many female graffers to pick up their paintbrushes and put their creativity out there.

All good stuff, of course! However, there’s that other hand to think about…

Back when she was starting out painting in Toulouse, Miss Van found that not everyone found her sexually posed doll characters -with eyes that are somewhere between vacant and ‘come to bed’- alluring. Feminists offended by these eroticised fantasy women would write angrily over them or, literally, de-face them. As Miss Van told SWINDLE magazine;

“I had problems with some feminist girls in Toulouse. They were the ones painting the faces black. I guess it was a silly reaction because it’s just painted images and fantasies, and people need to see it with more distance. It’s like something bringing you away for a few seconds, like daydreaming, when you’re walking down the street. If someone crosses out or paints over my stuff, I prefer to come back and make a new painting on top and then see what will happen.”

Untitleds from 2004 and 2003

Miss Van’s first UK solo show ‘Lovestain‘, hosted by the StolenSpace gallery from the 2nd-18th of October, acted as both retrospective and exhibition of newest works. There’s a good review of her newest works here, but it’s a bit of a departure from the graffiti work Miss Van is known for.

I especially want to think through her retrospective here, which began with a display of some of her earlier works committed to canvas from the noughties (above and below)…

Untitled 65 - 2004 and Untitled 69-2005

These older pieces show the Miss Van style I am most familiar with; bright, quirky, playful. The girls (I don’t usually like to say ‘girls’ when I’m describing what are really women, but here it seems an appropriate term for these make-believe ‘dolls’) are stuck-up and sultry, but ultimately they look like they’d be a hoot to hang around with! A small part of me wonders what it would be like to embody one of these girls, so aloof and cool with buckets of sass and street smarts.

You can bet these gals get their own way, trading off their charm and gorgeousness… but here I am, getting dangerously close to the kind of ‘bawdy equals liberated’ argument that allows The Pussycat Dolls to say they are empowering women! In truth, there wouldn’t be much chance of Miss Van’s early dolls standing up to a sturdy feminist critique from, say, Ariel Levy. These works are yet another example of women being portrayed as defined predominantly by how sexual, raunchy, and ‘hot’ they are.

But, even though I know all this, I still rather like these early paintings. It’s the part of me that enjoys watching ‘Mean Girls’ (that same part that  quite likes retro 1950’s pin-ups and loves Beyonce videos) that wants to stick up for them and can’t help but recall that scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Jessica Rabbit states; ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way!’

Miss Van Untitled 62-2006

Later on in the exhibition, more recent works made me re-think my feelings towards Miss Van’s characters. Over the years it seems that Miss Van’s work has evolved in a rather sinister direction – with gothic elements such as horns, skulls and creeping in to the mix.

Miss Van Untitled54 from 2007

In earlier works the girls had looked similar; like Barbie dolls it was hard to distinguish between their faces, but each one at least seemed to be dressed and styled differently. Now, in this new gothic era, the characters all looked the same. Same strawberry blonde hair, same smudged red lips, same nudity.

Closed eyes with darkly smoked lids and streaked mascara hide any personality that the character might contain within. The girls have become sad and introverted, often bound up in their own hair. In other, more circus-themed images, the dolls conceal their identities behind black masks.

Gallery Interior

Miss Van Untitled 53-2007

In the past Miss Van has admitted to being almost ‘at one’ with her dolls; she used to dress similarly to her 90’s characters when she was painting them and has recognised the resemblance between them and herself. It feels then, that by removing any distinguishing features from her old dolls, her newer works become more obviously self portraits where she can place herself at the centre of her fantasies.

And what fantasies! The ‘Stolen Heart’ series makes real the threatening danger that had been so evidently lurking in other works. A slow death is served up with lashings of ketchup-red blood, that seeps from where this woman’s heart once resided… until it bathes the semi nude beauty in her oval frame.

Two things are immediately unnerving here. One – is this just another glamourisation of violence against women (link may be triggering)? And two – if these images are autobiographical, what must the artist have been going through at the time of painting?

Miss Van 'Stolen Heart'

Miss Van Stolen Heart 5 (top) 2008

So, by the end of my visit to ‘Lovestain’ I was still very much in that old feminist conundrum over Miss Van’s work. Without my feminist thinking cap on, I really like her style. I like the cute and sultry ‘dolls’ (I spent my entire youth drawing nothing but Bratz-like cartoons of girls, so I understand the appeal), and I enjoy that gothic feeling of being spooked and that uneasy realisation that my feathers have been ruffled.

But I do still find her images of women problematic. I know it’s unfair to put such a weight of responsibility on just one female artist (who -although it’s not clear- is seemingly representing herself, rather than women as a whole) but reading statements about Miss Van’s work that say “her seductive girls are pictures of empowerment” I can’t help but make sure I take a really long, really hard look. Still, however critical I might be over aspects of her work, I’m glad that in Miss Van we have a strong and successful female artist who would never censor herself.

Miss Van Wooden Chapel

Inside Miss Van's Chapel

(Photographs by Sarah Barnes)

By: Sarah Barnes, 06.11.2009 | Comments (1)
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  • Melanie
    November 7th, 2009
    1:12 pm

    Miss Van, in my opinion, is wonderful – and to see her success blossom from her work which began with her fighting for her space (and wall) in such a male dominated graf world, makes me really pleased and proud.
    I’m gutted that I couldn’t make it down to the exhibition. Thanks for the round-up.

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