by Jane Lee

In the past Sam Ainsley’s best known and most celebrated works have been the great “Warrior Women” created for her exhibition in Glasgow in 1987. These figures were monumental in scale, indeed their size as well as their form brought to mind the caryatids of classical Greece. Their extreme contraposto and the bold energetic pattern of their surface construction, however, linked them to another set of well know architectural female figures, Matisse’s mural for the Barnes Foundation. Matisse’s leaping Maenadic figures are truncated by the curves of the bays in which they are sited but the effect is of energy, a power which could burst beyond the constraints of bricks and mortar. The power of these figures, and of the Greek caryatids is an interior force, essential, potential. This is just the power of San Ainsley’s Warrior Women. Limbs truncated, bound in the sheathes of complicated costume, they are like great chrysalis, pullulating with an interior life on the point of revelation. The silhouette, the exterior boundary of their morphology, is a constraint which is under threat. Their power does not resolve itself into the classically simple force of the caryatid nor into Matisse’s lyrical continuity which architecture but remains complex and divided within itself.

Sam Ainsley’s work has long used the body, particularly the female body, as a model of society. The tradition of Hobbes Leviathan, the anatomical figure of the human body as “civitas”, the head, government, the arms, active executive power in the service of the “head”, etc. reaches its end point and finally its destruction in works like the Warrior Woman. In the hidden interior complexity of these works is the pressure towards a newer bodily model of society. Our model of society is not anatomical but immunological. This has been apparent for a good twenty years. In 1978, for example, in Umberto Eco’s consideration of the activities of the Red Brigade in his essay “Striking at the Heart of the State”, the easy, cogent argument that the state has no “heart” or other vital organ against which one can strive is evidence that Hobbes has been replaced by the small, intermittent, myriad exchanges of power in Michel Foucault’s model of society. Eco argues that a Red Brigade attack effects nothing but an increase of counter-valent forces in its general area. What could be closer to an immune response. The net effect of this viewing the body and society, each through the model of the other in turn, is to present both not as objects but as sites. The closed morphology of the Hobbesian social body is replaced by the amorphic result of the final release of that complex interior of the Warrior Women. There is not centre to this complexity and neither is there an exterior from which it can be viewed as simple and whole. One is always within a complexity which can only be scrutinised in small parts and therefore can never be but partly and momentarily known.

Sam Ainsley, in her more recent work, creates a range of emblems for this localized and particularised knowledge. In 1992 she devised and excellent conceit from the embroidery hoop which, designed precisely to focus for scrutiny and close work, implies and infinite number of mechanisms for concentration upon the fragment. The drawn circle which marks a map, the peripheral limit of a telescopic or microscopic lens, the circle in which all types of specialist diagrams is the standard idiom for the characteristic fragment in changed scale, are all called into play with great subtlety and a good deal of ambiguity. The arterial red of Mapping the Difference slides the world between topography and biology. Barriers and Conduits suggests a beautifully stylised diagram of the cellular division of tissue as much as it suggests a geographical model. The Great Divide is difficult to place between the close stratifications of geology and intimate biological information of electron microphotography. All underline the aggregate and complex nature of both the world and our manner of knowing it. All invite a further entry, a closer involvement rather than a standing back. All involve an imaging of the body as the world and the world as the body.

Among this rich series of paintings there are a few which quite directly point to the tension between the delusion which is the objectified self and the precise knowledge of specific but immeasurable fragments of the interior site which is lived experience. From the Inside to the Outside and Academic Puzzles and Pale Answers are two of these. Similarly Ainsley occasionally refers directly to the social body in political terms. The painting 1917 to 1992 pins the emblemata of Stalinism and its downfall, to the edge of the circle. The effect is less like the fixing of a constellation than the microscopic view of bits of life which fail to move across the aqueous background solution to create a complex organism. It is an image which reflects the mood of much modern Eastern Literature.

The references to careful scrutiny do not imply a lack of passion, quite the reverse, they are the mark of a fascination and overriding empathy with all human life. The giving quality of cloth in the unstretched edges of the canvas, the luminosity and sensuousness of the colours and the exuberance of the drawing combine to make a characteristic visual generosity The scale of these works alone is telling of the nature of Ainsley’s long commitment to Public Art. Natural models of the sort I’ve referred to in describing Ainsley’s work might traditional obviate any ethical position al all. There is in this work, however, a complexity of moral judgement appropriate to the de-centring and fragmentation of knowledge and power. The gender of the work in the use of traditionally woman’s arts such as embroidery and sewing is not simply a reference to the gender of the artist, it is productive philosophically. This intermittent close attention, this microscopic precision of understanding within the sensitive site which is human life is a product of the valuing the knowledge in that it sustains life. The basic awareness of the nearness of dissolution, the fragility of the momentary organization of fragments is one in which women have been privileged. This understanding is in itself a great power, the interior of the Warrior Woman. If Sam Ainsley still chooses red it is not, like Matisse, to construct an efficient mid-plane but for iconographic reasons. Red is the colour of human life, equally vital and fatal.

Jane Lee.