Lee Price, a modern female figurative painter, has gained recognition for a series of hyperrealistic oil paintings depicting women and food, aptly named “Women and Food.” Mostly self-portraits, these large paintings show partially or completely nude women indulging in junk food from a bird’s eye view, mostly in the settings of the bathtub or the bed. I have selected three paintings from Price’s series that I believe will give an accurate survey of the series; Jelly Doughnuts, Lisa in Tub with Chocolate Cake, and Self Portrait in Tub with Chinese Food. These paintings subvert common tropes of the depiction of the female body in fine art and media through composition, setting, subject matter, point of view, the figure itself, and the painter’s own gender identity.
In fine art and in media throughout history, women are depicted as sexy (by male painters) even when they’re alone. Such works as La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and La Maja Desnuda by Francisco Goya portray solitary, nude women as sensual, making eye contact with the viewer and welcoming them in. The viewer is treated as part of the scene, and as such the female figures are not truly alone. In La Maja Desnuda, the figure’s body language is open, shoulders back, arms up. In La Grande Odalisque, though the figure’s body is not facing the viewer, she is aware of the viewer’s presence and her serene, sultry gaze welcomes the viewer in. They recline, but they do not seem comfortable. Their postures are too perfect, positioned to show their “womanly” curves rather than to rest. They are putting on a show for the painter and for the viewer. These paintings are representative of female nudes throughout art history; their bodies are on display, meant to look beautiful. Their bodies are meant to be pleasing to the viewer.
However, in Price’s series, the figures are not sexy at all. Jelly Doughnuts depicts a middle-aged woman, with lines on her face, while Lisa in Tub with Chocolate Cake depicts a fat woman. In the latter piece, the figure’s breasts aren’t really shapely, and are not at all emphasized. They rather fade into the rest of the piece. Some of the pieces in the series, including Jelly Doughnuts and Self Portrait in Tub with Chinese Food, don’t even show the crotch, breasts, or buttocks at all—a stark contrast to La Grande Odalisque and La Maja Desnuda, in both of which the artists put the shapeliness of the female figure on display and show the breasts and buttocks of the figure. There is nothing particularly sexual about Price’s figures. The women are simply existing.
The figures’ surroundings in Lee Price’s paintings are not sexy either. In La Grande Odalisque and La Maja Desnuda, the figures are reclining on cushions and sheets draped and strewn about artfully, against a dark background that draws the eye to only the figures. Conversely, even though they are in beds and bathtubs, which many associate with sexuality, the most obvious aspect of the settings of Lee Price’s paintings is the mess. There is food everywhere, dirty plates, crumbs on the floor. Worrying about ants is not anyone’s definition of sexy. The bird’s-eye view also subverts the typical setting of the female nude. Bird’s-eye shots “function as maps of the shooting environment,” in this case mapping and emphasizing the surroundings, and their un-sexiness, and making them just as significant as the figures (Jim Stinson). Even the bath itself isn’t sexy. Sexy women take bubble baths, with their cleavage and knees flirtily peeking above the bubbles. The bathtubs in Price’s works are full of plain, clear water, showing every lump, patch of hair, and roll of fat, forcing the subject, and the viewer, to look at all the figure’s bodily imperfections.
The most important aspect of Price’s series, though, is that the women are unapologetic about themselves. The bathroom is a place of privacy and isolation, and the bed is as well, to a lesser extent. In this setting, a person is not expecting to be seen, and as such has the freedom to look however they want and do whatever they want unobserved. The junk food, the bed, and the bath are all very indulgent, and there is guilt especially linked to the junk food. Being able to lie in bed, or soak in a bath, and gorge yourself on junk food feels luxuriously disgusting. This indulgence is defying the expectation of women to sacrifice their pleasures for others or for their looks. Price states,
I think that many women are brought up, both through our immediate families and through society, to nurture others at the expense of our own needs. We hide our appetites, not just for food but in many areas of our lives, and then consume in secret. In some of my most recent works the women seem to be coming out of the closet, eyeing the viewer – not censoring their hunger. (Jenny Cusack)
There is an expectation of self-sacrifice and shame for women, which Price challenges with her figures’ surroundings and actions.
On top of that, in all of the pieces in Price’s series, the viewer is blocked out, set apart from the scene, both by the point of view and the body language of the subjects. Stinson describes the effect of a bird’s-eye-view as creating a sense of detachment. This angle effectively forces the viewer out of the scene. On top of that, the figures’ postures are closed off, hunched over. They are relaxed, but they are receding into themselves; the arm covering part of the face in Jelly Doughnuts, the knees drawn close to the chests in Lisa in Tub with Chocolate Cake and Self Portrait in Tub with Chinese Food. Bringing the extremities close to the face and body and hunching over close off the individual from other people. The body language and camera effectively push the viewer away as unimportant to the subject’s existence—a stark contrast to the Goya’s depiction of the female nude as open, willing, gazing coyly and welcomingly at the viewer.
Price creates the sense that the women in the pieces are unapologetic about the way they look and what they’re doing. They are taking up lots of space, making a mess, eating food others may disapprove of, and baring their bodies in all their imperfections, all while completely ignoring the viewer, as if to say, “I’ll do what I want, and I don’t care what you think. Go away.” Price herself says,
In a few of my paintings, the figure is eyeing the viewer. In these paintings, the figure’s actions are uncensored and an absence of guilt is much more prevalent. These are meant to convey an acceptance of hunger, a lack of guilt about having an appetite—not just with food, but in general. However, in most of my paintings, the model is watching herself. She is utterly consumed in her actions. She has no awareness of being seen, and the private environments in which her actions are taking place remove any concern for being caught. When I’m choosing poses, I try to be very conscious of conveying a feeling of “How would I behave if I knew no one could see me?” So the viewer is simply watching the model watch herself. (Heather Smith Stringer)
In Jelly Doughnuts, the figure’s powerful gaze almost seems like a challenge: “Yes, I’m eating doughnuts in bed. Yes, I’m making a mess. Yes, I’m indulging. What are you going to do about it?” In the other Price pieces, it’s a less assertive and less conscious rejection of the viewer, primarily created through body language. The figure is so wrapped up in herself that she could not care less about the viewer, withdrawn into her own mind. There are two main relationships a viewer can have with a composition: they can be invited and engaged into the scene through acknowledgement of the viewer, or be an omniscient, detached, ignored spectator. Most female nudes throughout art history, such as La Grande Odalisque and La Maja Desnuda, are the former, with the figures conscious of the viewer’s gaze. Price’s female nudes, on the other hand, are unique in that they create the latter relationship with the viewer.
Although Goya and Ingres’ pieces are beautiful, they only perpetuate the expectation of a woman to exist for others—her attention, her body, her actions. Price’s works do the opposite. They depict women existing, first and foremost, for themselves. Price’s women recline for themselves, bathe for themselves, pay attention to themselves, and eat for themselves. Their excess is their own.
La Maja Desnuda
La Grande Odalisque
Self-Portrait in Tub with Chinese Food
Lisa in Tub with Chocolate Cake