Just One Macaron More Please Mr. Executioner is a tryptic of a woman we assume to be Marie Antoinette. The appearance of the figure fades in and out of focus across the canvases; the one thing that remains is a 3D macaron clutched in the subject’s hand. Over the centuries, the person of Marie Antoinette has been obscured by her own legend and her supposed suggestion that the starving should “eat cake”. Here, Wadsworth’s subject also struggles to maintain a consistent appearance, reminding us of the transient nature of truth in trying to capture the ‘real person’ in painting.
On the opposite wall, That Man is a large canvas of a man’s face, collaged together with small snippets from adverts for women’s beauty products. The man’s eyes evade ours, looking past our shoulder to someone behind us, presumably at the woman who has had to paint her nails, gloss her lips and buy those pearls to be valued by him. It is his gaze that holds the centre of the painting, just as it is the male gaze that has historically determined how women are perceived and valued by society.
Wadsworth doesn’t just challenge the presumptions of the male gaze in the subject of her paintings but in the very fact it is her female gaze that directs these portraits. The stereotype is that woman is the muse not the master – as Guerilla Girls likes to remind us, less than 5% of artists in the Modern Art section of the Met are women but 85% of nudes are female. Wadsworth flips this on its head with In Unrequited Love: Men I have Been Besotted with to No Avail and The French Boy who Broke my Heart by considering the appearance of these men from the perspective of someone who might find them attractive.
GAZE is not an ordinary portrait exhibition. Familiar cultural imagery is subverted to highlight how constructed it is. The Last Supper becomes A Last Supper and the regular disciples appear to be replaced with highly attractive young men. And a straightforward portrait of an art dealer’s son becomes a giant panelled masterpiece of 25 different characters. Of course, all portrait artists are presenting an alternative reality, it’s just that Wadsworth isn’t about to let us thoughtlessly accept it.