By Gareth Stevens

When the Lord was dishing out one-pointedness she missed a few of us and gave the motherload to Siobhan Stanley. Amongst other things in her time, she has been a successful TV and theatre actor, a soloist with both the Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet and Rambert Dance Company, worked as an NLP coach at Google and with Saatchi & Saatchi. She is living proof that having a YOLO spirit does not necessarily require you to take up adventure sports.

Six years ago and after an epiphany in Clerkenwell she was overcome by an uncontainable urge to paint. After a standing start – and a period of time studying under a traditional Atelier system in Florence – she has developed an impressive level of technical skill after the ‘Old Masters’. Perhaps this is no surprise given that much of her earlier life was so steeped in the exactitude of classical ballet.

Stanley cites the works of Hilliard, Gheeraerts, and Holbein as well as De Hooch, Hals and Giorgione as primary influences. Such painters were often commissioned to produce portraits that almost always celebrated their subjects’ material wealth, power and status, yet did nothing to convey any humility, warmth or humanity. Respectfully controverting and appropriating this painterly tradition, Stanley has put it to better use.

The paintings in this show are exclusively of young black men in Elizabethan clothes. When you first see them they can be disquieting and induce turmoil. Yes we are familiar with the portrait genre, we recognise the historical period and we respond to the aesthetic cues; but wait, this is ‘situation normal’ at the same time as being ‘all fucked up’, isn’t it?

PICTURE: Courtesy of the artist

There were in fact free black Africans in Britain at that time as Miranda Kaufmann’s book “Black Tudors” attests. Thus these works both rewrite history and at the same time provoke in us the visceral shame of not remembering, of not being told and perhaps for feeling that these scenes could not have happened when in fact they probably did. Make no mistake, Stanley hasn’t stumbled into the territory of identity politics unwittingly or without intelligent purpose, she is far too astute for that and knows exactly what she is doing.

After gently unsettling us these paintings lay our own biases and preconceptions bare. There is no escaping. Looking at Stanley’s work can be an emotional, provocative, but ultimately satisfying  experience. She not only tests us with her genre bending and defiant reimaginings of black history, but questions our attitudes to gender, hyper-masculinity and a range of both stereotypes and archetypes. Above all this work exults in humility, fellowship and humanity.  Stanley has thrown herself down the ‘rabbit hole’ of gender and race politics with percipience and panache, whilst refusing to be tainted by any of the pursuant fever or infighting. Her work demands we make reparations and that we reflect inwardly and in return we get a gift of an exhibition that is a true painting tour de force. Stanley, and the various subjects that glance out to us from her canvases, invite us to take a long and hard look at our unconscious prejudices toward innate and performed identities. At the same time this work tells us that communion without jaundice is the only way.

‘Communion’ an exhibition featuring the work of Siobhan Stanley is at the blackShed gallery, Robertsbridge from 24 November 2018 – 19 January 2019.

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