Lani Irwin

Mannerist, Feminist, Narcissist

by Donald Kuspit

Lani Irwin, Proscenium, 2000, Courtesy of the artist

“My body, my self,” say the feminists, and most of Lani Irwin’s paintings picture the female body—sometimes more or less naked, as in Transparent Whisper (2000), sometimes completely naked, as in Off Center or Three Damsels at the Ball with an Insistent Cloakroom and Brief Lessons in Stage Fright (2004)—suggesting that Irwin is a feminist. And a narcissist, for to say my body is myself is to say that to love my body is to say I love myself. The narcissist falls back on what Freud called the “body ego,” and in a sense can never get beyond it: the narcissist loves the body of the other as a reflection of her own body. Self-love— narcissistic curiosity about, even fascinated concern with  the  female  body and with that the female self—seems implicit in virtually all of Irwin’s works, from The Messenger (1997), an early work, through Luna Moth (2002), through Carnival III (2004).

All the female figures that appear in Irwin’s works are self-representations in principle, if not exact self-likenesses. But Irwin’s self-love is not naive. As Arnold Hauser points out, narcissism, at its most serious, involves “self-observation, in the sense of self-examination and the acquisition of self-awareness.”1 Irwin is not blindly and stupidly in love with herself as the Narcissus of the legend was, but determined to fathom herself, to cross-examine herself, to find out what it means to be self—and what it means to have, indeed, be a body. The air of stern determination to Irwin’s female figures, even of forbidding intensity and intelligence, an air of self-concentration, seems at cross-purposes to their bodies. The female body, then, is not all for Irwin—the female face, sometimes seemingly affectless, at other times “affected,” is also important. The slender bodies, with their small, circular breasts and large oval-shaped heads, with eyes boldly gazing at us, of the female figures in The Sequel (2002) are at odds. It contradicts the male gaze, indicating the figures are not sex objects displaying their bodies for the edification of voyeuristic men, but rather autonomous and independent—not dependent on men, but on themselves alone. The figures confront us with their nakedness, but it is a passive nakedness. But their eyes actively engage us, as though to penetrate us. If the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then the steady, insistent eyes of Irwin’s women suggest the steadiness and sturdiness of their souls.

As though to confirm that she is eternally at odds with herself, she is a mature, whole person in Woman (2007–11), but also fragmented into what psychoanalysts call infantile “part objects,” strewn around her in the form of theatrical props. She is alive, they are dead; she is real, they are artificial. But she has projected her unconscious sense of being dead and unreal onto her consciousness of them, inhibiting her from performing. She is on stage, looking troubled and indecisive, and inertly squatting, as though unable to emotionally pull herself together and rise to the occasion. Is she suffering from creative block—certainly, some sort of conflict? Irwin’s recurrent props clearly have multiple meanings. The Secrets among Siblings (2012–13) are probably sexual secrets, perhaps what psychoanalysts call “pathogenic secrets,” often involving emotional conflict. In La Ruota (2009–13), the props are the arms and legs of an infant, suggesting that the lovers are conflicted about having a child, or have lost one. They turn away from each other, even as their arms reach toward each other. The woman wears a man’s tie, which extends to her genital area, suggesting that she is a so-called “phallic woman,” or perhaps bisexual—an open pathogenic secret, for all human beings are anatomically and psychologically bisexual. Irwin’s paintings are compositionally complex, conveying their emotional complexity. Their emotional depth is matched by the richness of their detail. There is an air of disturbing stillness to them, an uncanny melancholy and intense suspense, together with great control, suggesting that her seductive realism is a way of mastering all-too-human suffering.

Lani Irwin, Secrets Among Siblings, 2012-13, Courtesy of the artist

And yet many of her female figures seem twisted or turned in on themselves, as the crossed arms of the figure in Yellow Rose Enigma (2003) suggest. They are posing, even posturing, as though performing for  the  spectator— there is a theatrical air to most of Irwin’s pictures, which  are  often  full  of props. In Proscenium (2000), fortune teller cards abound, suggesting just how “be-witching” the figure is. But the dramatically raised arms, pointing in opposite directions, of the figures in The Red Wall (1999), Crossed Drapes (2001), Carnival IV (2004) and La Far Falla (2005) suggest they are at odds with themselves, indeed, tied up in themselves, as The Red Ribbon (1998) suggests. They are not just acting and posing—however much they are—but tense. The figure in Ballet Shoes II (2002), her arms hugging herself, suggests just how tense—how twisted in on themselves. Like the figure in Red Rose Enigma (2003), she is aloof and insular, but also wound tightly.

The narcissist is peculiarly “self-alienated”: without her reflection—and Hauser, following the lead of Valéry’s “interpretation,” notes that the Narcissus of the legend is as much female as male—she feels incomplete and insignificant. She needs that reflection to be herself, even though the reflection is an illusion, a sort of false self. For Hauser, mannerist art is quintessentially narcissistic, suggesting that Irwin’s narcissistic art is quintessentially mannerist. Her use of mannerist “postures and movements” to “fetishize” the figure into static perfection, along with the mannerist view that “all the world’s a stage”—a sort of “costume” party in which everyone is playing a role, in which everything is artificial, however natural it may look—confirm the mannerism. Are Irwin’s roses artificial or natural? They must be artificial, because they do not decay.

But above all, Irwin’s use of mirroring—a “mannerist requisite,” as Hauser says, and also a narcissist requisite, for without the mirror of her art, the narcissist is at loss—makes her mannerism clear. The two figures in The Red Wall, Backstage (2000), Duality (2001), The Sequel (2002)—repeated in Three Graces (2002) and Off Center, where they are doubled—show Irwin’s narcissism at its most obvious. The faces of the figures are different, but their bodies are more or less alike, indicating the frustration built into narcissism. Narcissus could never take her eyes away from her reflection, could never get enough of her image, but it was always separated from her by the mirror that connected it to her. Paradoxically, without the discrepancy and “distance” between the figures—The Space Between (1999), in which they are clearly an odd couple (one is vertical, the other horizontal, as though their images had been reversed in a mirror, and suggesting that it is not clear who is reflecting whom, reminding us that the narcissist is unable to distinguish between reality and illusion)—the narcissist would die.

When Narcissus tried to embrace her image in the mirror, consummating her love for herself, she fell into the mirror, unwittingly committing suicide. But what finally keeps Irwin from losing herself in the uncanny double that appears in the mirror of her art is the consummate care with which she polishes it. As The Muse (2000), a “portrait-bust,” shows, Irwin uses geometrical form as a decorative backdrop for descriptive detail, a “duality” of abstraction and realism conspicuously evident in Duality. Geometrical form  is  eternally true, and the circular form that one figure holds and the sharp angle formed by the arms of the other figure suggest that Irwin’s female figures are eternally true to themselves and each other, confirming that their marriage was made in narcissistic heaven, even though they remain physically separate and irreconcilable. The “estranged harmony” of abstraction and realism in Irwin’s paintings bespeaks the “estranged harmony” inherent to narcissism.


1. Arnold Hauser, Mannerism: The Crisis of the Renaissance and the Origin of Modern Art (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 118. Hauser’s chapters on “Alienation as the Key to Mannerism” and “Narcissism as the Psychology of  Alienation” are directly relevant to Irwin’s art.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2013, Volume 30, Number 4