Anna Gaskell, Fixed Prey, 2019, vinyl paint and pencil on paper, 22 1⁄2 × 29 7⁄8".

Anna Gaskell, Fixed Prey, 2019, vinyl paint and pencil on paper, 22 1⁄2 × 29 7⁄8".

Anna Gaskell

Anna Gaskell first became known in the late 1990s for enigmatic photos of young women and girls—images that imply a narrative yet elude attempts to give them a meaningful interpretation beyond their evident but nonspecific allusions to Alice in Wonderland. The throughline to these pictures is almost impossible to describe but has to do with what one might call their latent pedophilia-tainted aura, which makes them at once seductive and disturbing.

Gaskell’s most recent works, all made in 2019, are drawings that likewise have a disturbing effect although one can’t immediately say why. They, too, show young women and girls, but this time their origin is in the world of American advertising of the 1940s and ’50s, a time when the image of women was still a pure projection of male desires and fantasies undisturbed by any feminist concerns. The artist paints the figures using fields of opaque color in hues borrowed from the sickly sweet, muted pastel tones of postwar advertising. Their clothing ranges from respectable to understated. They wear flat shoes, frequently with socks, and skirts that end below the knees. Nothing about what they are wearing amplifies their seductive appeal; rather, it obscures it. They look like chastely dressed saints in puppet-theater stage sets. But there is no sign, not a trace, of those faces we know from depictions of saints, which are enlightened in consequence of being freed of desire. Instead, the faces in Gaskell’s works are distorted by distress, desire, anger. And there needn’t be a weapon involved—as there is in Fixed Prey or Mother Wit—for the protagonists to be enveloped in an atmosphere of aggression and violence.

But how is it that Gaskell’s “saints” seem so ready to lash out, or at least look so distraught? Some of the imagery in these drawings, as in her earlier photos, evokes the pictorial world of the Surrealists, who elevated desire unbound from constraints to the central theme of their art. As André Breton, the Surrealists’ theorist, put it in L’amour fou in 1937, the point was that the paths of desire should never again become overgrown. With Breton in mind, the French poststructuralist Jacques Lacan then asserted that “the only thing one can be guilty of is having given ground relative to one’s desire.” 

And it is desire—but precisely suppressed, unfulfilled desire—that is at the center of Gaskell’s drawings. The betrayal of desire, as Lacan claims, generates feelings of guilt. With more saintliness there’s also more guilt, because the alternative to giving in to this desire is to renounce it precisely in the name of the good or the holy. And guilt finds an outlet in aggression, which can turn inward as well as outward. This, then, would be the source of the distorted facial expressions and the weapons in the hands of these chastely dressed women. But is it really? Without a doubt, Gaskell’s drawings suggest narratives. The story of repressed desire is, however, just one of many that are possible, and which one matters most depends on the viewer.

Translated from German by Alexander Scrimgeour.