Screens Against the Real

By Víctor D. Meléndez Torres, M.A., M.Ed.

Lee Price: Self Portrait with Parfait in Floral Room. Used by permission of the artist.

Lee Price: Self Portrait with Parfait in Floral Room. Used by permission of the artist.

Lee Price paints realistic pictures. Very realistic pictures — Superrealistic. They are mesmerizing and uncanny.

Price is a New York-based contemporary figurative realist painter who was recently on exhibit at Evoke Contemporary in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “My paintings,” she says in her artist’s statement, “ask what is it that truly nourishes us and how truthful can we be about the size of our hunger?” Indeed, her superrealist paintings of women and food bring to mind associations with the concepts of “nourishment” and “hunger.” From a Lacanian psychoanalytic perspective, however, Price’s paintings are much more. They are screens against something unbearable.

Take, for instance, Price’s “Women & Food” series, which consists of superrealistic oil-on-linen aerial paintings of women (most of them Price herself) either eating or just being in the presence of various kinds of food in very intimate spaces. Roughly half of the bodies depicted are nude. The foods depicted are usually high-caloric and not necessarily regarded as “healthy” by general standards (i.e., ice cream, cinnamon rolls, donuts, cupcakes, cheesecakes, butter, burgers, French fries, pancakes, potato chips, candy, pies), with only a few being low-caloric and what many would consider as “healthy” (i.e., tea, fruit). Most of the private spaces that frame the images in the “Women & Food” series are either beds or bathtubs.

These paintings are an important example of the tension between desire and jouissance. In the universe of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, desire is whatever is left after physiological needs are met, a permanent seeking that can never be fully satisfied. Desire arises from the loss produced by our entrance into the Symbolic order (the world of language) via the “paternal metaphor”; that is, via the splitting of the mother-child unity and the subsequent substitution of the signifier associated with that splitting for the desire of the mother, leading to the advent of our subjectivity (our “birth” as beings-in-language).

On the other hand, the French word jouissance, for which there is no adequate equivalent in the English language (“enjoyment” has been used by some, but it doesn’t quite capture its pleasure/pain aspect), is Lacan’s term for the impossible fantasy of contact with something beyond the language-dependent reality in which we, as speaking subjects, are inscribed. It is, as American psychoanalyst Lewis A. Kirshner has said, “the retroactive effect of becoming a separate subject, which leaves a permanent ache of desire in its wake.”2 Jouissance, that ultimate “getting off” that involves a painful pleasure (or pleasurable pain) without bounds, is an impossible fantasy because it is beyond the pleasure principle, that is, it is “impossible to achieve within the limits of reality … and definitely not conventionally enjoyable.”3

In her artist’s statement, Lee Price talks of the women in her paintings as “watching themselves in the middle of their out of control behavior but unable to stop.”4 She also talks of these women’s actions as having a “frenetic, out-of-control feel… .”5 These words—as well as the faces of the women in her paintings—seem to point to the unconscious reaching-out toward jouissance that is the aim of desire; the unconscious pursuit of a “getting off” that is absolute, full, nonlacking, and therefore beyond the limits of reality. In short, Price seems to suggest that the women in her paintings are pretty much “running” toward the Real.

The Real (as opposed to “reality”) is what eludes us, what cannot be represented in words or images. It’s Lacan’s way of conceiving of a time before our entry into the world of language. In the words of American Lacanian psychoanalyst Bruce Fink,

[T]he real is a sort of unrent, undifferentiated fabric, woven in such a way as to be full everywhere, there being no space between the threads that are its “stuff.” … The real is perhaps best understood as that which has not yet been symbolized, remains to be symbolized, or even resists symbolization … .6

In order to become speaking subjects, we must first be separated from the nonlacking plenitude that is the Real. But the Real “can also be thought of as what Freud calls trauma — traumatic events … that have never been talked through, put into words, or verbalized.”7 In other words, trauma is an expression of the Real in that it entails something unsymbolized that, in the words of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, “can only be constructed backwards, from its structural effects.”8

Trauma seems to be present in all of Price’s work. All of her paintings show women eating or surrounded by food in private spaces — a repetition that signals trauma qua fixation. “Trauma implies fixation or blockage,” says Fink.9 In other words, repetition signals the presence of an element that resists representation, an element that cannot be put into words or images. This element is what Lacan called the objet petit a, the element of “blockage” in terms of disturbing or marking a hole in the process of representation. In this sense, the objet petit a belongs to the realm of the Real.

The repetition in Price’s oeuvre might produce an unsettling or uneasy feeling in some viewers. In the realm of Lacanian psychoanalysis, this uneasiness is associated with what Sigmund Freud called the “death drive,” the unconscious aim toward death. The drive toward death entails repetition, that is, it entails an attempt to go beyond the limits that reality imposes on pleasure. The uneasiness elicited by the repetition in Price’s work is associated with the death drive because it signals a reduction of the gap between reality and the objet petit a qua Real object.

Price’s focus on painting women and food is one of the repetitions in her work, the other being the superrealism of her paintings, a kind of attempted “repetition of reality.” It could be argued that this extreme focus on repeating reality indicates both a desire to reach out “for the pure reality behind representation”10 and a desire to screen out this “pure reality.” Jouissance, the impossible fantasy of contact with the Real, is the aim of desire. The actions of the women in Price’s paintings seem to be a depiction of a reaching out for an impossible jouissance. But at the same time, the extreme focus on repeating reality suggests a kind of overabundance of the Symbolic that serves as a screen against the pursuit of this jouissance, against the danger of pursuing a fantasy of merging with the nonlacking plenitude of the Real. Price’s paintings elicit anxiety because they bring us uncomfortably close to the impossible fantasy of jouissance — the fantasy of a pleasure “in the Real,” an impossible pleasure involving a return to a prelinguistic state and, hence, desubjectification.

Self-portrait with Parfait in Floral Room (2017) illustrates this tension between the desire to “get off” by merging with the Real and the push against it. It’s a 45” x 31” oil-on-linen painting of Price dressed in floral-printed attire matching the floral-printed wallpaper that serves as background. The dress seems to merge with the wallpaper, making the contours of Price’s torso, waist and hips barely distinguishable from the background. All of the elements in the painting seem to revolve around an American parfait (served in a tall glass, of course) held in Price’s left hand. The floral-looking parfait seems to merge almost completely with Price’s dress, with the shadow of Price’s right arm and what appears to be vanilla ice cream faintly defining the dimensions of the parfait.

The viewer is generally fascinated, captured, drawn in by the high level of realistic detail in these paintings, as if slipping toward jouissance. However, the fascination with this overpresence of representation produces the objet petit a as lack, that is, it produces an effect of the Real, a sense of a lack in the image that disrupts the viewer’s fascination, as if halting the progression toward jouissance. No matter how realistic a painting, there is always something missing. It is in this sense that Price’s superrealism is a kind of protective screen against desubjectification, a protective screen against being swallowed by the Real.

In viewing Self-portrait with Parfait in Floral Room, one gets a better sense of the interplay between fascination and the detection of lack. The painting is absolutely captivating in its realism, an example of Price’s mastery of the medium of oil paint. From the shades of the skin folds of fingers to the moistness of lips, Price spares no efforts in her quest to “repeat” reality. Moreover, the illusion of merger between the woman’s torso and hips with the wallpaper is almost a literal allusion to merging with the nonlacking plenitude of the Real. But when looked at closely, the realism starts to break down and the lack becomes detectable. The painting, therefore, becomes a screen: it attempts to repeat reality, but given the futility of such an endeavor, it ends up protecting against slippage toward the fantasy of jouissance.

Price’s anxiety-eliciting superrealistic aerial images of private spaces where her nude body is in a relationship with food, seem to be her own particular attempt at finding a signifier that is “her own,” a quest whose futility is at the heart of the Lacanian conception of the subject. As stated by Žižek, the subject “is always saying less or too much, in short: something other than what [she or] he wanted, intended to say.”11 Price’s insistence on superrealism seems like a denial of the impossibility of words and images to extend beyond our language-dependent reality and communicate “in the Real.”

But Price’s paintings are more than a possible denial of the impossibility of finding a signifier that is one’s own. They are also more than an example of the tension between desire and jouissance. If seen as public depictions of private instances of jouissance, then it is not difficult to see that Price’s paintings are also political.

Jouissance is a fantasy of nonlacking pleasure or pleasure “in the Real,” a fantasy of an ultimate “getting off” where the subject is completely unconcerned with the societal Other and its exigencies. According to Fink, the term “jouissance

qualifies the kind of “kick” someone may get out of punishment, self-punishment, doing something that is so pleasurable it hurts (sexual climax, for example), or doing something that is so painful it becomes pleasurable. … the term “jouissance” nicely captures the notion of getting off by any means necessary, however clean or dirty.12

Many of Price’s paintings seem to depict images of jouissance, with one interesting twist: with only one exception, all of the women in the paintings seem to be quite fit and toned (they don’t seem to the paying the price of increased weight that comes with indiscriminate consumption of high-caloric and “unhealthy” foods). Putting on public view these depictions of private instances of jouissance might have the political effect of causing some viewers to feel some level of discomfort (an effect that is present in much of contemporary art), insofar as witnessing what may be read as instances of an ultimate and irreverent getting off might elicit questions regarding one’s own desire and the extent to which it is possible to fully satisfy it. Of course, if one’s subjectivity is to survive, desire can never be fully satisfied. Desire eternally revolves around an empty center, the objet petit a, much like the raging winds of a hurricane circle around its eye. And like a hurricane, the closer to the center, the more dangerous it is.

The art of Lee Price does, indeed, ask “how truthful can we be about the size of our hunger,” because it is an art that confronts us with the question of desire and the impossibility of its satisfaction “in the Real.”

Víctor D. Meléndez Torres, M.A., M.Ed. is a Puerto Rican organizational psychologist currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Notes
1. Lee Price. “Artist’s Statement,” accessed October 7, 2017, https://evokecontemporary.com/Artists/LeePrice.html.
2. Lewis A. Kirshner, “Rethinking Desire: The Objet Petit a in Lacanian Theory,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 53, no. 1 (2005): 85.
3. Kirshner, “Rethinking Desire,” 85.
4. Price, “Artist’s Statement.”
5. Price, “Artist’s Statement.”
6. Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 24-25.
7. Fink, Lacanian Subject, 49.
8. Slavoj Žižek, “The Lacanian Real: Television,” The Symptom, 9 (2008), http://www.lacan.com/symptom/the-lacanian.html.
9. Fink, Lacanian Subject, 26.
10. Kirshner, “Rethinking Desire,” 86.
11. Žižek, “Lacanian Real.”
12. Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 8-9.

Works Cited
Fink, Bruce. A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
_____ The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Kirshner, Lewis A. “Rethinking Desire: The Objet Petit a in Lacanian Theory,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 53, no. 1 (2005): 83-102.
Price, Lee. “Artist’s Statement,” accessed October 7, 2017, https://evokecontemporary.com/Artists/LeePrice.html.
Žižek, Slavoj. “The Lacanian Real: Television,” The Symptom, 9 (2008), http://www.lacan.com/symptom/the-lacanian.html.