Having earned a reputation for producing topical and politically motivated work in the UK, the British artist Stella Vine has turned her attention to the Middle East. Her latest work, No more lies, no more fear, no more hate, no more tears, created for a show at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA), is a towering painting (3.2 metres high by 6 metres wide) produced over the course of one week on huge MDF boards. "I slept in the museum I made it in," says Vine, 43.
In the work, the central image of Wonder Woman, a cartoon superhero synonymous with childhood, that Vine has featured in previous paintings, is surrounded by pictures of dead children from Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The colourful, childlike strokes seem incongruous with the conflict depicted and the juxtaposition of life and death, heroine and victim, power and vulnerability, is a striking one, suggesting the unfulfilled potential of young lives torn apart by war. "Wonder Woman presides over the image," she says, "but looks on in despair and can do nothing to help."
The new work marks Vine's latest exploration of war. In I will always love you (black dog), she depicts a prisoner in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison being frightened to death by a torturer's dog. The work was produced following the conviction of US army Sgt Michael J Smith on charges of tormenting and terrorising prisoners with a canine. In Wootton Bassett, the blue-sky backdrop and chirping robin offer the viewer temporary relief from the two grieving children at the forefront of the painting. Known for the military repatriation funeral processions that pass through it, the UK town has become a symbol of the destructive power of conflict.
Like her work, Vine is characterised by a strange duality. Discovered by Charles Saatchi nearly a decade ago in a small gallery in London's East End, the art dealer made her the centrepiece of his 2004 New Blood show, catapulting her to fame overnight in the art world. At once naive and cynical, she has since become a leading figure in the UK arts scene and yet remains willfully peripheral to it, admitting even now to "a dread" of exhibitions. It's a dichotomy reflected in her work: childish, saccharine images of doe-eyed, flush-cheeked women including Princess Diana and Kate Moss frequently set off with unsettling text scrawled in blood-red paint.
She is currently most excited by the live painting format showcased at MIMA. "Ideally, I'd be given a week in which to create something in a new space," she says. "I love working to a deadline, it seems to focus all my creativity." It's also a format that travels easily. "I've never exhibited in the Middle East before and like the idea of doing something there. Galleries like The Third Line have really drawn attention to the breadth and quality of work being produced in the region. There is so much happening there in terms of new art and public art spaces. It would be a dream to work at the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, potentially doing a live painting with a local artist."
For Vine, art has the ability to highlight and address major social and political issues, but she doesn't believe the role of the artist is to be didactic. And, while she doesn't want to dictate what audiences should take away from her work, she talks freely about the inspiration behind her latest piece. "The painting came out of two main things. The pacifist songwriter Kingsley Chapman [of the emerging UK band The Chapman Family] provided the titular lyrics and performed with my completed work as a backdrop, and Vice magazine ran a horrific, graphic and informative article about the severe injuries of bombed and maimed children in Iraq. I was so glad they ran the piece because it really must have opened many people's eyes to the things we just don't see in the media normally here. These images alone are surely enough to suggest that nothing at all could ever justify going to war. There must be other ways of negotiating."