The place of the modern-realist portrait in contemporary art is generally considered neither major nor radical. But the 25 portraits of women that make up the “Reclamation” exhibition at Helen Day Center for the Arts in Stowe are probably both. The importance of the exhibition lies at the crossroads of the paintings’ authorship, content and historical moment.
Women artists painted all these works. In the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, movements that fight violence against women and inequality in the workplace, a show featuring only female artists helps correct a persistent imbalance in the art world .
According to studies cited by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the work of women represents only 3 to 5% of the collections of major museums and galleries in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, 51% of practicing artists today are women.
Statistics aside, the combined visual effect of the paintings in “Reclamation” is powerful. About half of the subjects stare directly at the viewer, with expressions ranging from sanguine to fearful to confrontational. Their bodies, clothed or naked, conform to no particular image of beauty; they are a far cry from Renoir’s paragons of motherhood with soft cheeks or Klimt’s jewel-like allegories of femininity. Nonetheless, they radiate beauty through emotionally vivid and arresting poses and expressions.
“Reclamation” is one of many attempts by artists over the past decades to address the disparity between the output of female artists and their low level of institutional inclusion. These efforts range from the militant feminist collective guerrilla girls (created in 1985) on the blog Women Painting Womenwho began promoting unsung female figurative painters in 2009.
After seeing a show of women painting women, the Middlesex portrait painter August burns approached Helen Day executive director and artist Rachel Moore with the idea of hosting a similar one. They invited WPW co-founder Diane Feissel to co-curate.
“Reclamation” differs from the typical WPW show, Moore says, in that it focuses on depictions of women. By encompassing a variety of bodies, attitudes and emotional states, it celebrates diversity while granting the female figure imagined by woman “a voice in art history and in contemporary art”. The exhibition is an intervention in what Burns describes in a brochure as the centuries-old tradition in Western art of women as “passive and sensual” muses for the male artist.
The show’s biggest challenge at this arts convention, at 94 by 76 inches, is Aleah Chapin“And we were birds.” In it, two nude women, possibly in their sixties, stand back to back with their arms linked, one supporting the weight of the other. They appear in a flat landscape whose horizon line, where it meets a pale sky, slopes to the right – the same direction in which the couple is leaning. Three other female legs are visible in the lower right corner, where they appear to be watching from the ground. The standing women smile serenely; the sense of celebration is almost palpable.
What’s there to celebrate? Their white and rosy bodies are aged and worn: breasts and bellies sag, wrinkles abound. But their characters also allude to long and rich life stories, among them procreation; their skin has a luminous depth, somehow transmitting heat through the paint.
Margaret BowlandThe 74-inch by 54-inch “Artist” towers over an adjacent wall. Bowland is controversial for her decision, as a white artist, to paint mostly African American models in whiteface. She explained it as a metaphor for society’s attempts to erase people’s identities and project their favorites onto them. Here, Bowland’s dark subject, a black girl against a backdrop of cheerful Japanese drawings, even complicates this narrative: she is holding the paintbrush tipped with white paint. Is she complicit in the erasure of her own identity? Even so, the girl’s agency, direct gaze, and good looks make her a complete and confident person.
No less assertive is the gaze of Ellen CooperThe older, well-dressed female subject of , depicted in full in “Defiance of Erebus”. Her firm, determined expression hints at a woman who won’t go easy on Hades. His black umbrella and the decor, a damp urban sidewalk bordered by an iron fence, recall a Parisian scene by Gustave Caillebotte. Cooper’s technique in this 36 x 62 inch work is remarkable: the autumn leaves that litter the sidewalk are painted in impressionistic red and gold, while the details of Cooper’s fur-lined coat and expensive silk scarf the woman are worthy of a Renaissance portrait. .
The technique is remarkable throughout “Reclamation”, but Price achieved near-photorealism in “Self-Portrait with Raspberry Sorbet”. The painting is part of her “Women and Food” series, an exploration of compulsive eating that resulted from her own childhood eating disorder. Instead of hiding the compulsion, the subject devours her sorbet with her eyes fixed on the viewer. Its dress and background match the color of the sherbet, creating an image of provocative indulgence.
Perhaps the most powerful gaze is that of the viewers don’t see in Sylvia Maier“Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin.” Facing the viewer, eyes closed and a lighted candle in her hands, the subject communicates strength and despair at the same time. Maier’s painting is part of a series featuring women who have lost young black sons to senseless gun violence.
“Reclamation” includes two etchings by Alice Neel, the only non-contemporary artist in the series – and one who exerted an outsized influence on female figurative portraiture. Neel’s daughter-in-law, Ginny Neel, is a local resident who has supported Helen Day since its inception. She lent the 1976 serigraph “Ginny” – a seated portrait of herself – and donated the 1982 lithograph “Nancy and Olivia” to a fundraiser for the center. In the latter case, motherhood seems to come as something of a shock to Nancy, whose eyes are wide and surprised as she cradles her equally wide-eyed baby.
In a 2014 interview for the Huffington Post, Bowland commented on figurative realism: “Current artists have told me that the very way I paint marks me as unsophisticated, backward. One can paint the figure now, but only in a somewhat careless manner. manner, or in a cartoon-like format. That is to say with irony.
Still, the style seems the perfect vehicle for an exhibition on “recovery.” The word is only part of the description of this show; it goes on to include a phonetic transcription and two definitions: “the process of claiming something back or reasserting a right” and “rescuing from error or returning to a rightful course”. The clarity of these paintings, the unabashed realism of their subjects, only heightens the impact of an exhibition that affirms the power of women — on both sides of the canvas.