Women, Loved and Observed
In “Loved and Observed,” a new show at Hersh Fine Art, in Glen Cove, New York, curated by Diana Corvelle and Manu Saluja, viewers are confronted by a series of images, nearly all of women’s faces, all painted by women. While the paintings share both this subject matter and a general commitment to traditional figurative methods, one of the exhibition’s strengths is that it avoids having a single agenda or a particular politics—one does not feel an overriding message being trumpeted here. Instead, the curators, excellent painters themselves, have brought together a poised, skillful group with a sense of intelligent inquiry in common. The best of the work on view reveals the artists’ frank curiosity about, and probing interest in, their subjects.
One striking example is Diana Corvelle’s Engagement, a portrait on paper in which the subject’s dress is indicated by expertly placed cutouts in the paper, while her face and hands are done in finely applied gouache. The delicate, lacy perfection of the white cut paper calls to mind a wedding gown, as do two cut-out doves that appear on the figure’s left and right. But these contrast startlingly with the woman’s bold, uncompromising expression, so that an initial impression of ultra-feminine sweetness gives way to something more complicated. Unsmiling, the woman stares outward, arms crossed in a slightly forbidding gesture, hands posed formally at rest. One wonders, finally, whether “engagement” refers not to bridal joys—the woman also wears what may be a wedding band—but rather to an active state of being: Corvelle’s figure is fully engaged with her environment and, perhaps, with her observer.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the inaccessible woman in Michelle Doll’s Somnambulent Shift, an oil painting that matches conceptual elegance with technical deftness. The figure’s dreamy absence is evoked by her averted gaze and by wispy layers of transparent white paint that seem to float across and around her face, as though on a watery surface. The inky-black space she is depicted in appears fathomless and slick as motor oil, thanks partly to Doll’s choice to paint on mylar rather than canvas. Ultimately, the work’s power derives from the way the woman’s physical and emotional experience remain mysteries.
Several more intimate paintings seem at first to require little of the viewer, yet hold sway with their quiet beauty. Alia El-Bermani’s CaryAnn features a woman in profile, looking slightly downward. The soothingly somber colors of her clothing and background help focus attention on her face, where the modeling is succinctly achieved with small, individual planes of understated color, reminiscent in some ways of Lucian Freud or Philip Pearlstein. But whereas Freud’s application suggests dramatic psychology and Pearlstein’s an almost clinical dissection of the body, El-Bermani’s approach serves to highlight insight—her subject’s face becomes a marvelous collection of subtleties, hinting at great depths of feeling and character.
Similarly, Manu Saluja brings a sense of fully present humanity to the three children in Relative, a triptych. At center, a dark-haired young girl with an open, alert expression gazes outward; to her left and right, a red-headed boy and girl face her in profile. Saluja has explained that the work is part of a pair, in which her biracial daughter appears twice, once each with cousins from, respectively, the two sides of her family. Perhaps an advantage in viewing only one of the two triptychs here is that, though it makes a movingly personal exploration of race and family relationships less apparent, it foregrounds the fineness of the paintings as portraiture; Saluja has a rare eye for the individual subjectivity of the children, whom she paints with clean colors, a relaxed brush and a wonderful lack of sentimentality.
Finally, Alexandra Evans’s Self-Portrait with Acne stands out for its unexpected wit. The young artist appears in strict profile, frowning slightly in concentration. Scattered across much of her loosely painted forehead and cheek are ruby-red Swarovski crystals that have been painted around, so that they disrupt the painting’s surface as acne does skin. The irony here—such glamorous objects, used so unglamorously—delights, but the painting is more than a one-liner. Working on a very small scale (3.5 x 5 in.) and with minute gradations in a mostly neutral palette, Evans manages to suggest vulnerability and bravado in equal measure. Like her fellow-artists in this exciting show, she marries tradition with innovation, privileging neither, honoring both.
“Loved and Observed” is on view through August 12th, 2014. To see a slideshow of the works on view, visit http://www.hershfineart.com/current-exhibit/ and click on the first image.