WPW: (R)evolution

Ellen Cooper, Cusp, 2012, Courtesy Principle Gallery, Alexandria, Virginia“WPW: (R)evolution,” at Principle Gallery in Alexandria, Virginia, testified to the remarkable growth of the Women Painting Women group, figurative artists challenging the traditional stereotypes of male artist and feminine muse. Started as a blog by Sadie Jernigan Valeri, Alia El-Bermani and Diane Feissel in 2006, Women Painting Women organized a one-week painting retreat for fourteen artists, outside Charleston, South Carolina, in 2010 (documented in a 2012 show at Principle Gallery, “The Expedition and Beyond”). For the 2013 exhibition, each of the Expedition artists has invited a woman painter to exhibit with them, “thus multiplying the power and vision of the group twofold,” according to the press release.

While the enterprise could be fairly described as feminist, these  artists make no  strident political statements.  Nor do they propose  abandoning the history and craft of traditional painting as irretrievably tainted by inequalities. They find plenty of opportunities for originality and honesty in figurative painting. Many of the works on view are portraits, realistic views of attractive but unidealized women. Valeri’s Self-Portrait at 41 in the Studio (With Dog), from 2013 (cover), is unglamourized, but complex. Her black apron is  practical, while the curio cabinet behind her—full of bottles and shells and a human skull—suggests the artist’s alchemical secrets. Individuals, rather than  feminine archetypes, the models in the show look back at us with intelligent curiosity. Ellen Cooper’s Cusp (2012) depicts a blonde teenager with remarkable poise. Cooper, a professional portraitist, uses a classic genre configuration, focusing attention on the face—half in shadow—and the slightly restless hands. Feissel calls her study of a dynamic woman in her prime Force of Nature (2013). Chiaroscuro dramatizes her strong features, sloe eyes and dark red mouth. Alexandra Tyng plays fast and loose, in Year at Sea (2011), with pioneer iconography. A middle-aged blonde stands barefoot and bare-shouldered on the rocky border of a lake, holding a staff like a pilgrim and striking a quasi-heroic pose.

Some works are intimate and introspective, such as Candice Bohannon’s Solace (2011), a spaghetti box-format study of a dark-haired girl stretched out on a flower-print sofa. In one sense,  the  painting  captures  everyday  beauty and the emotional life of the subject, without resorting to histrionics. But the languor of the barefoot girl, wrapped in silky blue fabric, suggests the elegance of an Aesthetic Movement figure. There are Pre-Raphaelite resonances in Katherine Stone’s Pond’s Edge (2012). The raven-haired belle dame sans merci has an elemental energy. Stone combines relatively tight handling, for the intense, expressive face, and more abstract, gestural paint-handling for the ripples and shadows of the water behind the girl. Katherine Fraser pushes the symbolic aspect of the portrait in Second to None (2011), in which a tall, slender woman in a chic white gown emerges from a painterly mandorla of roses. She has the statuesque presence of a saint or idol, but her dark, determined face is that of a real woman, and the luminous yet stormy grey of the vortex that surrounds her is anything but conventionally reassuring.

While these artists refuse to pigeon-hole their models in stereotypical roles, they relish exploring the personae of inherited iconography. In the artist’s statement on her website, Fraser describes her paintings as “a series of film stills” with “the visceral qualities of memories or dreams.” Terry Moore Strickland has a playfully theatrical imagination. In her website artist’s statement, she writes: “Mythical characters may become a device to explore our responses to modern day situations; for example, Superman becomes a symbol for the mighty dreams each of us hold to our chests.” One of Strickland’s works in the exhibition, The Seamstress (2013), depicts a woman sewing herself into a Superman costume—a neat mix of feminine craft and masculine heroism stereotypes. Strickland’s Daughter of Thought (2013) tackles the icons of witch and sibyl, depicting a dark-haired, black-clad woman gesturing—summoning, releasing?—a magnificent grey owl. The owl, symbol of Athena’s wisdom and companion to Hecate, in dynamic flight, is beautifully painted with bold chiaroscuro and downy wings. The setting is a Renaissance arcade, suggestive of the sibyl’s grotto at Cumae. Strickland evokes a long line of iconic women without sacrificing the reality of an individual or becoming overly solemn.

Teresa Oaxaca studied at the Florence Academy  of  Art,  as  well  as  with Odd Nerdrum and the fine draftsman Robert Liberace. With this background, the viewer might expect a certain kind of contemporary realism. But Oaxaca’s paintings have an edge. She collects objects, “Victorian and Baroque costumes, bones and other things which I find fascinating,” she writes on her website, and she arranges these things in designs that are “both planned and unconscious.” Her startling painting Yule (2013)—the title was suggested by the appearance of nutcrackers in the composition—depicts a blonde girl surrounded by toys and dolls. The blonde, in a ruffled dress and pink hair bow, has the same artificial prettiness as the dolls, which carry the slightly creepy aura of mannequins or changelings. The fetish quality comes across on two levels: psychological, in the cult of girlhood, and magically, as in the eerie power of voodoo poppets.

Perhaps the most striking works on display were three oil-on-maple heads by Lisa Gloria. These monochromatic oils (all 2013) have the velvety smudginess of charcoal, and the artist uses the grain of the wood like the texture of paper in a drawing. In Obscure, the young woman’s face is engulfed in lilies, which cling to her like sea creatures. The other two works move in the direction of myth. In Turn, we see the subject in profile, a translucent black veil swept forward over her face, seeming to blind her and lead her into the future. It is a gorgeous bit of painting and a wonderful interpretation of the goddess Fortune. In Victory, a young black woman gazes forward in confident serenity. Lilies cover her neck like a scarf and fly out behind her, as dynamic as Baroque drapery. The use of chiaroscuro in all three is marvelous. “WPW: (R)evolution” was on view September 30–October 18, 2013, at Principle Gallery, 208 King Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314. Telephone (703) 739-9326. Principlegallery.com

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2013, Volume 30, Number 4