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Exhibition of women painting women is revelatory

It shouldn’t be revolutionary to see women painting women in 2022, and yet somehow, it still is.

The difficulty and strength of “Women of Now: Dialogues of Memory, Place & Identity,” the second exhibition at the Green Family Art Foundation, is its ability to showcase 28 female and gender-expansive artists without losing cohesion.

Some works are clear responses to Eurocentric and male-dominated art and social traditions, while others function as private meditations on place, sensation and personal memory.

Uniting many of the paintings is an indulgent use of color. Neon greens, marigold, agitated oranges — I was reminded of being caught in the middle of Holi. Or of the moment in Anna Badkhen’s book on life in rural Afghanistan, The World Is a Carpet: Four Seasons in an Afghan Villagewhen the women of Oqa — bedecked in colorful fabrics — dance and ululate in the desert with absolute abandon, protected behind a partition from the carnivorous eyes of men.

Anna Weyant’s 2019 painting “Maggie” is included in the exhibition.(Anna Weyant/Fisher Parish Gallery)

It is remarkably rare in public spaces to see images of women created for the female gaze.

Staring at Cheyenne Julien’s 2018 painting day session, I warmed with shame at first. The female nude, cartoony face, legs cocked in a “happy baby” yoga variation, a paintbrush whitewashing her most intimate parts of her, made me anxiously embarrassed for even having a body that could be positioned like that.

A liberating experience

But as I meandered from one painting to another, the gallery space became liberating, like walking around a fancy Korean bathhouse, no towel and no men in sight. Looking at the unflinching self-assertion of the femme bodies displayed, I felt less reserved, and even a bit silly for wanting my sisters in the painting to cover up in the first place.

Although there are refreshing moments of abstraction, as in Rachel Jones’ Untitled and Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s Beyond the Veil of the Mythical Super Womanthe exhibition’s power lies consistently in portraiture and figuration.

Sasha Gordon paints the self-portrait Interloper from an unflattering and arresting angle. Ella’s hyper-alert face looms in the valley of her chest, her neck swallowed by exposed breasts. The eerie skin color and the grotesque presence of a fly suggest anxiety rather than desire. It’s a gripping visualization of the othering and voyeuristic positions in which whiteness and heteronormativity place queer Asian bodies.

Ana Benaroya's
Ana Benaroya’s “Diamond Day” features a muscular and curvy nude female body in a pose reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s 1935 painting “Large Reclining Nude.”(Kevin Todora)

Ana Benaroya’s Diamond Day is not a portrait, yet we are invited into this intimate domestic space to admire a nude female’s muscled and curvy beauty. Homegirl isn’t just gently toned; she’s jacked. Captain America jacked. In referencing Henri Matisse’s Large Reclining Nude (1935) in the posture of the subject, Benaroya confronts art history’s age-old association of feminine desirability with lithe frailty and the absence of queer heroines within the comic/graphic novel tradition.

A threatening man approaches a young woman in Danica Lundy's
A threatening man approaches a young woman in Danica Lundy’s “Captain.”(Kevin Todora)

Gender play frequently occurs throughout the exhibition in works like Diamond Day and Coady Brown’s The Magician’s Assistant, but very few men figure in the paintings. A father and son here. A lover there. A drag queen in Brea Weinreb’s Demoiselles of Gay Beachin which Weinreb reverses the cross-gender gaze by depicting queer and gender-fluid men at a joyous Pride event.

The rapacious male in Danica Lundy’s Captain is a different beast. His imposing form of him reaches out of the frame toward the young female athlete — and also troublingly toward us — reminding viewers that the threat of sexual violence is never far away.

Missed opportunities

Despite the exhibition’s dynamism and appreciated efforts to frame each work for the viewer, the accompanying wall text and political readings felt thin and inexpert at times.

The text for an industrial-surrealist sculpture by Hannah Levy seemed to miss a key component. The silicone garment stretched over the femme-zoid form’s contorted hips viscerally resembles the goose-pimpled flesh of a bird after it’s had its feathers plucked. Perhaps too obvious, this was never mentioned, and neither were the derogatory terms “chick” or “bird” that are often used to refer to women, which could have rounded out a feminist commentary.

In Maud Madsen’s painting Two Can Play, the fact that the two women are doppelgangers, wearing the same outfits and donning the same haircut, does not appear in the wall text and feels like an omission. If this piece is a commentary on play, as the text suggests, it is as much a commentary on power. The concentric circles created by the structural seams in the tunnel mimic a target. One woman kneels as she aggressively presses the other’s face down into the tunnel floor. The game has become murderously serious.

Curators Clare Milliken and Bailey Summers reference Madsen’s ongoing exploration of the repression of memories and the shadow self as a possible interpretation for the scene. Either way, the lack of levity signals the presence of enmity more so than the collaborative play of wrestling children.

From inside tunnels and underneath breasts, from above and from below, perspective and identity remain central topics of investigation throughout much of the exhibition. In Caroline Absher’s colossal, mostly-dichromatic self-portrait Studio, the artist looks down at the viewer, who crouches or sits beneath her. She extends to us her foot to underscore our positionality in case we forget. We are in her studio. Visitors are prevented from assessing Absher’s work on her — whatever she has painted is hidden from view.

Instead, the work we are forced to contemplate is the artist contemplating herself.

The exhibition features some abstract works, including Michaela Yearwood-Dan's 2021 painting...
The exhibition features some abstract works, including Michaela Yearwood-Dan’s 2021 painting “Beyond the Veil of the Mythical Super Woman” (detail shown).

(Kevin Todora)

Her gaze exudes confidence and assurance of her wealth. The wall text gets it right when it says, “Absher, at this point, was able to understand that, within herself, she was indeed entitled to the autonomy and had the authority of an exceptional artist.”

This excerpt can apply to all 28 skillful artists represented in “Women of Now.” The Green Family Art Foundation allows these artists to spread out and confidently take up the space they know they deserve.

Details

“Women of Now: Dialogues of Memory, Place & Identity,” co-curated by Clare Milliken and Bailey Summers, runs through May 15 at Green Family Art Foundation, 150 Manufacturing St., Suite 214, Dallas. Admission is free. Wednesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm greenfamilyartfoundation.org.

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