Female Modernity: Manet vs. Rossetti (MFA, Boston)

So far on canvasandcrumpets I have shown you DIY crafts and exhibition reviews of museums and galleries. What I would like to do next is look at two famous painters- Edouard Manet and Dante Gabriel Rossetti- and see how these contemporaries  depicted women. I will look specifically at two paintings hanging in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Manet’s Victorine Meurent (1862), and Rossetti’s Bocca Baciata (1859). The differences in these paintings reflect two distinct styles, impressionism and aestheticism, and also reveal the perspective of each artist towards women. This is a long post so feel free to skip around. I have organized it into several sections. The first is a look at the GAZE of each woman and what it reveals about the PERSPECTIVES of the artists themselves. Then I look at LIGHT, BRUSHWORK, and SPACE, to see how surface techniques depict the perspectives of Manet and Rossetti toward women. At the end, I take everything into consideration to make a statement about the overall effect of each portrait, regardless of the artists’ intentions.

To start, take a look at each painting: Victorine Meurent is the first, and Bocca Baciata is the second.

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THE GAZE

The gaze of each woman in Victorine Meurent and Bocca Baciata offers a look into the perspective that each artist holds of women, and a perspective that the VIEWER is projected into simply by looking at the painting.

In Bocca Baciata, Fanny (who happened to be Rossetti’s mistress) looks off into the distance. She does not look at us or acknowledge our existence. We, the viewers, are projected into the perspective of a male voyeur appraising her vibrant copper hair and soft, pale skin. Rossetti makes it clear that we are allowed and encouraged to fetishize her beauty without fear of being confronted. She will never meet our eye.

Rossetti’s View of Women

This projected perspective reveals several things about Rossetti’s own view of women. Rossetti wanted the viewer to enjoy women the way he did; he took pleasure in painting the smallest hint of a blouse at the bottom of the painting. He reveled in giving her red lips the roundest shape, twirling her delicate fingers around a strand of hair. And yet what was most tantalizing to Rossetti appears to be the unattainability of women. While the viewer and Rossetti himself may have access to Fanny’s body, she cannot be entirely consumed while she gazes at something, or someone, else. The resulting painting is deeply disturbing. Rossetti painted an overabundance of sexual female symbols and sensual details as a way to fetishize her, and to almost make up for the fact that he would never be able to attain all of her. One such symbol is the apple, representing fertility, unsubtly placed at the foreground of the painting, implying his ability to impregnate her. This can be seen as a play of both sexual desire, and desire for male power, in that pregnancy renders a female somewhat debilitated. Impregnating Fanny would be another way for Rossetti to claim her.

THE GAZE

Manet also paid great attention to the gaze of his female protagonist. However, Victorine looks right at the viewer, whereas Fanny gazes provocatively away. Victorine looks out through hazel eyes shaded by feathery yellow eyelashes. Her eyes seem separate from the patchy brushstrokes that served to both construct and deconstruct the rest of her face. The intensity of her gaze dissolves the space between subject and viewer. Victorine not only looks out of the painting and into our space; she has an active relationship with the viewer. Victorine holds the viewer at a distance, stopping us from coming closer. The mere suggestion that we would come closer reveals that the viewer is projected into the perspective of a male voyeur, the very same position we are given in Bocca Baciata. Victorine is aware and accepts that she is being appraised, but she does not pretend to enjoy the attention paid to her appearance. Her response to the invasion of her privacy and to our appraisal is to regard us with cool dignity and confidence. She will not attempt to stop us from looking at her, but she will also not let us do so without meeting our eyes. The effect is jarring. The viewer is made to feel like his thoughts and actions are exposed.

Manet’s View of Women

The entire experience of looking at this painting—appraising her and then catching her eyes and feeling uncomfortable—reveals Manet’s own attitude towards women. The discomfort felt by the viewer is dependent on the viewer’s inability to understand exactly who she is. While Manet would also never understand what it was like to be a woman in modern Paris, he attempted to give women a voice through painting, which reflects his respect for them. In depicting a woman unsatisfied with the confines of her gender, he recognized women beyond their typical roles as mothers, wives, or prostitutes. The painting is, in a way, his depiction of how suffocating he saw female modernity to be. Victorine wears a white blouse that evokes innocence, embroidered with black thread on the shoulders to emphasize her narrow frame. Her hair is tied back with a soft velvet headband. These feminine details illustrate how women were supposed to appear—modest and feminine. Victorine’s thin black choker draws attention to her femininity, particularly the smallness of her neck. Its tied bow functions to tie her to the surface of the painting, whose flaky brushstrokes threaten to dissolve her from representation. Furthermore, the tied choker glues her to the confines of her position in society. The velvet headband also bears a tied bow, doubling the symbol of the tied knot. She is stuck within the boundaries of her gender and class. Manet attempted to give her a voice that the realities of French female modernity did not provide. He did so through her gaze that quietly confronts the issue of male voyeurism and the power dynamic between men and women in modern Paris.

SURFACE TECHNIQUES

Specific surface techniques underline each artist’s perspective towards women.

Light

In Manet’s Victorine Meurent, the first oddity is the reflection of her earring. It reflects the light with one single fleck. This seems odd given that this side of her face is in shadow. No light is being shone on her ear to promote this effect. Perhaps it is meant to draw attention to the shadow itself, which creeps onto the right side of Victorine’s face with jagged edges. It is oddly dark in contrast to the chalky pallor of her face. No regular light fixture could leave a shadow with so many sharp edges, without any gradation from dark to light. It makes one wonder what is before her that creates that unrealistic, encroaching, shadow, so dark and bizarrely shaped. Is it a man? In which case, we are that man, as that is our projected perspective, and we are threatening to literally put her entirely in the dark. Darkness here symbolizes the silencing effect of modern Paris on the French woman. In this way Manet utilizes light to underline the constraints of female modernity.

The effect of light on Fanny’s face is more straightforward but equally in line with Rossetti’s view of women. Light hits her straight on so that her entire face is illuminated. Only a tiny shadow hugs her face to give her depth. However, the landscape behind her is not brightened at all. One can see dim flowers, but they do not shine with the same radiance as does Fanny’s face. It is almost as if there is a spotlight being shone directly on her. Spotlight lighting all the more supports Rossetti’s idea of the idealized beauty, on display for the world to see.

Brushwork

Manet and Rossetti also approached brushwork entirely differently. Rossetti strived for his brushstrokes to be as invisible as possible in order to render an idealized female, perfect enough to be fetishized. In contrast, Manet kept his brushstrokes visibly unfinished in order to reveal societal issues beyond pictorial depiction. Rossetti’s brushstrokes are so smooth that one must look very closely to even see the nature of paint on canvas. From a short distance away, the representation is lifelike, and the individual strokes used to construct Fanny’s face blend seamlessly into one another. The result is a licked surface and an idealized female, ready to be consumed by Rossetti and the projected viewer.

Manet’s looser approach to brushwork is no less careful, though its appearance may appear haphazard. He used thick brushstrokes with unfinished edges that created a smudged quality, especially around Victorine’s nose and chin. These smudged brushstrokes have a dual effect. Patched together, they form a recognizable image of Victorine’s likeness. Yet their unfinished edges unravel her face at the same time. The very strokes that construct her face also prevent representation from being completed. They threaten to unravel her completely. The patchy quality to her face can also be interpreted as a physical representation of her making herself up for presentation. The brushstrokes can be seen as iterations of the makeup brushes she uses to apply rouge. While she paints herself up to conform to societal standards, she covers up her identity. The result is a representation that is at once her and not her, with the surface of her skin a space of oscillation between construction and deconstruction.

Space

Interestingly, Manet and Rossetti had similar approaches to space, but for different ends. In both paintings, the female protagonist takes up a majority of the pictorial layout. A portion of each torso and the entirety of each head are visible. The backgrounds are also similarly ambiguous. Manet situated Victorine in front of a smooth, brown wall. As a result, this woman could be anywhere, in any home. She represents the woman behind walls in modern Paris. Too specific a location would take away from her universality. The painting also appears much larger than it is, in part because Victorine fills the majority of its seventeen square inches. Both the choice to fill the frame with Victorine’s figure and to reflect societal pressures on women through her image give Victorine Meurent its great visual impact.

In Bocca Baciata, the background is floral, but it is ambiguously so. One cannot tell if it is meant to be floral wallpaper or a landscape. We receive no understanding of pictorial space. The flowers mimic the flowers in her hair, and seem more like a part of her existence—her aura—than any space she is in. However, the purpose of maintaining a vague background was not to make the image of Fanny more universal. It was to crowd Fanny into her cage of femininity and sexuality. It is as if, the more she is objectified, and the more beautiful things that surround her, the more she belongs to Rossetti and to the viewer. Rossetti utilizes space further to attempt to ensnare her. The frame of the portrait cannot contain her flowing copper hair. It extends beyond the borders on either side. The painting cannot hold all of her, yet it tries adamantly to by keeping its size tiny, as if cutting her off at the edges will diminish her freedom. The frame’s width is roughly half the width of the painting itself. She is trapped within a small, golden prison. It is both a tantalizing thought—this wild, beautiful woman is captured for the viewer’s pleasure—and an uncomfortable one. And so, each woman is depicted without a distinctive background, though for very different purposes: Victorine, to maintain universality, and Fanny, to emphasize her imprisonment.

CONCLUSION

As you have read and seen, Manet and Rossetti approached the depiction of their models with an interesting degree of similarities and differences. Victorine Meurent and Bocca Baciata both project the viewer into the position of a male voyeur. Manet does so in order to create discomfort, which illustrates what he believes to be the oppressive nature of female modernity. His use of space, light, brushwork, and the female gaze all support this attitude. Meanwhile, Rossetti positions his viewer as a male voyeur in order to expose the female to fetishization beyond his own objectification. His attention to surface techniques contributes to the sensual and idealized image of the female. Because of Rossetti’s sexual, objectifying image of Fanny, it could be thought that she is meant to be powerless. She appears to exist completely for the gaze of men. And yet, is there not a kind of power in keeping part of oneself hidden when the rest is exposed? If Fanny’s faraway gaze is tantalizing to Rossetti in his quest to possess women, then there is a power in her resistance to meet his gaze. Looking away becomes a means of self-defense and self-preservation. Therefore, the women in these two paintings may not be so different after all. They both confront the male gaze, though Fanny does so by resisting it, and Victorine does so by meeting it. It is unlikely that Rossetti intended for this occurrence. His objectifying perspective would not support the notion of a confrontational female. However, it is something to consider when viewing the overall effect of each portrait. Manet and Rossetti presented females who confront the issue of the male gaze despite their different perspectives on female modernity and attitudes towards women. The viewer is able to comprehend Manet’s desire to illuminate female modernity and Rossetti’s desire to possess women through each artist’s careful handling of light, brushwork, space, and the female gaze.

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Wreath-Making DIY

Merry Christmas! Hope you are all enjoying time with loved ones and eating lots of gingerbread cookies! In my house, everyone has to have eaten breakfast and had a cup of tea before presents are opened. We listen to “Christmas in the English Castle” before even touching our stockings. As a result, opening presents tends to happen around 2PM. I like this tradition because it places the focus of the holiday on family instead of gifts. The thrill of Christmas is even more special now that my cousin Zoë and I have created a unique wreath to decorate our mantle. The beauty of the holiday is in spending time together and creating beautiful things! Here is a step-by-step guide to creating your own holiday wreath:

1. Purchase a wreath from your local craft store. Ours is artificial. You should also buy an arrangement of glittery faux pinecones, sparkly leaves, and berries. They are sold in bouquets.

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2. The wreath is constructed from wire covered in fake leaves. When you purchase the wreath, these wires will be tightly folded. Separate them by pushing them in different directions (some towards the center, some towards the outside). This will create the illusion of a larger, more natural wreath.

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3. Take each bouquet and separate the pinecones, leaves, and berries into individual stems, or small groups of stems. You will be left with lots of individual berries with long wire stems. Some leaves may have very short, plastic stems.

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4. Now comes the fun! There is no specific order for items in a wreath. Simply use what you like. Zoë and I started by tucking some of the copper leaves with short stems in places where the wires of the wreath could be tied around the base of these leaves. The long-stemmed berries could be easily tied around the wire of the wreath. If you have difficulty securing a pinecone, first wrap the wire stem of a berry around the stem of the pinecone, and use the rest of the berry’s wire to tie it to the wreath. In other instances, you will find that some short-stemmed leaves can simply be tucked into the wreath, albeit precariously. We tucked a couple glittery apples into the wreath without tying them down, and they have yet to fall! Maybe it’s Christmas magic…

5. Lastly, you will need to hang your wreath. On the back of your wreath is the thick wire base. I found some gold ribbon and slid it through this wire frame. Place your wreath at the desired height and tie a bow.

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6. Sit on the couch with a cup of tea and a gingerbread biscuit and enjoy your beautiful creation 🙂

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I hope you enjoyed this DIY. Making a wreath is a simple and lovely way to get in the holiday spirit!! I’m tempted to make one for my bedroom next. Till next time…

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Chris Ofili- Night and Day (The New Museum, NYC)

Chris Ofili is a Manchester-born artist who currently lives in Trinidad. He has worked with a variety of materials- paint, resin, glitter, pins, elegant dung- to create multi-media paintings and sculptures. His works, presented in a beautiful survey at the New Museum, deal with black identity in contemporary society. These works have a distinctly layered quality. Even his paintings appear three-dimensional. Ofili’s influences- the Renaissance, his new home in Trinidad- also manifest themselves in his art, layered upon one another to create the final evocative image.

In the first room, an entire wall is covered in small frames. Within each frame is a watercolor and ink portrait of a black figure. The collection is entitled “Afromuses.”

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These characters are muses for his larger works. For ten years, Ofili worked on one portrait per morning, before starting on a larger painting. These paintings are variations on a theme. All the females are depicted from a frontal position, while the males are shown in profile. All figures are cut off below the chest. Yet their clothing, jewels, and expressions depict tremendous variety. Part of this variety may be attributed to the nature of watercolor. Watercolor on paper tends to spread rather quickly, resulting in a degree of chance with each brushstroke. The images are contained by their existence within a repetitive pattern, but allowed to blossom with individuality within each frame. The result is a brilliant celebration of black culture and beauty on a wide scale.

Beside “Afromuses” is a completely different piece of art, a sculpture entitled “Annunciation.”

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Here we are presented with a visual representation of the story of Annunciation from the Gospel of Saint Luke. In this story, the angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will conceive the son of God. The drama of this encounter as depicted in Ofili’s sculpture recalls the dramatic depictions of the Annunciation painted by Fra Angelico during the Renaissance. Ofili takes the sensational elements of Angelico’s paintings and merges them with his own aesthetic and social commentary. He paints Gabriel black, roughly texturizing his skin. The Virgin is left smooth, gold, and highly reflective. Their limbs intertwine sensually, even merging in places where it looks like they could be anatomically connected. A strange circle of metal extends behind her, emphasizing the sexual overtones of their embrace. “Ascension” is aesthetically breathtaking- the juxtaposition of materials pleases the eye. And yet, it is also disconcerting. The imposition of sexuality to the story of the Virgin Mary removes the splendor of religiosity somewhat, and grounds the sculpture in some kind of realistic truth. While Christianity is certainly not attacked with this sculpture, its fantastic elements are addressed.

In the next room, I was awed by Ofili’s stunning “No Woman No Cry.”

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This portrait was created using acrylic, oil, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung (yes you read that right). Careful shading with acrylic and oil illustrate this woman’s face and body. Map pins and glitter decorate her, and give her depth. A piece of solid elephant dung forms the necklace around her neck, and the stands upon which the painting rests. A beautifully beaded border cross-hatches over her figure and onto the background. Yet the significance of this painting lies not in its aesthetic, beautiful as it is. The woman in “No Woman No Cry” is Doreen Lawrence, the mother of a boy who was murdered in a racially-fueled attack in South London in 1993. When the killers were not convicted, Doreen became a public voice, adamant about changing the institutionally racist Metropolitan Police Service. Though the killers were eventually brought to justice (20 years later), the event still resonated with Ofili, as well as the rest of the world. Ofili was struck by Doreen’s sorrow. The depths of her sadness, despite the social action that she stimulated, inspired Ofili to portray her sadness in a way that would humanize the story in the headlines and remind people that a valuable life was lost.

Her beaded tears reach her shoulders and then evaporate. It is as if she is has just started to cry every time one looks at this artwork. She raises her head to be strong, yet closes her eyes instinctively. I find the saddest part of this entire work to be the necklace. The heaviness of this “stone” seems to weigh down her entire body. It also draws attention to her heart, which seems to be bleeding with red paint. Doreen bears an aura of dignity in the golden halo around her head. She is oblivious to it, concerned only with the matter at hand: the heart-breaking loss of her son.

The last room I went into was an unconventional space. The walls were painted with purple flowers and colorful paintings were hung on top in a circle.

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I was particularly drawn to a painting entitled “Lime Bar,” created with oil on linen.

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This painting depicts a lime bar in Trinidad, Ofili’s new home. It is clear how taken he is with his new paradise. The colors are vibrant and geometric dots of paint resemble confetti. The figures are framed by an abstract border of this confetti on a black background. The scene looks like a torn postcard, or as if the viewer is peering through a deformed keyhole. It leads one to wonder why these bar-goers are depicted through an asymmetrical lens. Are we meant to feel distanced from them? The black border also resembles the curtains of a stage. Perhaps Ofili is portraying the stereotype of the frivolity of island life as a theatrical production. By abiding by these stereotypes yet placing them on a stage, Ofili confronts the misconception that island life is merely what it seems on the surface. This is conjecture, but it is a thought worth entertaining. I am also intrigued by the choice to paint his characters entirely black, wearing black, and in the same exact tone as the background. Perhaps Ofiili is emphasizing the color of their skin. Or maybe they are meant to be silhouettes at a particular time of day. I find the uniform coloring of these figures evocative, but cannot quite put my finger on why. Regardless, this painting is electric, and I found myself standing in front of it for ten minutes, attempting to puzzle these questions out. Feel free to disagree, or come up with your own interpretation.

In this same room I fell in love with these two paintings. “Ovid- Desire” and “Confession (Lady Chancellor)” are equally mesmerizing.

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“Night and Day” will be showing at the New Museum until January 25th. I urge you to check out Chris Ofili’s masterful works. There are several paintings I was unable to photograph due to low battery on my phone… if you ever find yourself blogging I highly recommend charging your phone BEFORE spending the day at the museum. These, as well as the images pictured here, are truly remarkable artworks in terms of their technique and social connotations. I left feeling inspired to do some mixed-media art of my own! Stay tuned…

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Greer Lankton- LOVE ME (Participant Inc, NYC)

Art can have many purposes. On canvasandcrumpets I have looked at the role art can play in confronting social issues and in encapsulating history. It can also be an outlet for exploring one’s identity. Yesterday, I witnessed Greer Lankton’s own personal discovery of self-identity in her post-humous retrospective, LOVE ME, at Participant Inc. Lankton, who passed away in 1996, was a popular artist in the East Village art scene in the 1980’s. She also happened to be transgender. Gender and sexuality play an important role in her art, as does her personal relationship with her own body. Lankston’s elaborate, often bizarre, dolls, modeled off both herself and celebrities, reveal her fascination with anatomy and the social constructs surrounding it. LOVE ME is a compilation of her dolls, photographs, drawings, and paraphernalia from her life.

LOVE ME closes on December 21st. I urge any who can to see this exhibit because it is truly a remarkable exhibit of a fascinating artist’s life. Furthermore, the primary form of Lankston’s art- dolls- is extraordinary.

Here are several images of Lankston’s dolls:

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The dolls are similarly emaciated, and for the most part, nude. Their genitalia is exposed and the dolls carry themselves with distinct personalities. Many bear semblance to Lankton’s face, with the exception of the Jackie Onassis doll on the right of the second image. From my perspective as a viewer new to Lankton’s work, these dolls appear to be self-portraits embodying her feelings towards herself. In the first she positions herself wearing red heels and lipstick, confidently, even seductively, posing. In the central doll in the second image, she glares at the viewer, inviting the viewer to judge her, and silently replying that she doesn’t care what we think. Yet in the third image, the doll has been torn apart from the inside. Her organs spill out, only attached to the rest of her body by flimsy wire. Her face is skeletal and gaunt; it is a remnant of her past self. I have a difficult time understanding what this doll meant to Lankton. Her art so closely mirrored the events in her personal life that it is hard to step into her shoes as an artist. Perhaps this doll is a manifestation of confusion or even shame that she may have felt at one time towards her body. The skeletal face suggests the decay of a corpse. Maybe this doll is a reflection on death and the ever-decaying nature of the human body. I invite you to interpret differently!

Lankton also took many photographs of herself WITH these dolls. One I found particularly strange and memorable is this:

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My first reaction was to think how morbid and creepy the photograph was. Yet at the same time, there is something so compelling about it that kept me staring at it. The juxtaposition of Lankton’s beautiful, grinning face with bloodied dolls creates an uncanny image that is hard to make sense of. Some of the dolls are bulbous, others are emaciated. And Lankton is nude in the middle of it, apparently in the midst of a bath. It makes one question the very nature of bodies. Why are we so disgusted by the simple portrayal of naked figures? Are they not aesthetically pleasing because they are thin, or fat, or seem to be sexually ambiguous? Lankton’s ease suggests she doesn’t care about what these bodies look like. And the viewer, put off by the grotesque scene, wonders why he or she is disgusted in the first place. Is it the sight of naked bodies that is off-putting? And if so, why is there such a social taboo against it? Furthermore, the prominent red cross on one of the dolls is jarring, considering the sexual connotations of the photograph. Lankton pokes fun at religion, and its effects on social norms, by including the symbol of the cross in her orgy of fabric bodies. It is my interpretation that Lankton used humor to confront religious homophobia.

LOVE ME features images of Lankton as well, posing for various photographers. One that I liked particularly is this one:

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I found it particularly haunting, and very beautiful. One can see how she exaggerated her high cheek bones and large eyes in her self-portrait dolls.

The exhibit does not hide the darker elements of Lankton’s work. The following drawing is a painful depiction of the procedure Lankton underwent.

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The bright colors are cheery, but the disjointed structure and overlapping vignettes are frantic. They create the sense of chaos and overwhelming emotion. Perspective is not important here. Table, wall, and floor all merge, reverting the image to two-dimensionality. However, the drawing is not about perspective collapsing. Nor is it a testament to poor technique. It is simply not the point. This drawing is an uncomfortable but honest portrayal of the emotion surrounding a procedure that was vital to Lankton’s identity. It almost feels as if the viewer is invading Lankton’s personal life- a wonderful opportunity provided by this exhibit, yet one that is deeply unnerving.

Lastly, I would like to show you all my favorite part of the exhibit, a mirror. I will not attempt to explain it. I believe it speaks for itself.

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After leaving Participant Inc, I could not stop thinking about Greer Lankton’s life and art. I feel blessed to have stepped into her world for a short time, and seen different sides of her identity through her art. Because of this personal experience, I find her work to be some of my favorite. I hope to see other exhibits that feel as deeply personal as this. Hope you enjoyed as well, and learned something about this incredible artist!

xoxo, Chloe ❤

Brad Kunkle- The Belonging (Aracadia Contemporary, NYC)

This summer I was perusing pinterest- a very interesting place to find contemporary artists- and came upon the gallery Arcadia Contemporary in New York City. I was attracted to this gallery by the artists it represents. Michael Carson and Sam Wolfe Connelly, just to name two, portray emotionally riveting images of people. Their characters do not exist in this world as we see it, but in some kind of parallel, fantastical space. Carson’s people are curiously devoid of saturation, living in oscillation with the walls behind them. Sunlight and shadows seem to control their paper-like consistency. Sometimes he depicts one figure several times in the same painting. His world supports the notion of multiple selves. Connelly depicts people floating three inches above the ground, hovering before windows, and crawling out of the earth. His world is dark and filled with an uncanny “otherness.”

It was with this background of Arcadia that I approached the Brad Kunkle exhibit yesterday. This exhibit, entitled “The Belonging,” opened last Thursday. (A reminder came up on my phone while I was writing a 16 page research paper. I almost burst into tears.) “The Belonging” is positioned around the charcoal gray square gallery that is Arcadia Contemporary. It is a small space, but carefully curated to maximize the impact of each monumental painting. When one walks into the gallery, the first thing  he sees is this painting:

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This painting, entitled “The Near, Far and Leading,” is constructed from gold and silver leaf and oil paint. There are distinct areas for leaf, such as the silver background and the crown of gold leaves, and distinct areas for oil, such as the impeccably shaded skin of this ethereal woman. Yet they are melded in places where the leaf has been sliced, carving thin lines to be filled in with paint. This blend of metal and oil allows the woman to be fully integrated into her dreamlike atmosphere. And what are we to make of this atmosphere? Do we dare call it realistic, in the way that the light reflecting off the silver leaf creates pictorial depth? Or does this reside purely in the realm of the supernatural?

It is my interpretation that this is a love letter to the female body and spirit, a visual sonnet composed to idolize women. It does not fetishize her; one cannot even see her breasts or below her hips. But it is still tantalizing in what it hides, allowing the smoothness of her back to be softly touched by tendrils of hair. The painting also captures and celebrates the freshness of her feminine spirit. She gazes forward with both intensity and calmness, at harmony with herself. The silver and gold merely provide a framework for this celebration of femininity, a backdrop to allow her ethereal qualities to manifest themselves.

This idea of the idolization of the female figure and spirit can be traced throughout “The Belonging.” Kunkle only displays images of fairy-like women in this exhibit, and yet never once does it feel like he does so with male superiority. Here is an painting, entitled “Tidal,” that encompasses this concept:

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“Tidal” places a nude female on a gaseous green cloud, covered in golden leaves. I made a strange connection while looking at this painting. The puffy white and green consistency of the clouds reminded me of how I have always envisioned the surface of the planet Venus to be. I can imagine this nymph on Venus, wrapped in its sulfuric air, breathing in carbon dioxide. The strange, poisonous quality of the clouds adds to the “otherness” of Kunkle’s world, as does this nymph’s apparent ability to float through the air. Beyond the uncanniness of the atmosphere, however, is the infatuation with her body and spirit. Leaves obscure parts of her, but her form is still visible, frustratingly out of reach for the viewer (who is projected into the position of a heterosexual male). She gazes provocatively down at us. Her elevated position gives her a kind of power that was not afforded to Academic images of the idealized female nude in the 19th and 20th centuries- she is not being fetishized as such. Raised onto a pedestal for her beauty, yes, but from a sense of awe and wonder, not the desire to consume her. It is a strange balance to keep- celebration of the female body and spirit, without crossing entirely into the realm of sexual desire- and Kunkle handles it masterfully. His treatment of atmosphere and respect for his nude figures make this painting about more than just the seductiveness of women. It is about their otherness, their innate difference of spirit that delights and entrances Kunkle.

Another favorite of mine from “The Belonging” is this painting, entitled “The Nature of History.”

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Here, Kunkle uses his signature mix of gold and silver leaf and oil paint to depict a dreamscape of woman, birds, and golden grass. The protagonist is clothed in a sharply contrasting black and white striped shirt. I find that this shirt is a suggestion of reality. Its visual impact grounds the painting from floating entirely into the dream world. The gaze of this woman also struck me… I could not take my eyes from her for several minutes, as I struggled to put into words what was so powerful about it. It came to me today that  this woman is extraordinarily aware. She does not confront the viewer with her stare, but remains still, looking out into the distance, alert and watching. I am possessed by the question: what is she watching for? A possible threat to her silver and gold paradise? Or is this, too, a celebration of the female spirit; a love letter to the emotional honesty and intensity of women? It is also important to consider the title of the painting. “The Nature of History” may suggest that, as civilizations have risen and fallen, and men have killed one another on many a battlefield, women have been quietly watching. This woman is timeless, a symbol of the possibility of peace that has always existed. Her shirt, reminiscent of a jail uniform, suggests that she is confined to this eternal in-between, always silently watching the events of the world unfold.

Looking back on these three paintings, there are clear themes that run between them, such as the depiction of women and the otherness of both women and nature. I would like to explore now the title of the exhibit itself: “The Belonging.” What is the connection between the themes of these paintings and the exhibition title? My first instinct is that “the belonging” refers to the relationship between these women and their surroundings. They are so intertwined with their fantasy worlds that the strangeness of these places rubs off on them; it is present in the golden leaves that follow them, and in the quality of their spirit. This title also brings to mind the role of the viewer, or of men, in this bizarre world. Do they belong, do they not belong, or do they merely coexist? Kunkle seems to be asking this question with the serene stares of his protagonists, rather than answering it. The effect is jarring, and leaves the viewer feeling separate from the supernatural spaces of these paintings, and yet simultaneously entranced by it.

If you have the ability to come to New York City before December 28th, I highly recommend visiting Arcadia Contemporary to see Brad Kunkle’s exhibit. The qualities of Kunkle’s gold and silver leaf technique are remarkable in person, and cannot be truly appreciated in a photograph. Perhaps you will come away with a different interpretation of his ethereal women- there are an infinite amount of themes that can be picked out from their gazes, their sleek bodies, and their strange surroundings. I’ll leave you with two more images from this wonderful exhibit: “Where the Current Meets,” and “Chroma 1,” respectively.

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I look forward to sharing more exhibits that deal with gender politics in art! This is a subject that has been exciting me recently. Ciao for now~

xoxo, Chloe ❤