Rebecca Dayan Takes a Fresh Look at the Historical Concept of Virginity

Alexandra Alexa
Sep 28, 2015 7:49PM

Courtesy Catherine Ahnell Gallery

Before Christianity, the word “virgin” didn’t have the sexual connotations it has today. Many consider that in its origins, the word was used to refer to an autonomous woman; Greek goddesses, for example, were called virgins in reference to their strength. Is it possible today, to reclaim this abandoned meaning of the word, to emphasize independence rather than chastity or sexual inexperience? This question is at the core of model-turned-actress Rebecca Dayan’s first solo show, suitably titled “ASSUMPTION.”

Dayan, who recently starred in the indie film H, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, has been working with watercolor for some time while pursuing her other talents. She was helping a film director develop her role for the upcoming movie NOVITIATE, in which she plays a nun, when she began delving into the world of religious symbolism and iconographic imagery. That research inspired this series of watercolors, which Dayan aptly titled “ASSUMPTION,” referring, in part, to the much-illustrated moment when the Virgin Mary ascends to Heaven.

To make these works, the artist first photographed her friends, including model and artist Tali Lennox (who also recently showed with Catherine Ahnell), in poses inspired by representations of the Virgin Mary. During a monthlong residency at the gallery, she pared the images down to their emotional core in  in watercolor. Dramatically cropped compositions highlight her subjects’ heightened expressions while negative space creates the impression that each figure is floating in an ethereal space and ecstatic mental state. 

Dayan’s sitters often appear with their lips gently parted, a poignant gesture that evokes the passionate susurrations of prayer as much as the carnal expression of sexual pleasure. The nuanced parallels Dayan sets up between different experiences of ecstasy—whether of the spirit or the flesh—are reflected in the characteristics of her chosen medium. The transparent watercolor pigment allows her to build up thin washes to create the overall effect of a stain, and imparts the figures with luminosity. In what is perhaps a happy accident, the paper begins to crinkle and crease along the boundaries of pigment and untouched paper. In pieces like OLGA (2105) and RACHEL (2015), this makes the portraits appear almost three-dimensional—they seem to be pushing out of the bounds of the page, emerging from the moment of ecstasy they’ve just experienced. In these instances when the medium fuses with the subject matter, the work serves its most powerful message: these women are not bound to anyone or anything.

Alexandra Alexa

ASSUMPTION” is on view at Catherine Ahnell Gallery, New York, Sept. 9-Oct. 11, 2015.

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