Up and Coming: In London, Paris, and New York,Mira Dancy’s Nudes Reclaim the Female Body

  • Portrait of Mira Dancy in her studio by Nick Simmons for Artsy.

When Mira Dancy entered undergrad at Bard College in 1997, it wasn’t for painting. “I went there with the intention of studying writing and poetry, but the art teachers were totally electrifying,” she says, sitting in her high-ceilinged Gowanus cubicle amid black-and-white murals and colorful paintings of muscular female nudes, diving or in states of languorous repose. “Amy Sillman and Elizabeth Murray were two of my first painting teachers. Working with them versus the professors in the poetry department—who were mostly 80-year-old men? They just had this energy.” 

Dancy’s nudes have been concurrently on view in Paris (at Galerie Éric Hussenot), London (in a solo booth with Night Gallery at Frieze London), and MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” this month. They have migrated from canvases and wall paintings to neon light works, projected images, and shower curtains in recent years, what she calls the “fugitive image.” “Right away it was about painting these women who were sort of people that I knew, sort of me, sort of people from my family—but the picture was always open and undetermined. Mostly I was interested in not knowing who they were.”

  • Photo by Nick Simmons for Artsy.

At “Greater New York,” a quinquennial survey of artwork being produced in the city, Dancy shows a mural, painting, and purple neon. “She has this Amazonian strength to her,” Dancy says of her neon figure. “It’s a little bit more of a street scene, which is something I’ve been interested in with the neon pieces. They’re also about these images that you see while walking around, the infiltration of something like a billboard.”

Though components of places and references to advertising make their way into Dancy’s work—landscapes, the ubiquitous signage of psychic salons—her settings are as timeless and anonymous as her figures. “Walking around New York, so much has been changing on the street in the last 10 years. Those psychic places or nail salons are the last places that are unbranded. I started being really drawn to them. You imagine they’re going be one of the next things to go. So I started to key in on them as something kind of hanging on.”

There’s a persistent return to ideas of fixity and permanence, an impulse toward classicism, in Dancy’s formly figures. “They’re naked partly because I don’t want the associations that clothes bring. It’s not about a particular moment in time,” she reflects at one point. Flicking through images of works that have been shipped to London and Paris on her laptop, she points to one Frieze-bound work, Blue Angel (2015), a blue woman, her head cocked to one side in a Picasso-esque stance, set against vivid pink. “It’s sort of a silver cutout shape. I was thinking about inscriptions on coins. A silvery, engraved image. I’m trying to paint it with this wrought sense of body, but also keep it really flat.”

  • Photo by Nick Simmons for Artsy.

The charged composure of her paintings, confined within the strictures of the frame, is contrasted by her sketchier, more free-form murals and graphic neons. “Some of the wall paintings come from the idea of a pose, a pose becoming a theatrical event or a scene,” she says. “When I started painting, I became totally obsessed with the language of the body. I think of it as about film, and cropping, staging. It’s not about the every day. It’s kind of sexual, the energy behind it is grabbing from more elements of a psychology.”

  • Photos by Nick Simmons for Artsy.

That cerebral quality is partly grounded, for Dancy, in the way images ingrain themselves in the human psyche, repeat in different forms, and become ghosts of one another. References to visual memory surface often in her conversation. On one side of her studio, a vast mural features a sinuously limbed reclining nude, painted with loose, drippy brushwork. “It’s actually based on this recurring vision I was having,” she explains, “not exactly a vision, but a memory of an old 14th-century painting by Duccio, with this hillside. Thinking about the hillside it became a sort of figure and then this woman.”

  • View of Want Position // Red. Photo by Aurélien Môle, Courtesy, Galerie Hussenot.

The memory of Duccio’s Agony in the Garden (1308-11) has inspired a whole host of iterative paintings for Dancy, each of which morphs a male-centered scene depicting Jesus and the Apostles into a flattened, dream-like landscape inhabited by a Gaia-like fertility goddess. The resemblance of Dancy’s work to historic paintings—not to Duccio but the icons of early 20th century European painting—has not gone unnoticed. “It’s always like, ‘oh it’s very Matissean,’ ‘oh you must love Matisse.’ I do love Matisse. Kirchner has also been very important for me. But what I’m trying to focus on is a different relationship. It’s more this reversal. Being a woman looking at painting from a more haunted position.”

  • Photos by Nick Simmons for Artsy.

If Dancy’s art asserts a feminist viewpoint, it’s one that spans both an essentialist attitude toward femininity—as grounded in the female body and evocative of mythological fertility figures—and a constructivist one that addresses notions of ideal female beauty espoused by advertising. Dancy, who has worked for the feminist painter Joan Snyder for the past 10 years, has no qualms about aligning herself with that history. “I have no problem with that at all,” she says. “Probably because of who my teachers were, that was what my education was. That’s why there even is a reason to make. Because there’s work to be done about the idea of a woman’s voice. I’ve just learned so much about what the feminist artist movement of the ’70s was. It’s an amazing history.”

—Tess Thackara 

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