These Women Artists are Transforming Gallery Walls with Incredible Murals
Claudia Comte installing Electric Burst (Lines and Zigzags) , 2018, at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Photo by Jon Gitchoff. Courtesy of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Wall-drawing is one of our oldest art forms. Look back to the earliest cave paintings (or to your nearest dive-bar bathroom) for evidence of our natural inclination to express ourselves on the surfaces of walls. Parents reprimand their children for chalking up their homes—in adulthood, we still have that impulse toward creative vandalism.
In the late 1930s and early ’40s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) institutionalized the form when it commissioned artists to make murals that would beautify public spaces around the country. While a majority were men, female artists such as Mary Earley, Helen Forbes, Marion Gilmore, Edith Hamlin, and Henrietta Shore all earned money for their colorful, figurative, large-scale creations—of farm laborers dancing, people playing instruments, and other quaint scenes. As Conceptual art blossomed in the 1960s, artist Sol LeWitt famously created instructions for assistants and future generations to regenerate his blueprints for conceptual wall work depicting geometric shapes; the subsequent murals were “his,” even if he wasn’t around to see them executed. The WPA murals began to look tame (even outdated) in comparison to such radical new aesthetic programs.
Doris Lee, Country Post, at the Ariel Rios Federal Building, Washington D.C., 1938. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Within the past few years, a group of ambitious women artists have successfully made the form their own. In her current show at Gladstone Gallery, which is on view through February 16th, Swiss artist Claudia Comte has painted the walls with thick, eye-tricking lines. In one gallery, she’s installed a series of sharp, vertical zig-zags against a rainbow-hued background. Stare long enough, and different sections appear to move left and right. In another gallery, wavy horizontal black lines create the illusion of three-dimensional shapes protruding from the walls. Altogether, the exhibition is an optical treat.
Comte doesn’t believe that male artists have co-opted murals any more than they have other art forms. Nevertheless, she explained via email that large-scale works “within the already [im]balanced quota of a male-dominated art world [are] even more dominated by the false idioms around masculinity. You give women the opportunity to go large-scale, they will do it.”
Installation view of Claudia Comte, “Claudia Comte: The Morphing Scallops,” at Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo by Roman März. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels.
Indeed, Comte’s presentation takes up as much space as possible on the gallery walls—yet it’s hardly ego-driven. In fact, she describes her efforts as “a huge team effort.” From sketching and planning ahead of time, to measuring, preparing the walls, laying down vinyl, and painting multiple coats on site, Comte relies on her assistants to help her execute her vision. “It’s a fine craft that I respect very much,” she wrote. “It is a very meditative and slow process, so your mind has to be in the right place.”
Comte’s colorful creations are temporary: As soon as her show closes, the gallery will transition back into a traditional white cube. This ephemerality is particularly enticing to American artist Linn Meyers, who works in a similar mode. “A site-specific wall drawing cannot be moved, and the wall drawings that I make cannot be owned,” she wrote via email. Through next fall, her wall drawing Let’s get lost (2018) will be on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. In the show, black lines feather out against the rounded gallery walls, curving and occasionally thickening as they bump into one another.
linn meyers working on Let's Get Lost, at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, 2018. Photo by Dennis Griggs, Tannery Hill Studio, Maine. Courtesy of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
If Comte’s wall work suggests sonic waves, Meyers’s thinner, more closely-set lines explicitly evoke sound. Experience designer Rebecca Bray, sound designer James Bigbee Garver, and software developer Josh Knowles collaborated with Meyers to produce a musical piece entitled Listening Glass, which uses Meyers’s work as a score. Using a custom smartphone app, guests can scan Meyers’s lines, and their devices will emanate the gentle chimes composed by the multimedia team. The work, said the museum’s co-director Anne Collins Goodyear, encourages viewers to “think about our relationship to place, space, and our imaginations.”
While Comte and Meyers rely on their wall work to captivate audiences, American artist Mira Dancy has used it as a backdrop for canvas-bound paintings. For a 2018 show at Lumber Room in Portland, Oregon, Dancy included brushy, black-and-white paintings of nude female figures in natural settings. The show also included a neon sign that read “Self Seed” (also the exhibition title) in purple lettering against a curvy, lightning bolt–like shape. The women that populate Dancy’s work often appear more mythical than specific or contemporary, and here, they are present in grayscale on an entire gallery wall. Their bodies repeat and careen into one another against a lightly sketched ocean and a shadowy, bird-filled sky.
Installation view of Mira Dancy, “Self Seed,” at the Lumber Room, Portland, Oregon, 2018. Photo by Evan La Londe. Courtesy of the Lumber Room.
Dancy describes the wall paintings as an extension of her practice. She was already making small ink drawings in her studio, and, as she explained via email, “[I wanted] to scale up the gesture of my marks, [and] to relate to the figures as larger-than-life, looming witnesses…and the wall was an easy readymade surface to work with.” With her pared-down palette—gray hues instead of the vibrant pinks and blues she’s previously employed—Dancy hopes to exaggerate the fact that her wall paintings are not murals or frescoes, but “more like ghosts.”
Dancy used a similar aesthetic strategy for a 2018 show at Night Gallery, entitled “High Hell.” There, a black-and-white composition dominated a wall: a nude woman reclining along its entire length, her square-patterned body blending in with the brick wall behind her. Dancy noted that her process for such a monumental composition is more “like a dance or a performance than the kind of yes-no arbitration and observation that goes on in the studio.” Painting on canvas can be a solitary experience of making marks. Wall work brings an artist’s practice into the open, more of a dramatic orchestration with a full cast than a solitary excursion into and out of the mind.
Installation view of Mira Dancy, “High Hell,” at Night Gallery, 2018. Photo by Dawn Blackman. Courtesy of Night Gallery.
In this way, Comte, Meyers, and Dancy are challenging traditional conceptions of the artist as a lone genius, the artwork as a market commodity, and the gallery as a repository for permanent things. As Goodyear noted, “Wall drawings, from their very inception, have been social practices.” Yet while looking at Dancy’s giantesses or Comte’s popping lines, or “listening” to Meyers’s drawing, viewers can opt into or out of their heavy theoretical underpinnings. All three artists accomplish conceptual feats while keeping their work visually enticing—and, frankly, lots of fun.