These Women Artists are Transforming Gallery Walls with Incredible Murals
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
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
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.”
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 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.
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
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.
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.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.