Painters Who Are Women

Sep 2, 2014 2:50PM

By Leah Triplett

The state of modern American womanhood has recently been hotly debated in popular culture. Between books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, or Hannah Rosin’s The End of Men, the identity, or role, of women in contemporary American society is at once fluid and firm, contested and celebrated. In 2014, a woman might be able to have a highly successful career (if she not only works hard, but loudly demands it, according to Sandberg), but she also might worry that its at the cost of her family, her home and perhaps even something of herself.

The space for women painters in the more rarified art world is no more solid. In January of this year, “The Ten Most Subversive Women Artists in History” headlined the Guardian and galled Twitter; in February, as part of the Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon, people all over the globe volunteered their time and energy to create Wikipedia entries for 101 women artists in order to close the gap between the number of articles about male and female artists. The former suggests that women artists need to be outliers in order to be considered in the canon, while the latter demonstrates the startling lack of inclusion of women in Western art history. Both underscore the cultural anxiety that attends the work of women painters, a fear of relegation and access, of being either too particular or too universal, of being too anything.

It’s into this complex climate that Emma Webster, Helena Wurtzel, Amy Lincoln and Anna Valdez have surfaced as young women painters. A group of women different in age, background and region, what binds these painters is not only their gender, but their shared interest in the social, formal and expressive possibilities of abstraction. By focusing their practice towards home, these women elide the general for the particular, illuminating both the commonalities and differences of our own unique home lives. Through their self-assured command of Expressionism, which fuses abstraction and representation, these artists largely disregard the “heroic” mantle of Abstract Expressionism. Gesture and aesthetics are a vehicle through which gender refracts.

Webster, the youngest painter presented here, works with abstraction to explore the interiority of human relationships. Color is fantastical and electric in Webster’s work, while gesture gracefully dominates her composition. Like a Neo-Expressionist, Webster embraces the human figure; however, in her work, figuration is less concentrated, its form seemingly evaporating into abstract nature motifs. What the viewer sees is simultaneously materializing and dissolving into the composition. Just as human relationships—be they among families or friends—are constantly evolving or evaporating, Webster’s formal and figurative elements continually negotiate with each other within the picture plane. This practice allows Webster to investigate physical distance and separation within families, specifically her own. Using an Abstract idiom distinctly hers, Webster seeks to harmonize with her sister.

Wurzel also relies on color and form to emotionally charge her paintings. Primarily focused on the female form and female relationships, Wurzel uses narrative in order to investigate the truth of female experience. Wurzel’s brushwork nudding Causalism in its whimsy, her imagery constructed with bold blocks of color creating rhythmic pattern. By playing with pattern or color blocks, Wurzel seems to interrogate how femininity is constructed. Color and pattern, executed with Wurzel’s vivid stroke, are as much her subjects as women and women’s clothing. With their eyes often closed, the women in these paintings seem to be meditating, no matter if they are alone, together, in action or still. Wurzel therefore emphasizes the intellectual and interior worlds of these women, stressing the multi-faceted reality of the modern female experience, in which women are daughters, sisters, wives and mothers in addition to colleagues, bosses, teachers and leaders.

Utilizing a more surrealistic aesthetic than Webster and Wurzel, Lincoln considers the varied physical world for her subjects. Depicting both plants and people with equal tenacity, Lincoln investigates the veracity of traditional genres such as portraiture and landscape painting. Lincoln’s surfaces are worked, her motifs highly detailed, as she is highly attuned to the formal qualities of picture-making. Not overtly “feminine” in her approach, Lincoln’s careful paintings articulate a tenderness towards the people and places that make up her personal and public worlds. Gesture is still strongly evident in her work, however, as Lincoln’s meticulous brushwork is activated by her use of a highly saturated and expressive palette.

Valdez surveys how place, identity and ancestry formulate culture in her paintings. Probing narrative in all of her works, Valdez often depicts objects from her own household in classic still life compositions. Like Lincoln, Wurzel and Webster, Valdez employs a highly saturated palette; her use of vivid, almost Pop-like color serves to conjure a dream-like sense of the everyday. Valdez understands the domestic space anthropologically, as one that cultivates not only personal identity, but cultural meaning. Photographs, fuzzy memories, family recipes and stories merge with archeological and archival artifacts as Valdez’s source material. Exploring how patterns, textiles, plants and other elements of the house meld into a home, Valdez interprets history, heredity and heritage through an abstract visual language that evokes her place and personhood.

“Interestingly, younger women artists’ awareness of increasing opportunity is often accompanied by a sense of disconnection and even discomfort with feminism generally and the feminist art movement in particular,” write Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott in the introduction to their seminal book, After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art. A retrospective look at the work of twelve major women artists of the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s, After the Revolution argues that the essential work of first-wave feminism isn’t entirely finished as much as it has transposed into contemporary gender problems. Webster, Wurtzel, Lincoln and Valdez don’t conceive such gender problems as universal, but rather, as individual. Banishing the anxiety that usually attends “Feminist Art,” these artists embrace gender and difference through the prism of painterly abstraction and abstracted representation. By asserting their individuality instead of reducing it to a generality, these artists underline the personal within the politics of feminist art. Far from being disconnected from “the movement” of the mid to late 20th century, these artists have reinterpreted it so that their singular voices can layer and accumulate into a diverse, inclusive whole, emphasizing their practice as much as politics. Painters who happen to be women, these young artists articulate a vision of contemporary experience, elevating their particular experience of home and history.

Leah Triplett is a Boston-based writer specializing in modern art. An editor of Big, Red and Shiny, she has written for Art New England, Open Letters Monthly, WBUR and others.