A few weeks ago I got a postcard in the mail about a new show at the Cress Gallery at UTC by up-and-coming painters Michael Vasquez and Rose Freymuth-Frazier. Vasquez’ half of the show, “It Comes With the Territory,” and Freymuth-Frazier’s “Whispering Sisters and the Female Figurative Image” use their figurative art to explore gender roles and identity in their own lives. The show and artist lectures are sponsored by Friends of the Gallery and are part of the UTC Diane and John Marek Visiting Artist Series, which has brought a number of exceptional artists to Chattanooga in the past few years. Curator Ruth Grover should be commended for her work in getting these first-rate shows to UTC.
A couple of years ago, New York figurative painter Steven Assael had a show at the gallery, and his work blew me away. When I realized that Assael had been in town and I’d missed the reception and the chance to meet him, I was filled with angst: The postcard had only shown a rather fuzzy detail of one of Assael’s monumental works, and not being familiar with his name at the time I foolishly tossed it into a pile of junk mail. When I saw the much nicer reproduction of Freymuth-Frazier’s 60″x52″ oil on the postcard invitation for this show, and read that Freymuth-Frazier had studied under both Assael and Odd Nerdrum, my current painting deity, I made plans to attend this reception. Plus she’s a woman doing figurative work. I’m there!
It would be fair to say that Vasquez’ work didn’t initially draw me as Freymuth-Frazier’s did. The postcard shows his impressive 48″x36″ Guarded Entry, from 2008, an image of two tattooed African-American men, arms crossed, facing down the viewer with hostile and suspicious expressions. I hope I can be forgiven if Guarded Entry is not a painting I want in my living room. For many years, I lived in a neighborhood with a gang presence and twice witnessed family members held at gun point. The painting calls for a large foyer in a much more upscale neighborhood where it could bestow a fashionably avant-garde aura and yet be as far removed as possible from anyone like the men pictured.
It’s hard to tell if Vasquez is a gangbanger wannabe or the real thing; although an article on the internet described his time in the Young Bloods, at the lecture he appeared to be a fresh-faced young man, perfectly groomed, dressed in nicely pulled-up baggy pants and a spotless ballcap. In his slide show presentation, he started out showing unexceptional early student work: installations with representations of his missing dad, and explainations of his personal symbolism of fences and houses. Engaging and open, Vasquez spoke of his close relationship with his mom, who was in the audience. He moved on to more recent and much more fluent work on canvas and paper, with a lot of overlaying of spatters and streaks over the figurative work, but it didn’t really grab me from the screen. When he talked about looking up to the gang members in his neighborhood because he didn’t have a father at home, that rang true, but the audience shifted nervously when he said the models were his friends, then dodged questions about how, or if, he got out of the gang.
Then Freymuth-Frazier took the stage. Like Vasquez, she started out showing early work that appeared unexceptional, although charming, and talked about her general themes of women’s roles and beauty, with a lot of her models being women who seem to have been roughed up by life in one way or the other but have fought back.
The artist, a striking young woman, seemed more guarded about her personal information than Vasquez, so I couldn’t tell if her painting of a woman with a black eye [Bruised, 2009] was merely formulaic “woman as victim,” real empathy, or a reflection of personal wounds I couldn’t see. Caregiver, also from 2009, a woman in profile wearing a hospital mask, struck more of a note with me since it reflects my life right now, but maybe also because it was more subtle.
When she described Nerdrum’s idyllic farm in Norway with its miniature horses and goats, a painter’s utopia that sounds like Mary Engelbreit channelled through Rembrandt, I hope no one caught me drooling. I asked her later during the questions about Nerdrum’s palette, but she wasn’t very forthcoming, telling me pretty much what I knew from my internet wanderings: he uses juane brilliante for flesh, and mixes a warm gray out of burnt sienna and another color she couldn’t remember. Rats, foiled again in my fruitless quest for someone who will actually tell me something!
At the reception, the artists were busy talking to everyone, and I realized that it would be necessary to stand in line to speak a word to either of them. I decided to relax, drink some lemonade, and let the crowd thin out. In the meantime, Vasquez’ mother was standing alone and I talked to her. She told me that her son had originally wanted to be a comic book artist, which didn’t surprise me at all. Comic books provide the only place most kids can see the human figure drawn well now, if only in miniature and reproduced on newsprint. She said his friends were nice boys, always courteous and not in trouble.
When I talked to Vasquez, I asked him if he was influenced by urban figurative painter Kehinde Wiley and he bristled a bit. Wiley’s works are, like Vasquez’, larger than life-size portraits of urban subjects, but less painterly in execution, with classic influences from Italian Renaissance sources. After I spoke with Vasquez for a minute, I went into the gallery to check out the paintings again (I’d quickly cruised the gallery earlier when I’d arrived). A huge wall sized depiction of two men with an automatic weapon (The High Flag, 2009), the canvas running with Bloods color, involuntarily engaged me — the painting triggered my PTSD and actually made my heart pound.
When I forced myself to approach closely, the almost photographic rendering from across the room suddenly dissolved into fluent masses of mark-making. Nice. It reminded me of when I visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. a few years ago and saw the John Singer Sargent show. Sargent’s huge society portraits melted before my eyes as I walked up to them, transforming into masses of dazzling virtuouso brushwork. So, OK, maybe I don’t know if the kid’s a poser or a thug, but he can paint. I hope he doesn’t get too entranced with the mark-making — it’s a little less successful in the smaller works where it can begin to overpower the figurative aspects, but he’s already been a semifinalist in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Exhibition, so maybe he won’t get derailed at this point.
Then I talked to Freymuth-Frazier and mentioned how happy I was to see really good figurative work by a woman, and we had a nice discussion about the percentage of women artists to men. She thoughtfully disagreed when I asserted that only 1 in 10 figurative artists are women, if that; she said that most artists of any kind are men! She’s right when you are talking about big galleries in big cities, but I think there are more women in the lower echelons of the art world. The higher you go, the more artists are men, whether in the world of illustration or fine art. Smaller galleries are clogged with polite work by genteel ladies, little of it figurative. It’s just too easy to get shows without it. You have to want to “paint real” really bad. When Freymuth-Frazier said during her presentation that she didn’t give many talks because she was always painting, I knew she spoke the truth. Learning to paint figurative work even passably well takes a great deal of time, and a lot of “painting hunger.”
Later, I looked up Freymuth’s work on the internet. I had been a bit puzzled when Matt Greenwell, the head of the UTC Art department, had asked her about the sexual themes in her work: She had one hermaphroditic nude in her presentation [Reclining Hermaphrodite, 2009], not so shocking if you know she studied with Nerdrum, and her female nudes are voluptuous and have tattoos. So what? Or was I missing something about the fish in Woman Caught Fishing (2007)?
I can be awfully naïve sometimes. On her website, though, she had a much more blatant hermaphroditic image, or maybe it was a dildo [Shortest Distance Between Two Points, 2010], and then an amusing sort of “Still Life with Dildo” [Artificial Insemination, 2007]. Skimming her reviews from the big art journals and papers, I scanned the words “sensuous confections” and “feminine.” Acck! Splutter! Then I recalled how during her talk she had shown a painting of a tightly swaddled newborn, influenced by Nerdrum’s somewhat disturbing images of infants lying swaddled on the ground. Freymuth-Frazier’s painting shows an infant alone on a flat surface, its face barely visible. Yet when it flashed on the screen, the entire audience swooned and emitted an “ahhhhh” in unison. She might as well have painted a basket of kittens. That, folks, is why a woman figurative painter with any dignity at all who wants to get noticed has to paint a still life featuring a dildo. Sigh. Suddenly I understood the sly wit in her other work, too: Until then I hadn’t really picked up on the 76″x40″ Woman Fighting Bull (2007).
Like I said, sometimes I can be kind of dense. Monumental humor is hard to pull off, but she manages it with a po-po-po-poker face.
Freymuth-Frazier, as a matter of fact, possesses a dazzling talent — dare I use that maligned word? Her images of woman battered by life and caregiving or woman as grotesque mechanized milk cow [Litter, 2009] can be a little pat, and betray her wariness about her roles as a woman and artist. And she is wise to be wary, because woman as artist is a tricky balancing act no matter what anyone says. Her wariness brings with it a certain lack of engagement at this point: Sometimes she seems to be groping for her real subject in a way Vasquez is not. But he is only showing us flashes of the real world on the other side of town; Formuth-Frazier gives us intruguing hints of the ability to create her own world, a world that the viewer can inhabit, as Nerdrum has. Creating a world that seduces the viewer requires a seductive paint surface, but so many critics are profoundly distrustful of beautiful painting, because it can be cheaply used. But not always. World-building, in the end, might be the only reason to spend years learning to paint well; certainly, it’s the reason that appeals to me the most, for what that’s worth. An artist’s own inner world is a different thing than pop psychology; it springs from the unconscious and is valuable and interesting because it is timeless. Although Freymuth-Frazier has not fleshed her world out just yet, I am sure she will find her way.
I painted a kitten once and I was very, very sorry. People are still asking me to paint more kittens. Edgyness, meaning just shocking enough, just a tad transgressive against traditional values, decisively non-bourgeois, is the only place to be if you want to be taken seriously in the big city, and it’s harder for a woman. A talented young man who paints flashy “society portraits in the ‘hood” can position himself as edgy quite easily: He hints vaguely that he just might have been taking resource snaps with his cell phone while out carjacking tourists. Odd Nerdrum painted his self-portrait with an erection [Self-Portrait in Golden Cape, 1997]; after that he could live on his bucolic farm and paint any number of swaddled infants if he pleased. But what does a powerful woman figurative painter do to get out of that satin-lined, coffin-shaped trap labeled “sensuous confections?”