Hunters and Hustlers: Feminism and Theatricality in Suzy Spence and Heather Morgan
Suzy Spence: A Night Among the Horses at Sears Peyton Gallery, and Heather Morgan: Heavenly Creatures at David & Schweitzer Contemporary
Spence: January 11 to February 17, 2018
210 Eleventh Avenue, Suite 802, between 24th and 25th streets
New York City, searspeyton.com
Morgan: January 5 to 28, 2018
56 Bogart St, between Harrison Place and Grattan Street
A major element of early feminist art criticism came down to detective work. Outing the male gaze in paintings of female subjects was akin to using black light to reveal traces of blood at a crime scene. Form, facture and viewpoint served as evidence in a forensic process – manifestations of objectification, voyeurism and idealization were exposed.
Nowadays, the crime scene is complicated, especially where female authorship is concerned. In paintings of women by women, thanks to a sense of intimate self-knowledge, what has begun to emerge are emphatic – indeed, empathetic – attempts to maneuver the inherent theatricality of being subjected to the gazed. The subject can become complicit and resigned to being a displayed object, or lay out an elaborate performative trap in which the unaware spectator devours the bait. Two current shows present different but equally intriguing examples of such maneuvering: Suzy Spence’s A Night Among the Horses, ongoing at Sears Peyton Gallery in Chelsea, and Heather Morgan’s Heavenly Creatures, at David Schweitzer Gallery, last month, in Bushwick.
In Spence’s fox hunting scenes, equestriennes, clad in flamboyant yet intricate riding apparel, nonchalantly show off their lissome figures. Erotic availability is both sealed and fueled by the apparent practicality and purposefulness of this attire, rendered all the more thorny by the lingering traces of gender and class dynamics that informed the evolution of riding costumes, historically. Spence, who studied under feminist artists like Mira Schor and Maureen Connor, explores fertile conceptual ground with painterly vigor. While some works in the show present intense action, in most of her portraits the women seem caught in a moment of respite, either confronting the gaze directly or microscopically turning to the side in seductive evasion. Complexions range from rude joviality to ghostly pallor, hinting at the simple inscrutability of the characters’ thoughts and desires. In Untitled (Rider), [above] the thick strokes of black paint writhe around the rider’s sinuous, partly-dishabille body, the commanding painterly bravura delivering her as the archetypal, objectified “feast for the eye”–she, rather than the fox, becomes the quarry.
In Carriage (I), by contrast, the characters show a lugubrious gravitas that seems to acknowledge implicit distress or even lurking fear beneath the immaculately polished grace of the hunt, which is itself a precarious performance of wealth and class. Spence’s painterly execution is consistently nebulous: supple, broad strokes are lushly handled within the relatively constrained area of her typically small compositions. The viewer of Carriage (I) can experience simultaneously the visceral grip of the magnetic gaze of the equestrienne on the left of the composition and the deconstructive awareness that her face is a conglomerate of cogently defined individual marks. Such handling allows the painting to maintain a certain level of ambiguity. When working in conjunction with the potent themes of the foxhunting motif, such ambiguity is able to provoke questions about power discourses that demand deliberation. However, the enigmatic quality can also be at the expense of vulnerability and authenticity. In Carriage (II), the pair of faces juxtaposed with one another on either side of the cuddled fox, one with chiseled clarity and the other obscured in lyrical pentimenti, seem to symbolize a recurring oscillation between concrete affection and insouciant panache.
Spence’s masterful handling of media, which in this show includes Flashe, oil paint and acrylic, sometimes serves an expressive purpose beyond the tough luxuriance of her mark making. The diaphanous mottled quality that describes the riding veils worn in many portraits constitutes a terrifying presence: beyond the functionality and decorativeness of the accessory itself, it transforms into a symbolic form in which femininity is a veiled, mystical presence and the theatricality of seduction is complex and disguised. Inquiries into gender and class are, like the gaze piercing through those veils, a haunting queasiness beneath the forceful hush. But such concealment is self-imposed, the veils voluntarily worn. In Heavenly Creatures, Heather Morgan offers another theater of femininity. Her sensuous portraits of women deliver unfettered and unclouded erotic shockwaves. Some of these figures are self-portraits, others Morgan’s friends. In either case, they emanate the glare of intimate disclosure. Her brush marks register bravura, but compared to Spence’s graceful jetés they are generally more angular, staccato, and filled with rapid, nervous energy. The female figure is often accentuated by an array of items: clothing, makeup, tattoos, jewelry, cigarettes. Instead of serving as socio-cultural signifiers, as in Spence, Morgan’s costumes are entryways into an individual’s personality and predicament, their symbolic associations woven into a backdrop to each character’s emotional state.
In Heavenly Creature, the title painting of the show, the naked upper body thrusts forcefully forward, rhyming with the curve of the assertively raised arm. The all-knowing intransigence of the complexion, anchored at the painfully scarlet lips, reads more like a challenge than an invitation. Most works in this show follow a similar construction: singular, sexually strong female figures in pulsating spaces. In a way that, tellingly, recalls Michael Fried’s description of Gericault, a problematic veneer of theatricality in these paintings is simply shattered at first contact by the monstrous proportions of overt, inundating sensual energy. Such energy finds another, even more tactile outlet in Morgan’s drawings. These relatively small pieces, skin-like (they are executed on Yupo paper), recall Klimt’s nude drawings with their highly sexualized posture and melodic, flowing lines. The nuanced tonal washes congeal into corals and fire (in the top part of Lay, for example). The drawings seem to almost tremble under the intense private pleasure they are obliged to bear. The headstrong vulnerability embedded in all this sensationalized sexuality, which can at times verge on vulgarity, evokes a sense of authentic emotional connection in the viewer. But the intense personal nature of these emotionally repetitive “illicit” depictions might actually prevent her work from taking part in wider discussions of gender and sexuality. Indeed, the unabashed pursuit of “sexiness” has resulted in criticism for Morgan in the past, as it alludes – so the argument goes – to auto-sexualization and anti-feminism. In a dialogue with Jennifer Samet that took place on the closing day of this exhibition, Morgan asserted that she doesn’t identify as a feminist painter. There is, however, a curious side effect of this apparently apolitical stance. For in these paintings of luscious revelry and exquisite vulnerability, largely guided by the painter’s emotional instinct and searching sense of conviction, Morgan achieves a concreteness of female experience that is possibly stronger and more complete than a labyrinth constructed with intellectual tenets. The voyeuristic gaze is given the opportunity to transform itself into a vicarious one.
It is clear that Spence and Morgan have taken remarkably different routes in scripting a theatrical habitat for their subjects. A large part of this difference springs from a peculiar contemporary division between the provocative and the empathetic as painting attaches itself to an exterior cause (in this case feminism). The enigmatic urgency in Spence situates the viewer at a probing distance, in a spectatorial role, luxuriating in social glamour and drama when all of a sudden confronted by the characters’ haunting gaze and demand for a fair hearing. In Morgan, visceral torrents of solitary emotion forcefully absorbs the viewer who is then obliged to decide how to handle this gratuitous entry into an intensely private world.
In either event, theatricality is today more than ever implicated in paintings of women by women as both the gazed upon and the spectator have become equally active players. The multiplicity and subtlety of treatments, of which we had a glimpse through these two shows, sparkles hopeful excitement for the continual evolution of painting’s capacity to give voice to a muted presentness: to comply, to masquerade, to entice, or to attack.