by Maria Porges
In Ovid Redux: M. Louise Stanley Paints the Classics, Bay Area viewers have a chance to luxuriate in a small survey of Stanley’s signature style and subject matter, presented in Kala’s jewel box of a gallery. Representing only a tiny fraction of the artist’s prodigious output over the past 25 years, these funny, beautiful and deeply moving interpretations of the myths and the misogynies of Western culture entrance as they entertain. Stanley, a fan of classical and religious imagery since childhood (she has recounted biking to the Huntington Library as a middle schooler to visit its famed copy of the Gutenberg Bible), has made a life’s work of contemporizing — feminizing, really — the stories of gods and saints, made familiar to us by Old Master paintings. Her concurrent show (through May 17) at the Richmond Art Center, reviewed in these pages by Renny Pritikin, features a selection of her sketchbooks, filled with drawings and gouache paintings executed while on study trips to Europe, the first of which was financed by an NEA grant in 1983.
Stanley’s knowledge of the painters she satirizes is first-hand, and it shows. She has described the act of copying as a way to have what she could never own in real life; but clearly the act of copying has given her something else as well, namely, a deeply felt understanding that is both physical and mental. The characters depicted in Ovid Redux are part of Stanley’s inner world, as familiar as any friend (or enemy).
Stanley’s frank, prescient depictions of women, not as victims but as the protagonists of their own stories, has been foregrounded in the selection of works for this show (curated by centenarian Peter Selz and Sue Kubly). In Seven deadly Sins (1994), for example, the female personifications of Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath and Sloth are depicted as fallible, funny and fully capable of evil. Presented as a crowded tableau in a public bathroom — Greed, seen only as a hand slipping into a purse to steal, Gluttony as legs in a stall, panties around her ankles—they are both funny and awful. In a nod to the theme’s religious origins, the painting takes the form of a traditional altarpiece standing on a predella, the structural parts of which are cunningly created with a combination of three-dimensional framing elements and a lot of trompe-l’oeil. (Stanley paints elaborate gold frames really well.) The composition of the picture, though, is assertively modern, suggesting a paparazzi snapshot of Wrath’s grimacing face in the foreground.
On the painting’s object label, Stanley reveals that the purses portrayed in a line across the predella’s rectangle each belong to one of the nasty women pictured above. I spent some time trying to match each handbag to its owner, but finally gave up. Many labels in the show offer these insights by the artist, and should not be missed.
Like her contemporary Judith Linhares, a figure in the so-called Bad Painting movement of the 1970s, Stanley combines a kind of rapidly brushed brio with confident composition and a fascinatingly idiosyncratic palette. A committed feminist since the early years of her career (the women in Seven Deadly Sins were inspired by figures in the consciousness-raising group she met with weekly as a young artist), Stanley began inserting herself into her paintings in the form of a brash alter ego in 1981. As the “Archetypal Artist,” she always appears wearing grass green capri pants and a red and white striped sailor shirt (the latter, a possible nod to Picasso’s striped jerseys). In Melencholia (after Durer) (2012), “AA” tries to cheer up Durer’s sad-faced angel by clowning around; in The Three Fates: Measuring Time (1993), she seems to be bargaining for a few extra years, as she sits at the feet of a trio of women who personify destiny. Anatomy Lesson (2003) finds her dancing a jig with a flayed male figure, his muscles marked with numbers and letters, while a skeleton waits to cut in. Bored students work away at their drawings nearby. But the most moving appearance of this character is in A Painting of Courage (1991). Not long before Stanley dreamed up this vision of herself bravely wielding palette and brush and casting an enormous Athena-shaped shadow, she had become allergic to oil paint. This transformation of the Archetypal Artist into the patron goddess of heroic endeavor was the first large canvas she using made with acrylic paint.
The ever-popular mythological hijinks of that serial rapist Zeus/Jupiter make an appearance in Jupiter and Io (2008), one of the strangest and funniest pictures in the show. A woman in a slip and pompom mules is shown at the moment of being overcome by a befogged figure, his face and hands emerging from a cloud of steam that emanates from her clothes iron. Everything about the room in which this is taking place — from the peculiar wallpaper to the wooden prewar ironing board — suggests a sure knowledge of American Realists like Marsden Hartley and Thomas Hart Benton. Though Stanley brings her subjects into the 20th century, they often aren’t quite contemporary. By setting events and issues urgently relevant in the present — homelessness, right-wing recidivism on women’s issues, rape culture — in the (relatively) recent past, she reminds us that these problems have actually been around at least since the time of Ovid, if not time immemorial.
It is hard to understand why Stanley is not more widely known or celebrated — not only in the art world at large, but here in the Bay Area, where she has lived and worked since earning her
BFA and MFA at California College of the Arts and Crafts, as it was called when she attended in the 1960s). Perhaps it is the humor of her work, its classical subject matter or even her gender. Still, at a time when artists’ interventions in museums have become practically de rigeur, I dream of Stanley’s paintings placed in playful conjunction with the staid collections of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor or the de Young. But why stop there? The Archetypal Artist belongs at the Met, or even better, the Getty—gesturing with her paintbrush among the marble figures, retelling the stories of gods and women.
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“Ovid Redux: M. Louise Stanley Paints the Classics” @ Kala Art Institute through May 18, 2019.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.