by Mark Van Proyen
What makes M. Louise Stanley’s figurative paintings so different and so appealing? That question can be answered by noting the primary tension that animates these works, the tension between devoted respect for the grand tradition of western painting and the feminist desire to mock that tradition as an abusive and pretention-laden hegemonic construct. That tension is most alive when these seemingly at-odds motives find a perfect balance as pointed, worldly satire, but misfires when it lurches too deeply into farcical silliness. Still, in our current #metoo moment, Stanley’s artistic challenges to the presumptions of toxic masculinity seem to have found a new moment of receptivity, proving that good things come to those who persevere.
In the past 10 months, Stanley’s work has been featured in a trio of notable exhibitions, not counting the one under consideration here, which functions as a summary of the other three. It is not expansive enough to be called either a retrospective or a survey, but it does include a wide range of work hailing from the past two decades of Stanley’s 50-year career. It consists of 14 works on canvas and 8 works on paper, plus a generous and illuminating selection of travel journals echoing her longtime self-employment as a leader of art tours to Europe. The journals contain diagrams and notations about masterwork paintings, as well as quick ink and gouache studies that are remarkable for the deftness by which Stanley captures the compositional essences of the works that she studies.
The earliest work on paper in this exhibition is a gouache titled 20th Century Genre (1998), depicting a homeless man sleeping on a park bench while a clutch of angels descends from heaven to bring him a pink blanket. The scene can be read as taking place at sunrise or sunset, and as an allegory of hope or pathetic despair. But, as it is placed on a centrally placed oval flanked by two larger allegorical figures, the hopeful interpretation wins out, as it seems to dramatize and update a Biblical story about miraculous deliverance. A quintet of later gouache works on paper (2017-2018) take on the mantel of gothic manuscript paintings, in one case including the addition of gold leaf, and in three other instances elaborate peripheral decorations and fanciful calligraphic inscriptions of mock-sacred texts, such as the one found in Comeuppance (2018), which shows a prostrate man being beaten into submission by three women on a street corner. The text reads like an attorney’s boilerplate letter expressing regret for pain caused while avoiding any admission of wrongdoing, making it hard to not see the work as a reflection on the revelations coming out of Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings.
A paper work titled Know Your Saints from 2018 shows six canonized saints lounging about a coffee table as if they were performers waiting for their turn to take the stage. They are identified by a small cartello at the bottom of the composition, and also by their characteristic disfigurements. For example, Saint Agatha is shown with bloody scars on her chest as her severed breasts sit on a plate positioned on the table, while Saints Damien and Stephen casually carry their decapitated heads in their arms. In Bad Girl, a gouache from 2005, we see a fallen woman sitting at a table, clearly drunk and coming to the end of her cigarette supply while contemplating a losing hand of cards. Floating about her head are eight small male figures with gold-leaf halos, each seeming to say something to the effect of “I told you so.”
Garage Sale (1996), oldest work in the exhibition, is a hilarious meditation on key moments of art history. It recapitulates an architectonic composition taken from Giotto, casting several objects of Catholic liturgy as bargain table offerings surrounded by well-known characters from the history of Renaissance art. The best of these renditions shows Pope Innocent X stationed at the left of the composition. As with the famous Velasquez portrait, he is pictured here sitting in an ornate chair, clutching his ominous letter. But in Stanley’s version, he has fallen asleep while warming his feet near a fire grill that may have been used to torture Saint Lorenzo.
In The Anatomy Lesson (2003) we see a comic scene taking place in a figure drawing studio, showing a skeleton cutting in to a dance between an excoriated figure sporting labels of the major muscle groups and a high-stepping female figure called The Archetypal Artist, who seems to be an avatar for the artist herself. She wears green capri pants and a horizontally striped red-and-white jumper and has flamboyant orange hair. The same figure turns up in two other paintings, one of which is Melencolia (after Durer) from 2012. In this, she covers her face with a court jester’s mask while looking at a stage set decked out with scattered props from some of Durer’s most famous works, all set in front of a brilliant sunset with a bulbous blue cloud—one of the rare instances when Stanley features a reference to the outdoor environment.
Never have I seen an acrylic paint so convincingly mimic the look of layered oil. There are many great passages of luminous light and subtle shadow in Stanley’s paintings on canvas, and this seems particularly evident in the most recent works in the exhibition. In Samson and Delilah (2019), for example, we see the famous biblical story recast as a scene in a down-market apartment living room illuminated by the glow of an antique television set. Here, Samson is portrayed as a middle-aged schlub who wears a wife-beater undergarment, making
him look like a character from an off-Broadway production of the Honeymooners. His head rests on Delilah’s lap, seemingly passed out after having imbibed a few too many Budweisers. Delilah herself is no prize, certainly not the treacherous seductress portrayed in the Book of Judges. In Stanley’s reworking of the image, she is a woman of a certain age who takes meticulous care with her barbering task, while two other women and a pair of fleeing puti anxiously regard the scene from a safe distance.
Stanley’s treatment of this story seems of a piece with her other satirical renditions of art historical themes, locating her work in a tradition that reaches back to Goya and Daumier and forward to the micro-movement of the mid-1970s known as “Bad” Painting, named for how practitioners upended classical notions of figurative painting, not incompetent brushwork. Her renderings are remarkably deft, but they never get fussy or brittle. Because of this, we can see another source that echoes throughout almost all of Stanley’s paintings, that being the early 20th-century urban realist Reginald Marsh, whose rough-and-tumble depictions of lowbrow life always hit the sweet-and-sour spot between comedy and pathos.
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M. Louise Stanley: “Epic Tales” @ Anglim Gilbert Gallery through December 21, 2019.
About the author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke-Ass Stuart's website.