by Renny Pritikin
One of the unexpected pastimes of the covid pandemic was the ability to peruse the home décor of television reporters broadcasting from outside the studio. PBS’ Lisa Desjardin, for example, has a nice Joan Brown-like painting of a young woman diver in mid-air: free, in control and supremely confident. Jennie Ottinger’s new show—which opened the week of the Queen’s death and was preceded by several Hollywood films marking the 25th anniversary of Diana’s untimely demise —includes a very similar work depicting the Princess in mid-dive (St Tropez, 1997). Both paintings extol the female body fully in control of itself, released from society’s expectations and restrictions. In Ottinger’s take on Diana’s tragic fate, the admonition to “look before you leap” might be inferred. The show is timely, but its subject may be off-putting to those whose nerves have been rubbed raw by coverage of the Royals. It shouldn’t because this exhibition is a load of fun.
Ottinger has only a secondary interest in celebrity; what she’s truly after is an explication of how women get caught up in male-dominated systems and lose autonomy. With an exhibition titled Bad Luck, Dutch. Your Face is on the Tea Towels: The Princess Series, Ottinger riffs on the idea that Diana realized quickly that her marriage was a Big Mistake, but since the machinery of the state was already engaged, she couldn’t stop it.
The 20 small paintings that comprise the show (all 2022) resemble stills from a movie in which the actor — surrounded by clueless, humorless adults — breaks the fourth wall and indicates with a smirk how bizarre her life has become. Ottinger sympathizes. She paints Diana’s story as a feminist cautionary tale, the saga of a smart young woman beset by isolation amid thoughtless, rigid traditions.
There is an equivalence between the artist’s mordant wit and her sketchy image-making, an almost sarcastic “let’s not take ourselves too seriously here.” Her mostly small oil-on-panel works probably originated in mass-media photographs and videos of the Windsor family. Ottinger casts Diana and Charles with an effective, restrained color sense. Her paintings pretend to be dashed off, but in fact, are painstakingly imprecise. Recognizing the sordid truth of Diana’s fairytale life, she sees no reason to prettify it.
31st Birthday, 1992 shows Diana in a white dress flecked with red splotches, maybe rose petals. She’s carrying a briefcase, her chin is tucked in, and she looks up from under her signature blond hairdo. The background is made of brushy dark blue and off-white squares. She might be reaching out to shake someone’s hand. A bit of the red from her dress smears her nose and right cheek. It’s a perfectly apt representation of Diana’s vulnerability and grace. So, too, is Splendours of the Gonzagas Exhibition Gala, 1981. Here again, Ottinger isolates the figure against a grey and off-white background. She’s seated on an
oversized red leather chair, hands in lap, wearing an off-the-shoulder, floor-length dress, looking down with her hair parted just so, a deep red frown barely visible. In contrast, Uptown Girl, 1985 captures Diana—like the diver mentioned above — in confident flight from all that weighs her down: dancing in a thin white dress, arms out, hips cocked, gaze directed over her left shoulder, with a small smile peeking out. It’s a marvel of youthful charm.
Two paintings of Diana with Charles convey gut-wrenching discomfort. In Bride and Groom, 1981, the couple sits side by side, Charles in full-dress black military uniform with a walking stick. But instead of looking dashing, he appears like a clerk in a costume. Diana is cocooned in an enormous white dress and veil occupying twice as much space . She reveals only a forced, red-lipstick smile. The couple doesn’t touch or look at each other. In Engaged 1981, Ottinger ratchets down the tension. Their hips touch and both manage half smiles. Yet something has gone wrong in the time between the two images; perhaps it just was royal protocol that made the wrongness of the match apparent.
In the paintings in which Diana appears particularly emotional, we see her repeatedly dressed in red. Black Sheep, 1981 shows her in a red ski sweater and red high heels at a polo match where she’s clearly uncomfortable. She seems happier out on the slopes in a red ski suit, alone in Klosters Ski Holiday, 1986.
Interview, 1995 reveals the toll exacted during the intervening years. In this, we see the now-separated Diana being interviewed on television, no doubt being dragged through the details of her marriage. She looks her male interviewer in the eye, confident but also exuding the air of a shell-shocked veteran, invulnerable to further injury.
Bad Luck is a very successful instance of a contemporary artist taking ownership of popular culture and reimagining it toward her own ends. Ottinger has a contagious wit and subtle empathy that inveigles even the most jaded among us to sympathize with her take on the unending Diana saga, as Diana’s son now moves up in line to be the next king.
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Jennie Ottinger: “Bad Luck, Dutch. Your Face is on the Tea Towels: The Princess Series” @ Rebecca Camacho Presents through October 22, 2022.
About the author: Renny Pritikin was the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco from 2014 to 2018. Before that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years, he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. The Prelinger Library published his most recent book of poems, Westerns and Dramas, in 2020. He is the United States correspondent for Umbigo magazine in Lisbon, Portugal.