by David M. Roth
My first encounter with Monica Lundy’s portraits of incarcerated women came ten years ago at Nancy Toomey Fine Art in an exhibition titled House of the Strange Women, based on SFPD photos of newly arrested prostitutes from the 1920s and 1930s she found in a book of the same title. What animated their unwritten stories was how Lundy depicted them in a rose-tinged monochromatic palette of paint, clay, charcoal, ink, cinders, coffee grounds, and flecks of mica that she prodded into grimy Smithson-like swirls, each a riveting experience.
She followed that exhibition with drawings based on photos of women who were involuntarily confined at the infamous Sant’Antonio Abate Asylum in Teramo, Italy. Unlike the San Francisco portraits, which signaled the precarious emotional state of her subjects, these pictures, shown under the title Deviance: Women in the Asylum During the Fascist Regime, commanded attention not so much for what the source images may or may not have revealed than for what Lundy conjured from them, evidenced in blotchy paint stains and burn marks on white paper that brought to mind shapes and shadows emerging from a fouled chemical bath.
Her latest series, Asylumscapes: Studies on Sites of Memory, based on the same fascist era (1920-43) photo archive, includes two devastating portraits now on view: Angela (Santa Maria della Pietà, Rome) and Natalina (Santa Maria della Pietà, Rome). Made with liquified porcelain and paint, they resemble shattered crockery, forensically reassembled to deliver posthumous justice.
The offenses for which these women were institutionalized? The most common condition listed on medical records was “female deviance,” which, in the fascist imagination, took many forms (talkative, unstable, inconsistent, extravagant, excited, insolent, unruly, impulsive, nervous, erotic, restless, irritable, sensational, flirtatious), none of which had anything to do with mental illness and everything to do with men using state power to crush women. Unlike most portraits, which require us to project ourselves into the lives of those pictured, these demolish the fictive territory separating art from audiences by meeting our gaze in what feels like the same proximate space.
Naomie Kremer first drew me into her orbit with a 2015 exhibition at the San Jose ICA that included several of what she calls “hybrids” — paintings that wriggle and bend like living things. She created these effects by projecting moving images onto their surfaces, a time-honored method employed in stage productions, including several for which Kremer designed animated backdrops. With Terra, the artist’s 18th show at Modernism, she appears to have merged these two aspects of her practice in paintings that, without filmic overlays, exhibit the same uncanny behavior I witnessed earlier.
At first glance, Green Space, the highlight of Terra, her current show at Modernism, reads like a writhing wall of seaweed. Prolonged viewing yields stereoscopic views that call to mind Nazca lines seen from the sky, replete with allusions to ancient civilizations overtaken by jungle foliage. While it’s easy to catalog the layers of pigment that trigger such associations, the kinetic character of the piece remains (for me) a mystery. Ring Cycle, a painting whose swirling gestures appear, alternately, as interconnected tree rings and erupting volcanos, fosters a palpable sense of what grade-school science teachers called potential energy, evidenced by the feeling that the painting could spring to life with the flip of a switch.
Kremer traces her impulse to probe nature’s unruly chaos to having had Genesis read to her as a child. Her initial explorations – allover works from the early 1990s reminiscent of those Richard Pousette-Dart created in the 1960s and 1970s, reflected that obsession — as did the dense, fractured (and sometimes floral-
themed) paintings that came later and continue into the present. Of the latter, several examples are on view, along with a trio of hybrid paintings and some Matisse-flavored drawings on canvas. None, however, come close to conveying the concentrated dynamism of Green Space and Ring Cycle.
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Monica Lundy: “Asylumscapes: Studies on Sites of Memory” @ Nancy Toomey Fine Art through May 13, 2023.
Naomie Kremer: “Terra” @ Modernism through May 13, 2023.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.