Paintings of Women by the Handful

09/29/2010 4:00 AM |

Since very nearly the earliest chapters of art history, women have been among artists’ two or three preferred subjects (or objects, following feminism’s reframing of that history). Two new solo exhibitions three doors from one another on Eldridge Street attest to the feminine figure’s inexhaustible appeal. For Knox Martin, the female form remains a sensual muse that he dissects and reassembles using a quasi-Cubist formal system. Silvia Russel, meanwhile, incorporates portraiture into a broader feminist social sculpture aimed at empowering working-class, immigrant women. The tension between the former’s seductive frivolity and the latter’s activist art gravity makes their unlikely pairing all the more appealing. Come for the pouty-lipped expressionism and stay for the piercing stare of social magical realism.

Knox Martin, 87, has been working on the thirty-some new pieces in Woman: Black and White Paintings at Woodward Gallery (through November 13) for over a decade. He passed through nearly every major post-war art movement after gaining notoriety in the New York art world in the 1950s. Cubism and abstract expressionism are especially prominent influences in these thick acrylic-on-linen compositions that portray&#8212save one large still life&#8212women. Despite the exhibition title, each painting features at least one bright tone, often conveying, with a triangle-topped half-circle of color, a pair of lips. “Woman with Flowers” (2010), for instance, features a bright orange mouth, a few drips of red and some shades of blue and brown, but the remainder of the composition, with bent legs, outstretched fingers, wide eyes and a large flower vase arranged around a jarringly abstract center, is drained of color.

His women become almost literal cubes, their forms folded up against the frame, body parts reduced to visual shorthand. Viewers get used to the notation-like system, finding faces, legs and clothes pliantly slotted into each portrait. Hands, often the most detailed and disproportionately large body parts, become Martin’s primary expressive device. In “Mary Ellen” (2010) the woman’s features are arranged along the edges of the painting, except her nervously clasped hands that, projecting from thick, curbed arms, make a confusing jumble of lines at the center of the painting. More than details of fashion or makeup, we grasp these women by 
their digits.

Hands figure prominently in Silvia Russel‘s largest portraits from In Between Time at LMAKprojects (through October 17), though they carry more politically charged meanings. The works that make up the Dutch artist’s exhibition began as an interview project in Bijlmer, a working-class district of housing projects in Amsterdam with a large immigrant population. Speaking to residents on their way to classes at the neighborhood learning center, Russel heard nightmare stories of excruciating journeys, interminable red tape, and skills and degrees that hold no weight in the new country. The resulting large-format acrylic and charcoal portraits feature strong gazes and fidgety hands, rendered with superb and unexpected pools of bold, warm colors. As opposed to the sharp geometric formulae in Martin’s work, Russel’s women (and a few men) are mostly wavy, rolling lines and generous tones. Still, both artists render hands very similarly jagged and wrinkled, marked with knuckles, nails and folds.

In Russel’s most recent portraits, made while walking around Chinatown collecting more stories of displacement, she incorporates ink and watercolor, but also rough materials like packing tape and felt-tip markers. These much smaller, more texturally rich pieces overwhelm the larger, gentler portraits. In “Untitled (Girl with orange background)” (2010), for instance, a young woman with bright red lips avoids eye contact, shoving her hands defiantly into her pockets. Like Martin and Russel, she seems to know that the hands give 
everything away.

(images courtesy Woodward Gallery, LMAKprojects)

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