#5WomenArtists: And The Figure

March 23, 2018

For the next few weeks, as part of the #5WomenArtists campaign, we're discussing areas of the art world that women artists are leading the way in defining what this type of art means in a contemporary context. Each week, we'll dive into a different area and pick five women artists we love that explores it in her work. This week, we're looking at women who work with the figure. 


The body is so often central to the experience of being a woman. It is highly politicized, objectified, legislatively regulated, misunderstood and mishandled by the medical community, a source of great physical feats and miracles, an incubator or target for unique dangers and violence. It is decorated, disguised, hidden, exposed, manipulated, altered. When it's portrayed it is seen almost solely through the male gaze; it is scrutinized, criticised, broken down into parts. These challenges grow when they intersect with the treatment of bodies that exist outside of the cis straight white realm. Seeing these bodies through the eyes of women artists is intriguing for both their inherent artistic value and nature, as well as how their perspectives amplify all of these issues that arise via male artists that we've normalized. Here are five women artists whose work centers around explorations of the figure:


portrait man


portrait man

Images courtesy of Jordan Casteel


Jordan Casteel's portraits address notions of black masculinity, portraying men in ways that intentionally counteract the typical narratives associated with men of color. Male figures seen through the female gaze is an even rarer experience than women seeing women, and her perspective adds another atypical layer. Some paintings are intimate domestic scenes, often with the figure being nude and bathed in warm light, that are soft, serene, and familial. Others feature subjects Casteel meets and depicts on the streets and in the stores of her neighborhood, Harlem, reflecting a glimpse of modern urban life. Vibrant palettes give a sense of joy, celebration, and regality. All together the work creates an opportunity for visibility for communities that remain largely unseen. 


 portrait man


portrait man

Images courtesy of Molly Crabapple 


Molly Crabapple's "Annotated Muses" series are multilayered portraits of her bohemian peers. They begin with a collage of her sketches of the subject and representations of who they are and her relationship with them; letters, old identification, travel souvenirs, and drafts of their creative work. Then she paints their portraits over it all, standing confidently and proudly. Afterwards, she lets the subject themselves revise, or annotate, the portrait as they see fit, obscuring or adding to it, even if it means defacing it. Taken as a whole, the portraits are a melange of what makes up our identity, a meeting between how others see us and how we see ourselves. 


 portrait man


portrait nude woman

Images courtesy of Joan Semmel


Joan Semmel's self-portraits are from the perspective of how she sees herself, not removed in the full-body mirror images in which self-portraits are so often rendered. She does not shy away from highlighting so-called imperfections that are typically obsessively hidden -- rolls of extra flesh, signs of aging, or evidence of unkempt grooming. Throughout her career, her portraits have ruminated on themes of representation, sexuality, and bodily autonomy. 


portrait woman

 portrait man

Images courtesy of Mickalene Thomas


Mickalene Thomas's mixed media portraits pull materials and imagery from art history, pop culture, and design to assemble a vision of what it means to be a modern woman of color. The portraits bristle with power and sexuality, and examine the roles for women of color throughout history and contemporary culture. Her signature use of rhinestones adds a layer of glamour or artifice, depending on your perspective, and nods to the traditional conflation of femininity with decoration -both as a means to adorn onself and the relegation of art that reads feminine as "decorative." 


 portrait man


photo woman

Images courtesy of Carrie Mae Weems


Carrie Mae Weems's prolific career in photography has focused her lens on how black women's bodies fit into different settings in place and time. Her iconic "Kitchen Table" series (top picture) centers around the quiet, intimate, emotional moments experienced around the kitchen table, both in solitude as well as with family, loves, and friends. Other series, like "The Louisiana Project" (bottom picture), reexamine history as it may look with centering black women as the protagonists. Weem's role shifts from narrator, to guide, to voyeur from series to series, but nonetheless her particular presence remains palpable.

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