Bodies. So taboo, and we are so brainwashed when it comes to what we think a “male” body is supposed to look like, what a “female” body is supposed to look like. Let’s talk about stereotypes and about what I, a cisgender woman, has experienced so far by painting nudes/semi-nudes of myself. Side note: gender has been an annoying, irksome concept for me ever since adolescence because what the heck are the “innate” and “natural” qualities of femininity supposed to be if widespread, systemic male authority has been the deciding factor in how most women grow up?
I have always had big deltoids. Who knows why. Maybe all that monkeying around in trees that I did when I was little. Or maybe from practicing archery when I was a teenager. Back when I regularly took ballet class, my teachers were always convinced that I was lifting my shoulders (which you must never do in ballet!). I seldom was; my deltoids were just…bigger than those of other girls. That was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to how I felt about my body during ballet class.
This is a painting I did in 2011 that was in a small exhibit at the Zhou B Art Center:
During the exhibit, a teenage girl came up to inspect the painting and informed me that it didn’t look like a woman. I asked why, and she said the muscles looked too big. Really! I was surprised. I assured her that any woman could be muscular if she liked. This was only a year after starting to dabble in aerial arts. I told everyone I knew about my newfound passion. She seemed dubious. It made me sad.
The next example is a painting I also did in 2011. Here is what I originally wrote about the painting: “In my version of Little Red Riding Hood, both the young woman and the wolf reject their prescribed roles in the tale and merge into one entity. Perhaps the Little Red Wolf is a fey creature—a wily, hungry huntress of the forest who would just as soon as catch and eat you as slyly watch you from the shadows. Perhaps she is the vengeful spirit manifestation of all wolves and girls caught and killed to satisfy the lust of Man. Or perhaps she is a benevolent being and guides the lost and weary traveler through the dark wood. You will never know until you chance to meet her.”
For this painting, enjoy the following anecdote: when I first showed this piece to my (now ex-) boyfriend’s parents, the first thing his stepdad said was “Wow, that’s a lot of hair…down there.” I probably laughed or some such other awkward response. My boyfriend’s mom was more tactful and quickly realized her husband’s gaffe, commenting “Oh, it’s just a little triangle!” Out of all the things to discuss about this piece, we were discussing my pubic hair… Great, I thought, and now I suspect I know a lot more than I should about how my boyfriend’s mom shaves down there, too. Just great.
Moving forward to this piece, painted in 2016:
I refer to this piece as the “Raven Queen”, and on multiple occasions I have had people ask me why it’s called the Raven Queen, or tell me “I love the crow man!” No judgement here. I am not saying you are bad person in any way for thinking the figure depicted here was male, but I ask you to think about how gender stereotypes may have slipped into your psyche, as much as you would like for that not to be the case. With the exception of the arms being too short (drawing, especially foreshortening, is not my forte), this female figure is very accurate. Those are my abs. That is my boob. No, I will not send you the reference photos. (To read more about this piece, click back into time.)
So, here we are. 2020. Quarantine. Lots of time to do some thinking and painting. Current work in progress (“Mollusca Melancholia”):
What do you think? Will people think it’s a male figure? I haven’t finished rendering the musculature yet, but my guess is probably not. Why? Because I’m wearing my hair in a bun? Because you can see some side boob? I was once told by a fellow artist that paintings depicting a figure that looks back at the viewer do not sell as well as paintings in which the figure does not meet the viewer’s gaze. What does this say, considering that the painted nude is, more often than not, female? I think this has to do with the voyeuristic power the viewer enjoys. With that in mind, while I originally thought of the monstrous, many-eyed mollusk as a sort of manifestation of social anxiety, I am beginning to think of it more as a guardian. I may be depicted as “feminine” here, fragile, hiding, but that octopus is staring right back at you.