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Friday, October 23, 2015

Janet Werner: Zero Eyes at Esther Massry Gallery

The painter with one of her works. All other images are oil on canvas by Janet Werner.
Regular readers of this blog know I rarely run a negative review. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that I write about art to build enthusiasm for it, not to knock it down. Usually, if I see something I'm not keen on, I will just let it go. But there are times that something falls short, and I feel it must be pointed out. You can tell  this is going to be one of those times - but always remember, my opinion is nothing compared to each viewer's personal response to the art - and I urge you always to seek your own experience.

Jelly 2010
So Zero Eyes, the current exhibition of paintings by Janet Werner, on view at The College of Saint Rose's Esther Massry Gallery through Dec. 6, is not my cup of tea. Why don't I like it? Tough question! But I'll do my best to explain.

First, let me say, Werner is a legitimate painter, with a degree from Yale and work in many collections (mostly in her native Canada) - not a hack or a neophyte. And the 16 generally quite large paintings in this selection demonstrate that she has control of her medium. But she chooses to exercise this control to make, by turns, cloyingly sentimental, hammer-over-the-head ironic, or just plain sloppy images. This is annoying.

Stalker 2012
Werner's colorful, daring work unfortunately falls squarely into the realm of (stifling a huge yawn here) gender and identity politics. Her approach seems to be to start with a fashion photograph, then recast the "ideal" woman in the picture as a monster. Werner's figures tend to be elongated even for supermodels, with undersize heads, awkward bodies and random parts - hands, nose, breasts - that go huge.

Girlfriend 2014
The scale of her paintings is sometimes played to great advantage, such as in the inexplicably titled Stalker, which, at nine feet tall, still lets a vast swath of grey paint crowds its office-worker subject into the bottom of the frame. Another strong vertical, titled The Glove, presents a red-haired debutante type on a hot pink background. Her haughty gaze is rendered with deft, layered strokes - but the titular magenta garment is slapped out crude and flat, with a cartoon daisy drooping from its grasp.

Moriah 2015
The work in the show covers a fairly long slice of time (2009 to 2015), affording the viewer a general sense of Werner's progress - from smaller to bigger, from playful to grotesque, from believable to bizarre. Among the latest pieces, Moriah shows the most promise by splitting the figure down the middle, obscuring its face not with simple defilement as in many of the others but with destructive transformation.

With 50 years of American feminism under our belts, it's easy to see what Werner is trying to say - but does it all bear repeating? Maybe it's important, after deKooning's take on scary women, for a woman painter to have her say. But I wonder - what does it add?


Unknown said...

The portraits of John Currin and Lisa Yuskavages are disturbing distortions. They are contemporizing what has been done for centuries. Portraits will never be new, no matter who makes them. Yes, Janet is a woman who paints portraits. Why does that make her a feminist painter? If she painted flowers, landscapes or abstraction would you still call her a feminist painter? Should a man who paints female figures be called a misogynist? Why is it important to know who made the paintings? Let’s just look at the work for what it is. The portraits of Janet Werner are disturbingly beautiful. She paints with a fluidity and richness that adds to the complexity of the subject. Her color is thoughtful and rich. Her humor adds to her sometimes-grotesque figures. She does not make the same painting over and over, each piece is a unique and strange individual that draws you into her surreal drama. It was a relief to see a great show of portraits in Albany. Bravo St. Rose.

david brickman said...

It should be noted that the above commenter, Andrea Hersh, neglects to mention that she is an adjunct professor at The College of Saint Rose. I respect the sincerity of her expression, and will not remove her comment, but I feel it is disingenuous to express outright congratulation to an institution that provides your livelihood without mentioning that fact. Hersh also seems to be saying that my review calls Werner a feminist painter, however it does not. It mentions the fact that we are influenced by feminism and refers to Werner as a woman painter (as opposed to the male painter Willem deKooning, who also depicted women in a disturbing way). Despite Hersh's naive desire to have us view Werner's work anonymously, it is not presented anonymously. It is presented as the work of a woman. If it were instead presented as the work of a man, we would certainly view it differently, and probably not kindly. It is relevant to comment on the sex of the artist who made these paintings. I stand by the review.

Unknown said...

You may of course stand by your review. But to set the record straight, I had been working at St. Rose, Sage, SUNY, among others for the past 16 years.I'm not sure if I would call it a livelihood, it's more like volunteer work. I have not been teaching anywhere for the past year, St. Rose is not my institution. I also stand by my view no matter how naive. Thank you for not deleting my comment.

Unknown said...

While the subjects of the portraiture are mostly women, the artist herself said that the work doesn't necessarily come from a feminist perspective or source. The figures are in fact the least important part of the work. If anything it is more about the emotion behind the portraits. I have had the honor of not only hearing her speak about her work but to talk personally with her about her views on these particular pieces.In all honesty , I do not see how her work is about gender politics or feminism because when i viewed this body of work the first thing i noticed was the emotion not the false faces made up to help portray the emotion.

Ed said...

I was also so glad to see this challenging show. Kudos to Jeanne Flanagan and the people at the Massry. Janet Werner is trying to leave us speechless and I think she does a pretty good job.
In my opinion the strongest reading of a show like this is one that allows the most ambiguity, maybe even the most speechlessness. If you think you "get it," maybe you should look again.