This Week’s Highlights: Flesh of Light

In David Humphrey’s first post with Painters on Paintings in 2014 on James Ensor’s Protrait of Augusta Boogaerts, he talks about misreading as a way into insight. Mistaking Nietzsche’s thoughts on revelation as “flesh of light,” (instead of the correct but much less interesting “flash of light”) Humphrey sees into Ensor’s work in a new way, with that epiphanic flesh of Augusta Boogaerts igniting ideas for both him and Humphrey about Ensor’s deeper relationship to his partner.

Similarly Sarah Slappey, in her post about James Ensor’s Tribulation of St. Anthony from 2016, sees the paint-made-flesh of Ensor’s demons and monsters as distinctly different from those of Bosch and Breughel in paintings of the same subject. Ensor’s are more the stuff of psychic horror, nightmares of the mind, than graphic representations of the horrors of hell. In Ensor’s world, the “flesh of light” turns something potentially prosaic into the stuff of the visionary.

Barry Nemett, in his 2016 post on Gwen John’s A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, explores how the light dissolves form and allows us to see even the most humble and utilitarian of objects — a chair or parasol –as revelatory and transcendent.   All the various objects in John’s room lose their individuality and materiality, as they leave the world of solid form and become themselves a kind of flesh of light, reminding Nemett of lullabies wafting in from the open window of his childhood.

Editor’s Note – I Love Dick

Many of my favorite powerful women friends are tending towards the hating end of the spectrum when I ask them what they think of I Love Dick, the new 8-part Amazon series directed by Jill Solloway. I direct them to this or that review, almost all overwhelmingly favorable, but Facebook comments sum up their consternation with comments about the Chris character being just so uncomfortable to watch. Solloway has put herself to the task of defining the female gaze in this show, and one thing Chris is not going to allow is to be made into the object of any *#$@& male gaze.

Most of you know by now I Love Dick is based on the book by Chris Kraus, played by Kathryn Hahn, inspired by her infatuation with the media theorist Dick Hebdige, now a Donald Judd-esque character named Dick Jarrett, played by Kevin Bacon. Chris is holed up in Marfa, TX, having accompanied her husband, Sylvere, on his residency there after the Venice Biennale rejected her film. After one conversation with Dick at a reception she becomes obsessed with him and starts writing a series of highly unladylike letters addressed to him, that she eventually turns into her art and plasters all over town. She has made Dick her muse, and he doesn’t like it one bit. (“It’s humiliating,” he says.)

Kathryn Hahn plays Chris as a highly verbal, highly emotional, uncorked headcase, but she’s wonderful- my kind of woman. She’s the id in all of us who were brought up not to rock the boat, to be gracious, self-effacing and even demure where need be. Not so Chris. She won’t be silenced, and she won’t lie about her passion either, to her husband or to Dick: it’s precious and she nurses it like a woman unscorn-able, with no concerns about how others might see her or what the object of her affections might think of her. But she’s super vulnerable too, and can feel the pea under the mattress as well as any princess.

Beyond that though, there is something for every member of the art world here, television and movies pretty much always getting us wrong (think Daryl Hannah in her super sized loft studio playing a starving artist in Legal Eagles, or how in Red, the Mark Rothko character primes his canvas with red paint rather than white, necessary for maintaining luminosity of later layers of paint). Along with earthworks there is conceptual and performance art, and a single brick laid on a pedestal like a piece of perfect form (“A straight line is perfection,” says Dick), and the Institute itself is filled with minimalist painting and sculpture that, by the end of the show the African American female curator Paula (Lily Mojekwu)- sick to death of all that dry and withholding (read “male”) work, replaces all of it with work by Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker and Glenn Ligon, among other distinctly non-withholding artists. Hoots from the audience in our tv room!

But it was the ending that I really loved-spoiler alert! Kraus finally finds herself alone with Dick in his farmhouse, his attraction for her made plain at last. As they mutually engage in wild fondling, Dick murmurs lustily, “Oh you’re so wet,” but it turns out that she’s started her period and all that male-thrilling vaginal wetness is really menstrual blood. Rather than going with it and wrapping himself in all her various juices Dick instead excuses himself to go clean up, at which point Chris takes a breath, picks up his ten-gallon cowboy hat, puts it on her head and walks out of his house, into the dawn, blood smeared all over her inner thigh.

Ladies, any of you who have had a guy get turned off at your lady-time – take heed! Blood is life and Dick is only a fledgling in that deep sea of knowledge.

— Julie Heffernan

Editor’s Note – Art Abroad

The editors of Painters on Paintings are traveling this summer and thought we’d share some observations on the art we’re seeing abroad. Virginia is attending Documenta in Athens and Kassel and will be painting in Berlin through August. Julie will spend a month at the Bau Institute arts residency in Cassis, France. Here are some musings on Frida Kahlo from her recent visit to Mexico City.

According to a Mexican acquaintance of mine Frida Kahlo is considered south of the border, nothing more than kitsch, in the same vein as Norman Rockwell here, her popularity a signal that her work shouldn’t be trusted since it is simply too likeable. She offers so much to so many different interest groups: mediocre paintings for beginning painting students (Marxism will give Health to the Sick) and great paintings for the connoisseurs (Broken Column, What the Water Gave Me), upbeat quotes for the footless (“Feet what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”), a brilliant fashion sense for Rei Kawakubo and Ricardo Tischi of Givenchy, profound sorrow and rejection in love for the double-crossed and cuckolded alike (Diego screwed her sister!), and affairs with Trotsky for Oberlin students. What else do you need from an artist to win the love of everyone but the suspicious intelligentsia?

I went to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul while on a recent trip to Mexico City and found myself regretting that I had ever heard about her haters from my colleague, wondering why crossover art tends to trigger so much disdain and whether Kahlo might just be that rare thing: the artist that is truly popular and serious. If I wasn’t convinced by the work (which I am) I became so by her kitchen. She filled it with ceramic pots and painted the floor bright yellow with blue and yellow wooden counters. She and Diego rejected conventional stoves, using instead a huge clay pot with a wood fire beneath it– the indigenous chimenea–which infused everything they cooked with the fragrant nuttiness of pecan wood, or the delicate sweetness of mesquite. And there was a recipe for mole on her kitchen wall that had more flavors and spices than I ever could have imagined combining within the same pot.

I’m aware that Kahlo isn’t lacking in fans. I just want to put it out there, as Mary Oliver says, that it’s ok to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. And in 2012 Patti Smith had the press conference for her first show in Mexico City at the Casa Azul. So, there you go, doubters – no one could ever accuse Patti Smith of being kitsch.

Editors’ Note – On Intimacy and Painting

“Intimacy, says the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, is the highest value. I resist this statement at first. What about artistic achievement, or moral courage, or heroism, or altruistic acts, or work in the cause of social change? What about wealth or accomplishment? And yet something about it rings true, finally—that what we want is to be brought into relationship, to be inside, within. Perhaps it’s true that nothing matters more to us than that.”  – Mark Doty

Gazing at a painting invites a deep sense of intimacy.  At the Met, looking at Dieric Bouts’ Virgin and Child, I am thinking about the image of Mother and Child as one of the central icons of pre-20th century Western art.  Christian indoctrination aside, gazing upon this mom and baby as tropes for pure innocence and fusion– our own original innocence and that of humankind’s, and our core relationship with the other in the form of mother— all of those stimuli together have the capacity to short circuit our questioning natures and bring us to a place of pure, infantile responsiveness, before the formation of human subjectivity through representations of class or identity and all those factors that produce the category of self.  What is most powerful about that painting is how the immediacy of my apprehension of it is central to the experience of seeing it; the fact that I can take it in in an instant, like a kiss or a sock in the nose.  It is so intimate.  Unlike all those art forms that depend on time to reveal their content and pleasures –music, theater, literature, installation art– painting allows the brain to experience the thrill of instantaneity; I know immediately if I am moved or not, even if later reflections offer up different responses– and I feel the intensity of that return to my own inwardness. I experience subjectivity itself, immediately and unmediated, like the children we once were.


Dieric Bouts, Virgin and Child, 455–60, Oil on wood, 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches

Editors’ Note – Welcome

Welcome readers to our newly re-designed Painters on Paintings website. We will be using this section as a weekly column to highlight current shows, art-related events, cultural zeitgeists, and what we’ve seen lately, or wish to see, in the New York art world.

Our new website allows us to showcase the wisdom of our contributors in our large archive of Painters on Paintings essays in a way that provides more visibility and context. A big thank you to our web designer, artist Sara Bouchard.

We are launching this site with an essay by Barkley Hendricks. Hendricks, who has worked since the 1960’s in many mediums, including photography and fashion, is a living icon of figurative painting. He is most lauded for his portrait work featuring primarily African American subjects from cities in the Northeast. His style and subject matter are as much personal as political, but his role in opening the door for figurative artists, artists of color, creating space for black bodies in museums, and impacting a generation of young artists cannot be overstated. Your PoP editor, Virginia, is one such artist, who had the pleasure of working with Hendricks in 2006 at the Yale Norfolk residency.

We (Julie and Virginia) participated in the Women’s March on Washington in January and since have dedicated a great deal of energy to thinking about art and activism, engaging in local protests and grassroots campaigns. We are troubled by the new administration’s racist, xenophobic, anti-art, anti-science, anti-women policies.

We hope that our work as teachers and painters can contribute to building supportive, inclusive spaces and visions for progressive change. On this platform, we look forward to a continuing dynamic discussion among artists about what drives and inspires them. Please share your ideas and send us your essays about art that challenges, expands, and makes an impact.

In Solidarity,
Virginia and Julie