Women Painting Women: In Earnest—A Traveling Museum Exhibition

A Review by Catherine Prescott, 2017

by Catherine Prescott

Ellen Eagle, <em>Pigeon Glancing</em>, 2011

“A work of art should rest on perception.”

- Saul Bellow in a letter to a student, 1955

Michelle Doll Couple, AJB3, 2015 oil on canvas 50” x 48” Courtesy of the Artist Hoboken, NJ

It’s no surprise that a blog about contemporary representational paintings of women would develop a reputation on the internet. But the content of this subject matter has long been due for some novel approaches. In 2009, painters Alia El-Bermani, Diane Feissel, and Sadie Valeri asked the question: where are the paintings by women working with this subject that offer more than the stereotypes? Their search led them to establish Women Painting Women, a unique blog founded that same year which eventually juried in the work of some 430 painters: http://womenpaintingwomen.blogspot.com/

Aleah Chapin <em>Auntie</em>, 2011<br/>Courtesy of Flowers Gallery New York, NYThe blog has inspired a significant number of shows in galleries and, as El-Bermani writes, “I know we have expanded the current and upcoming painters’ vocabulary on how they see and represent women.”  

Now, at last, we have a large exhibition conceived by two of the founders, Alia El-Bermani and Diane Feissel and brought to fruition by El-Bermani. It is an ambitious show in that it is traveling to two museums. This, by definition, allows curators to borrow works that have been sold or that might not be considered by galleries that have a sales priority. More important, it is a show in which the goals of the blog founders are emphatically made clear. 

The title itself distinguishes it from much of what the recent art world has been locked into. Earnest is the word you’re looking for if you have tired of irony. The paintings refuse that alienation. In fact they are full of sentiment without the lie of sentimentality. They are about the affections of women, sometimes sensual but not suggestive. The subjects are flawed but without decadence. Some are troubled but not desperate, loaded with emotion but quiet. They are actual, particular people painted by artists with a common language. It’s their native tongue. They know what they are talking about but they are not trying to tell us what to think. 

Their attitude toward their subject matter sometimes belies the scale. For example, two of Ellen Eagle’s seven delicately rendered, very small pastel portraits, Pigeon Glancing and Lor, are able to communicate suspicion in a way that makes you want to step back. Michelle Doll, in her well over life-size Couple, AJB3, portrays two lovers sleeping in cool, night light, communicating private intimacy in the woman’s damp hair and a beautiful gesture of stay-with-me in her spread fingers.  

Candice Bohannon, <em>Bear the Light</em>, 2013Aleah Chapin’s Auntie, a large, almost double life-size, three-quarter nude, speaks of the subject’s strong presence in the artist’s life. The amusement that originates deep in her interior directs us to their mutual admiration. Her lovingly painted flesh is a fearless declaration of the artist’s intimate knowledge of her aunt. Such powerful personal content stands up beautifully and positively to the long history of young, nubile painted female nudes.   

Most of the paintings have poignant interior content. Candice Bohannon’s romantic Bear the Light shows us a young woman with a deeply inward gaze. Her upper torso is enveloped in a fur that is double the size of her head; it does more than keep her warm. The stark, individuated points of the fur tips seem protective, perhaps as much like quills as hair. She contains just herself in her pose.

Sylvia Maier’s Tabitha, from the Currency Series, shows us the loosely-rendered head of an African-American woman on a black ground, deep in thought; her forehead is dramatically lit, as is a possible tear beneath her lashes. Her mournful eyes are nearly closed as she looks down with a very slight frown. She is centered in the frame of a U.S. penny with the words “Liberty,” and “In God We Trust,” super-imposed on her hair in the familiar font of U.S currency. Maier writes, that “it reflects the unique in the ordinary.”

Sylvia Maier, <em>Tabitha</em>, Currency Series, 2011

This concern for the unique in the ordinary has echoes throughout “In Earnest.” If we talk about painting as a language, then surely the language here is vernacular.  There is excellent painting, but these are not grandiose paintings. Karen Offutt’s dark, thoughtful faces are dramatic but not staged. There are diverse subjects but they all share a woman’s point of view, sometimes one as unavoidable as the familiar struggles of being a little girl. Stephanie Deshpande paints memories and reflects on growing up and separating, with her daughter as the model. Margaret Bowland paints about the challenge to a little girl of meeting the expectations of the white adult culture she must enter. 

The conviction behind the curatorial intention does not seem to necessitate mounting a show loaded with the drop-dead virtuosity that characterizes much of contemporary representational painting. Nor is it a theme show, for it doesn’t fulfill what many expect a women’s show to be. One might ask what that show would look like: how about an exhibition whose sole purpose and meaning is found in straining to re-educate the culture about what women are? This exhibition is a welcome antidote to following a prescribed group identity. Little insight is required to represent a self that fits into someone else’s picture. 

Karen Offutt From the Shadows oil on canvas 15” x 12” Courtesy of the Artist Austin, TX

Instead, “In Earnest” is about perception, each woman’s perception of a particular woman: not a type, not a symbol, not an advertisement. It has commonality rather than solidarity. The subjects don’t glorify themselves. They don’t even explain themselves. These paintings are of women by women who recognize each other and who, in totality, invite viewers to recognize them. The show isn’t the whole story, but it’s the real story.

Margaret Bowland Isn’t It Romantic, 2011 oil on linen 70” x 50” Courtesy of the Susan and Dennis Sullivan Collection, NY 


"WOMEN PAINTING WOMEN: IN EARNEST" is a traveling museum exhibit opening August 4, 2017 at the Custom House Museum in Clarksville, TN.
Reception August 10, 5-7 PM.
Artist & Curator Tour September 16, 5-7 PM.


It will then travel to the J. Wayne Stark Galleries at Texas A&M University, College Station, TX opening October 16 to December 31, 2017.
Reception Oct 19, 6-9 PM.

Panel Discussion & Painting Demonstrations October 18 and 19—exact times TBD, presented in the College of Architecture.



The Women Painting Women: In Earnest 82-page full color exhibition catalog is available for preview and purchase, both in print or as a PDF.