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‘Body of Work’ Leapfrogs Past Realistic Art

Until the end of the 19th century, Western artists were trained in the “humanist tradition,” which emphasized the primacy of human beings, said Kathryn Wat, curator of contemporary art for the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Stemming from a belief that human beings were the creatures who could teach life’s most important lessons, Wat said artists were taught that the “most worthy subject” to paint was a human.

The renditions, called figure paintings, were completed using models and symbolized “perfection,” or how humans should look or act.

That was then. Today, postmodern artists move realistic images into the world of the abstract. And the museum is now offering some excellent examples of that change in “Body of Work: New Perspectives on Figure Painting.” Wat, who curated the exhibit, chose eight paintings that veered from the humanist tradition.

Like most contemporary art, the works in the exhibit “reject the old-fashion stricture that previously defined paintings,” Wat said. “Traditionally, figure painters would depict people within a narrative or a story that had a definite lesson or moral to teach the viewers. … Artists were taught that they should never distort the body or create abstract pictures. They were supposed to treat figure paintings with utmost realism.”

Although the figure-painting theme echoes throughout the exhibit, realism is absent in “Body of Work.” Hannah Barrett’s oil on canvas “Admiral Ramsbotham” illustrates two men who arguably look female and seeks “to challenge our culture’s inclination to classify individuals into two genders,” according to the display. One man appears womanly from his eyes up to the tip of his fluffy hair and wears lace, polka-dot gloves while sporting a beard and tie. Mequitta Ahuja’s self-portrait “Homecoming” also draws on the imagination. The canvas almost seems foggy since various colors and patterns obscure the subject’s face and figure.

Wat said the collection demonstrates that contemporary artists offer more of an individual rendering of the body. “The artists in ‘Body of Work’ present their paintings without a narrative so that we, as viewers, can create our own interpretation,” she said. “The meaning is much more fluid and depends on the interpreter.”

Wat said postmodernism in art, sociology, psychology and other areas of study emphasizes that individuality is defined by each person and that nothing is “perfect and true.” In this case, she said, there is no “perfect” or “true” rendition of the body, and meaning wholly depends on the eye of the beholder.

Julie Farstad’s illustration pushes against the concept of “perfection.” She substitutes dolls for girls and women to draw attention to the “seductive power of stereotypes about femininity,” according to the display. Viewers might interpret her picture two ways: Maybe Farstad is trying to say that, contrary to society’s belief that women must be spotless, dolls are “perfect” but real women and girls are not; or maybe she believes all women are perfect, like dolls, in their own way.

The figure paintings also veer from the Western tradition in other ways. Whereas artists painted from live models in the older tradition, some of the women used historical photographs, digital images or imagination to complete their works. Nikki Hemphill, for example, paints from old photographs with pastels on wooden surfaces, leaving a rough finish that reflects the age of the decades-old photos.

A piece by Jennifer Levonian includes a six-minute stop-animation film and the watercolor stills used to make the video. The video zooms in on people’s hands, feet and facial expressions and tells the story of an encounter between a female tourist in Mexico and a male bakery owner. It also plays on humanity’s need for companionship.

The exhibit is the second installation of “Women to Watch,” an NMWA series that introduces a small exhibit every other year to highlight emerging female artists who work in a particular theme. Last time the theme was photography. Wat said the series does not have an end date and she hopes the biennial exhibits will continue for years.

“Body of Work” is open through Sept. 12, and the museum is located at 1250 New York Ave. NW. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults and $8 for seniors and students.

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