“Subjective Truths”

at the Carnegie Art Museum, Oxnard, CA

“Queen of Sorrow,” 2012, Alexandra Manukyan
Oil on canvas, 36″ x 24″
Photo: courtesy Carnegie Art Museum

This powerful exhibition of contemporary representational art by women based in Southern California was curated by Carnegie Art Museum director Suzanne Bellah in conjunction with the The Representational Art Conference, aka TRAC2015, which is to be held this November in nearby Ventura. The show’s introduction refers to the common qualities shared by these 19 artists as contemporized or “blended” realism, meaning that there is typically more going on in any one of these individual works than a simple impulse towards verisimilitude. While this is true, it’s possible to take the description of what these artists share a step further. In one way or another, every one of them challenges the notion that representational art is conventional. Yes, these women have mastered familiar techniques that produce representational effects, but each of these images also subverts the expectations that realism arouses.

For example, take the gorgeous red drapery that dominates Courtney Murphy’s large painting Cascade (2015). Like her Mannerist and Baroque precursors, Murphy exploits the theatrical power of expertly depicted cloth, but she crops the image in a way that would have been unimaginable in any century before the 21st. The figure in the brilliant red pleated dress is cut off just above the ankles, leaving only her feet in their high heels visible as they float over a picture plane that’s two thirds devoted to the pleated fabric. In Prom (2015), Lani Emanuel strikes another blow for freedom from the representational past by breaking two of the cardinal rules of prom pictures in one image. Her figure is seated, not standing, and alone, rather than with her date. By pairing her pink chiffon prom dress with librarian glasses and Doc Marten combat boots-and an enigmatic expression- Emanuel’s subject would seem to be in league with the artist in the project of resisting typical prom expectations, or representational genre expectations, for that matter. Some of the show’s most exciting work is on the second floor, where such extravagant realists as Alexandra Manukyan and Pamela Wilson are hung. Wilson’s A Lamentable Misstep (2015) depicts a woman sipping absinthe from a sinister contraption, looking very dissolute. Manukyan’s Queen of Sorrow (2012), with her bloody rose stigmata and elaborately woven crown of barbed wire thorns is even more disruptive, causing contemporary viewers to blink in recognition at the blurring boundary between traditional portraiture and cyber-fantasy. Like her companions in “Subjective Truths,” Alexandra Manukyan knows how to play the representational game perfectly well; she just doesn’t obey the rules.