For the Curious: New Work by Susan Jamison
April 10 - May 3, 2008
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Spanierman Modern is pleased to announce the opening on April 10, 2008 of For the Curious: New Work by Susan Jamison. Painted in egg tempera with tiny brushes on panels, Jamison’s precisely rendered images of women and animals, set against neutral dark or light backgrounds, follow in the tradition of early Renaissance bridal and profile portraiture. Yet her female subjects—naked, bald, and anonymous—exist within a world of dream and myth, their outer social trappings of dress, hair, and jewelry, removed to reveal and explore inherent and acquired qualities of femininity and identity. The genetic difference of women, their otherness, is a theme for Jamison, and it is not accidental that snakes, with their references to Eve, appear in several of the works. In many of the paintings, albino and genetically mutant animals, further evoke Jamison’s exploration of separation and aberration.
An interest in the “overtly feminine” was out of fashion when Jamison was attending the Rhode Island School of Design, where art was “not supposed to be decorative or girly,” but after moving to Roanoke, Virginia, in the 1990s, she felt a freedom to probe this subject. Exploring the identification of women as feminine led Jamison to develop an icon of extreme femininity, represented by her idealized women whose bodies are extensively covered in overtly decorative and “pretty” stylized floral body painting, while their bald heads are transparent, revealing brains seemingly made of trees, tangled vines, and branches. Jamison’s sources for these “brain images” are illustrations in scientific manuals and medical texts from before or just after the turn of the twentieth century. Drawn to the “the fine detail of the engravings and their anatomical imperfections,” Jamison further queries how women are made, while the similarities of blood vessels with plants and trees consider the connection between the human and the natural. That Jamison often paints her subjects’ brains with extremely delicate tonal gradations and precise lines and shading reflects her interest in delving into the origins of femaleness and what might be distinctive in the female mind, which perhaps is explanatory of a trait of care-giving that seems innate to Jamison’s subjects who appear to connect with their animal companions by touch or emotive osmosis. By contrast, in the tattooed designs on the female figures, which denote traditions of needlework and embroidery long defined as “women’s work,” Jamison questions the social shaping of female identity. Yet, the moving of these forms from the home and private sphere onto the body and within a public space gives them an organic connection, one furthered by the animals who come bearing bits of thread or have a strand looped around a leg. The aesthetic aspects of the white silhouetted animals also unites the natural and decorative.
The excessively decorated women in Jamison’s imagery also raise the uncomfortable question of when can femininity be pushed too far? When does its bearer become—like the tattooed woman in a side show—the subject of the combined amazement and revulsion provoked by the novelties in Renaissance Cabinets of Curiosity, the collections of bizarre and exotic historical relics, from which Jamison has drawn the title for this exhibition? Jamison’s art asks if femininity is responsible for female difference and what part it plays in our lives? Yet she leaves the answer to this question and many others to us. While the works in For the Curious have an absorbing visual complexity and detail, they also make us take another look at who we are.