Acrylic on panel
10" x 8 1/4"
Photo: courtesy Marine Contemporary
Paintings, especially of women, are not always portraits. Perennial teaching tools, sometimes they make a go at portraying the sitter's inner life, using compositional distortion in deliberate, evocative ways. Sometimes they assert the financial dominance of the lady's husband or lover, as signified by luxurious clothing and/or surroundings. Sometimes, they are merely the most pleasing, convenient, or conventional armatures for a formal occasion, which is to say, an excuse for saying something about the formal qualities of art itself. Whatever the code, portraits of ladies in art history (both the women and the images of the women) are approached as objects of desire. As precious, seductive signifiers of an aspirational lifestyle of sex and wealth go, is a modern-day supermodel really all that different than a 16th-century courtesan?
The paintings in "Domina," Stephanie Pryor's recent solo show at Marine Contemporary, are very much about beauty, but in unexpected, more insidious and important ways than usual. All the beauty lies in facture rather than narrative. Like the bedraggled brunette in Broken, these women may have started out lookers, but they aren't any more. They have mascara on their cheeks and mayhem in their eyes; they are more naked than nude, and even clothing offers little protection from your intrusive gaze. In the more mysterious works like Arabesque, it's not even clear that they are dressed at all; while in Virgin, Veil, and Ladyluck, the surroundings blend with the figure, stressing the conceptual symbolic abstraction at their core. The skin and hair and eyes and sexy lady parts are there to clue-in, trigger, and give form to an otherwise formless desire to possess them--Pryor's paintings, that is. The lust is the viewer's way in, but the painted surfaces of acrylic washes layered in swirling archipelagos, dark and dusty shadows, and riots of gossamer translucence--that's the allure. In many instances--most notably the tumble-down, poetic Valentine, in which the shapes barely cohere to anatomy--there are passages that could pass for tidal waves or desert valleys or fallen bouquets, were it not for the eyes that stare back and through you with vicious, nostalgic defiance.