at the Betty Rymer Gallery, through July 21

“She’s stuck up, has temper tantrums, is self-righteous, lazy and sheds crocodile tears. She’s timid, quarrelsome and full of hate. . . . She just laid there and let the birds build nests in her hair.” So goes Elizabeth Layton’s assessment, in a wall-mounted text, of the main figure in her 1983 colored-pencil drawing My Own Gulliver in Lilliput.

In this self-portrait–one of 31 exhibited at the School of the Art Institute’s Betty Rymer Gallery–Layton portrays herself as enormous, filling most of the space, lying on her back in a field of grass colored a sickly yellow green. Tilting downward–feet in the upper left-hand corner, head in the lower right–and clad in a plain gray dress and red sneakers, she’s surrounded by numerous tiny women who’ve apparently tied her down: one of them is grimly hammering a stake into the ground. Another stands on Layton’s chest, on a box of Ivory soap (marked “99 44/100% pure”), shaking her finger and yelling; still another stands in a fighting posture, wearing boxing gloves and a pink leotard. Most are idle, however, blowing bubble-gum bubbles, eating Twinkies and peanut butter sandwiches, or simply standing, arms at their sides, wearing blank expressions. A few women, far in the background, gesture as if alarmed, but none assists the captured woman.

Despite its humorous elements (including a perplexed-looking woman who recalls Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) this drawing–made when Layton was 74–depressed me. I wanted to deny its truthfulness; I preferred not to see that its entrapped woman had been done in by her own shortcomings as well as by the actions (or inaction) of other women. All of Layton’s best drawings display this same sort of unflinching honesty, both in the way they’re made–anchored in the act of observation–and in their analysis of personal and social issues, including women’s rights, male and female relationships, aging, AIDS, hunger, capital punishment, censorship, and racism.

In 1977, at the age of 68, Layton–who was born and lived most of her life in Wellsville, Kansas, raising five children and for 15 years managing the town newspaper–enrolled in a drawing class, hoping it might alleviate her recurring bouts with depression. And judging from this show, which presents pencil, colored-pencil, and crayon drawings Layton made between 1977 and 1990 (she died earlier this year), the process of analysis set in motion by making self-portraits sometimes had the desired effect–she did produce some optimistic images. But for the most part, even when her work contains elements of hope, it also bristles with anger or sinks into despondency, rooted as it is in her compulsion to look the world squarely in the eye.

That compulsion drives Layton’s first self-portrait. In this pencil line drawing, Women’s Suffrage, 50th Anniversary, she faithfully records each and every wrinkle and age spot. Her pursed lips and steady gaze convey how seriously she’s undertaken the act of looking. Yet, not content to merely record appearances, she hints at the other roles and demands that define her: in her nondrawing hand she holds a pan with an egg in it, and on the skirt of her apron is an old-fashioned stove labeled “comfort.” Behind her head she’s drawn a postage stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

Layton used the “blind” contour method often taught in beginning drawing classes: drawing continuously while looking at the subject (rather than at the paper) without stopping to erase or redraw. Though this method fosters close observation and trains the hand to follow the eye, students generally don’t like it because the resulting drawings, with their inevitable distortions, don’t look artful. But according to Don Lambert (a journalist who befriended Layton, found an audience for her work, and curated this show), Layton never thought of her drawings as art. In a 1982 radio interview she said, “I don’t think of myself as an artist. . . . What I draw is for other people who are like me and may be troubled by their feelings. . . . It’s not whether this is art or not. I don’t care.”

In many subsequent self-portraits Layton protested the constraints on women. In ERA (1978) she portrays herself seated on one tray of a balance, a man on the other. She’s marked “13 cents lb.,” he’s “$1.30 lb.”; her forehead’s stamped “Class 2,” he’s “Class 1”; she sports a black eye and barely fits into the tray, uncomfortably caged by its chains, whereas he stands at ease tipping his hat to her. Here, as in so many of her drawings, Layton adroitly manipulates scale: ironically, though she’s the larger, weightier figure, the man’s tray hangs lower. Small cartoonlike images in the background–a hairy caveman wielding a club and dragging a woman by her hair, Rapunzel in a tower, a witch on a broom–amplify the main subject and leaven the bitterness with humor.

Yet, as drawings like American Gothic (1978) show, Layton didn’t see herself exclusively as a victim. In her wry takeoff on Grant Wood’s familiar painting she looks like one of the beleaguered but tough farm women who populate Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. Pinning the viewer with a fierce stare, she grasps a giant flatware fork in one hand and a shoulder bag, screwdriver, and Pall Mall cigarette in the other. She wears blue jeans and has an adjustable wrench tucked into a side pocket while her husband stands meekly at her side in the attitude of an adoring puppy, wearing a frilly pink apron.

However self-righteous she may have been at times, Layton rarely lost touch with her own culpability. In Hunger (1985) she leans over a food- laden table surrounded by sheaves of wheat, greedily ignoring the hungry creatures below the table (who unfortunately look more like E.T. than like human beings). Her bold stare dares us to criticize. And in Self-Portrait as Phyllis Schlafly, Anti-ERA Advocate (1981), wearing a black evening dress and a button that reads “LADY,” she beams as her husband serves up a frozen dinner. It’s not clear who’s chained her by the ankle to the kitchen stool on which she’s enthroned.

Though she had little formal training, Layton was not by any means a naive artist: her interests were broad, contemporary, and outward-looking. And her references to myths, literature, and other artists preclude viewing her as an “outsider.” Her compositions could be surprisingly sophisticated for someone who came to image making late in life. Sometimes she tackled complicated multifigure arrangements, as in Apollo and the Muses (1986), in which numerous made-up, smiling women present an elderly man with pies, slippers, cologne, and a pipe, and the equally satirical but more disturbing The Courtroom (1990), in which black-robed judges accost a dying elderly patient with Quaker Oats, grapes, peanut butter, pop, and other “life-sustaining” goods. At other times she chose unusual, difficult points of view to heighten a scene’s emotional impact: the extreme overhead view in Capital Punishment (1980) underscores the helplessness of a condemned woman: head twisted upward, she regards the viewer with large green eyes, her gaze neither fearful nor beseeching nor accusing, just steady and grim.

While drawings like The Courtroom and Capital Punishment bring to mind George Grosz’s caustic satires of German life after World War I, others are cloying and obvious. In Buttons (1982), Layton substitutes sloganeering for analysis, drawing herself smiling proudly, arms upraised, the bodice of her sleeveless gingham dress covered with buttons bearing slogans and pictures, among them “Seeker of Truth,” “Gays are people too,” “Bread Not Bombs,” “Black is beautiful,” “It’s OK to Cry,” “I’m Thumbody,” a smiley face, and Mickey Mouse. In a number of drawings she uses a rainbow to symbolize hope; it’s hard to say whether or not this cheery symbol is meant ironically in a picture like Self-Portrait as Phyllis Schlafly. Most of the time, though, Layton avoids simplistic, rosy appraisals. Her penetrating gaze is not easily forgotten, and her honest portrayals of her own flawed, contrary self–and ours–are not easily dismissed.