Susanna Coffey

at Lyons-Wier & Ginsberg Gallery, through June 1

Alison Watt

at Belloc Lowndes Fine Art,
through June 4

About two decades ago a filmmaker friend whose work I’d never seen showed me a self-portrait consisting of repeated takes of her, nude from the waist up, looking into the camera. I hadn’t been keeping up with the newly emerging feminist discourse, but this film got my attention. Instead of me staring silently as an invisible voyeur at the one thousandth (ten thousandth?) nude woman I’d seen in a work of art, the object of my gaze was now looking back at me–confrontationally, even angrily. Soon I understood: women were at last beginning to seize control of their own images.

The years since have seen a mind-boggling diversity of depictions of women by women–everything from valorizing portraits verging on the sappy to lesbian erotica. Two just-opened exhibits–coincidentally in galleries in the same building–contain many self-portraits, but the two artists create work that’s very different, though sharing similar goals.

Susanna Coffey makes self-portrait paintings and drawings, and for the last six years that’s all she’s made. The 12 works at Lyons-Wier & Ginsberg are drawings in water-based media–watercolor, gouache, casein, pencil–on sheets that are about eight by ten inches. Most depict her head and shoulders against a pale background–her rendering of her studio’s wall–using shades of blue-gray and tannish orange or brown. These are not pretty pictures: her skin is heavily flecked, looking more weathered than the skin of the elderly–Coffey is only 46–with many visages so mottled they appear to be disintegrating, suggesting the decay of flesh after death.

But her drawings aren’t simply grotesqueries. In Self Portrait Drawing (Small Red Head) the face is flecked with shades of flesh and tan and the hair with shades of orange and pale red. But the pale-gray background is also flecked with spots, darker and bluer, and it looks as if it’s been abraded away. (Coffey often rubs sandpaper on the drawings.) If the face is decaying, the background is decaying even more. This visual link between the face and the rest of the picture makes the face’s condition seem less a unique image of a particular person at a particular time than a truth about all flesh: however smooth-seeming, it’s subject–like everything else on our planet–to erosion.

Background and figure are even more closely linked in Self Portrait Drawing (Chrystie Street). Almost everything on Coffey’s face, hair, and chest is rendered in shades of brown. The colors of some splotches in the background seem echoed in smaller areas of her face, and some of the tans in her face seem to be the background showing through. What’s actually showing through is the brown paper–made of pounded tree bark–that Coffey uses for many of these drawings. The figure’s transparency gives it a ghostlike look, as if it’s somehow less solid than its background. As with other drawings, the paper’s edges are torn, revealing the bark’s fibers. Instead of using the “stop looking at me” assertiveness of my friend, Coffey prevents her objectification by linking her visage to nature, to the larger world. In fact, sometimes she finds the beginnings of her image in the patterns on the irregular, nubby bark paper.

Coffey, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute and lives in both Chicago and New York, began drawing in early childhood. “I used to love to draw pictures of women,” she says. “I think I was interested in the discrepancy between images I saw of women in the media and the women I knew around me–my mother’s friends, very strong, beautiful, but not in the Marilyn Monroe sense.” As a young girl she was impressed by reproductions of Pollock and de Kooning and eventually learned from de Kooning’s Excavation (which is in the Art Institute) that “the things under the surface can be more understandable than the chaotic things on the surface.” After a period of 60s-style drifting, she concentrated on art again in the mid-70s.

Coffey had once modeled in art schools “as one of my many low-paying jobs” and experienced firsthand “a vocabulary for presentation of the female figure that’s full of stereotypes.” Part of the power of her drawings comes from the way she avoids stereotypes through her facial expressions. Sometimes looking directly outward, sometimes looking upward or off to the side, her face is almost always an unparseable mixture of agony, pleasure, distress, and acceptance. It suggests an inner complexity without letting the viewer know exactly what she’s feeling. Coffey uses paint to similar ends. In Self Portrait Drawing (Red Hair, Up) her face is a bit larger and more brightly mottled than usual. From a distance the mottling suggests a complex personality, but from closer up her face becomes just a design made up of tiny solid-colored tiles–a barrier to seeing within. Rembrandt’s thousands of irregular tiny brushstrokes give his faces a sense of limitless depth; Coffey’s almost decorative imagery stops the viewer at its surface. Her compositions offer an aesthetic pleasure that isn’t necessarily tied to her personality–and in fact seems to conceal it.

About half of the 17 pictures by Alison Watt now on view at Belloc Lowndes are self-portraits. Receiving critical acclaim in the U.K., this 30-year-old Scottish painter is presenting her first one-person U.S. exhibit. At first I had mixed feelings about her work: her pale, clean surfaces seemed antiseptic, and I thought I saw too much art history in her echoes of Ingres, the Italian Renaissance, and the pre-Raphaelites. What started to endear them to me was their off-balance feel–in most there’s some object that’s not quite right; the compositions come alive as one begins to notice their quirkiness. Watt has said of her painting method, “I don’t map it all in. I always start with the eyes and work outwards. Each bit has to be finished as I go along.”

Watt’s borrowings are present less as po-mo jokes or fragmentary appropriations than as integrated techniques. Thus her skin has some of the paleness of Botticelli, some of the clean fleshiness of Ingres. The compositions are precisely delineated yet never “perfect”: the bare skin invites entry with its softness but also rebuffs it with the way it seems frozen into a design, however imperfect.

Traditional erotic art spreads itself out as if the viewer were only an eye, transparently observing the scene. One cannot look at Watt’s pictures as an invisible voyeur. A key subject of her work is the process by which objects arrange themselves into decorative pictures, and the utter artificiality of such arrangements. Just as Coffey escapes doctrinaire feminism by creating her self-portraits in terms that are outside the subject/object dualism, so Watt sees the traditional ways in which women have been depicted as a special case of the overly artificial ways in which everything has been presented.

In Still Life we see a column with an ornate capital. To its right hangs a vine filled with apples of many colors and also pears. To its left are trees too small for their apparent distance from the column. The whole picture acknowledges itself as an artificial confection, and though these discrepancies give it charm, they also rob it of the authority often possessed by still lifes. It’s instead a little bit funny, showing Watt’s fondness for the “overdramatized” and the “ridiculous.”

Some works make the viewer aware of his gaze by concealing more than they reveal. One of many small pictures Watt has made of body parts, Hand shows a hand generically human but revealing almost nothing specific. In Back Head Study a man’s head is angled so we can’t see his eyes, placing the eyebrow just at the point of becoming visible, as if the artist were taunting us. Head With Medlar takes a different approach. We see Watt’s head and neck in an extreme close-up–as if her face were pressed against a sheet of glass that’s pressed against our eyes–creating an uncomfortable feeling: should one really be “standing” this close to another person? By making herself so strongly physically present, Watt makes it impossible for the viewer to feel invisible.

These themes all come together in a large triptych. In each picture, she stands facing us wearing only white shorts but displaying herself in a different way. In the first, Apple Eater, her raised arms hold a large white cloth that hangs in front of her, cradling a mass of green apples. Her head cocked to the side, her oddly elongated face wears a faintly pleasant expression. In one sense Watt is trying to make herself appealing, presenting herself as a creature of bounteous nature. But she hardly depicts herself as a conventional beauty. British critics have commented that she’s much better-looking in person than in her renderings, though Watt says her paintings “are idealized versions of me; my concept of beauty doesn’t include the classic rounded face.”

The triptych’s central idea–that pairing a woman with nature makes her more attractive–derives perhaps from Botticelli, but Watt’s version of it verges on parody. In Crown of Thorns, at the triptych’s center, she stands in front of a large white cloth hung from the wall behind, clutching a mass of roses that cover her bosom–the flowers pointing downward. To the left hang two rolls of masking tape. This has the feel of an outtake–as if Watt is getting ready to pose with the roses but hasn’t figured out how to hold them and is awaiting help from an unseen stylist. Instead of presenting herself grandly–standing more proudly, holding the roses properly–Watt almost gives us the opposite.

This is even more true of the third painting, Disposition of the Linen. Watt stands with a floral-patterned cloth hanging over her outstretched wrists; her palms, facing us, are empty, as if she has nothing to offer. At her feet roses are strewn about: she’s dropped the cluster of stems in Crown of Thorns, and they lie every which way, in contrast to the cloth’s well-ordered flower pattern. On a ledge behind her is a lone apple half, and in a corner a red banner rises like a charmed snake, with no visible means of support. These oddly discordant elements lend a touch of wry humor, and also a touch of the absurd. It’s a bit like imagining Botticelli’s make-up room just before he posed his Venus, but with Venus now in control, acknowledging that her looks are far from perfect, and that the accessories she’s being given are a little bit silly.

What makes the triptych really wonderful is that after one notes all the self-conscious oddities, a new kind of seductiveness based on contradictions remains. Watt’s elongated face becomes more interesting than the conventional prettiness we’re always seeing, her strange props impart an air of mystery, and these deconstructions retain an unexplainable, almost irrational appeal.