From inner to outer: Tricia Kaman at Ursuline College
Portraitist and figure painter Tricia Kaman has been developing her craft for four decades, and the results of her experiments and refinements are on display at Ursuline College’s Wasmer Gallery.
“Women in Reverie,” now in its final two weeks in exhibit, gathers 52 of Kaman’s oil and pastel images of women and girls. The artist captures women in many activities—conversing, napping, stretching, playing a cello and a banjo. But the action which most interests Kaman is that of thinking.
“I’ve worked with live models for forty years, painting women in quiet repose and seeking to capture that sacred moment of reflection and meditation,” Kaman writes in the exhibit’s brochure. “I invite viewers to explore the mystery and solace of a woman’s inner world.”
In the longer artist’s statement hung in the gallery, Kaman situates her interest in women’s private moments of thought in our historic moment. The 21st century woman’s gains in the workplace and public sphere have not been met by corresponding reductions in her domestic workload. Thus, contemporary women are pressured to meet obligations to “family, career, and community.” These moralized expectations, coupled with ubiquitous digital distraction, limit opportunities for cultivating an interior life.
By striving to represent private thought, Kaman sets significant challenges for herself. While emotions are expressed through recognizable facial expressions (some of which appear to be universal across human cultures), there is no similarly unique facial or bodily pose accompanying thought. A brow might furrow from intense concentration, or from indigestion. And even though many of us generate our best ideas when we’re walking, running, or doing the dishes, we normally don’t think of such things as intellectual activities. Paintings of walkers, runners, or dishwashers thus will most likely be interpreted as explorations of the body rather than the mind. Furthermore, painting is a static medium, and cognition is a process extended in time. Unless a painter wants to emulate time-lapse photography or Marcel Duchamp, she can only capture one moment per painting.
Kaman makes these constraints work for her. A non-Cubist painting can only depict an instant; but, as Kaman reminds us, contemporary women only have fleeting moments to be alone with themselves. Form and content, medium and theme thus come together beautifully in several of Kaman’s paintings in which sparks of insight interrupt women’s mundane activities.
In “Anita Brushing Her Hair,” a nude woman sits under a blanket while adjusting her ponytail. She initiated the action unconsciously; Anita’s dark eyes are cast vaguely at the floor. Whatever is down there is not the target of her attention. In this moment, her eyes are idling, taking in light, but not seeing anything. Some absorbing notion has caught Anita by surprise.
The entertainingly dissonant “Feathered Woman” presents a burlesque dancer in a canary-yellow costume sitting in a dull gray room. She appears to converse with someone outside the frame, and points her gloved index finger up to call for silence or punctuate an idea. Her lips are closed, so whatever insight she wants to express remains yet unsaid. This fills the viewer with anticipation.
More than any other painting, “Conversations with Mary and Sarah” suggests a narrative. One woman in a pink robe and black stockings sits at the foot of a bed, looking at an opposite-facing partner with her head on a pillow. The pink-robed woman’s mouth frowns and her eyes loll shut, as if she is making sense of bad news. The pillowed woman has a slight, wry smile and closed eyes. We guess she has told a grim joke about a grimmer situation. She is more at peace with an unpleasant truth than the woman in pink; but she is tired.
On the other hand, the woman in “Looking Toward the Light” is very much awake. She reclines on her side, but is not relaxed. Her eyes are wide open, and her face blank. She has been struck by something, and is working hard to process it.
Besides capturing epiphanies and creeping realizations, Kaman also depicts at least one instance of deep contemplation. The figure in “Standing Nude” borrows her pose from Michelangelo’s “David”. Her left arm hangs at her side, while the right clutches an obscured object on her shoulder. A thatch of curly hair shades her eyes, which gaze pensively to the left of the frame. Whereas David epitomizes a rarely-instantiated ideal of youthful masculinity, “Standing Nude” is closer to us mortals. She is thin, but not toned. The gauntness of her face, whitening of her brown hair, and low hang of her breasts suggests someone in her middle age. But her years and all-too-humanness do not detract from her poise. She is not embarrassed by her nudity. In fact, she in no way acknowledges either the painter or the viewer. She is serious but not stern, preoccupied with some topic we can only guess at. Perhaps here more than in any other painting in the show, Kaman succeeds in capturing a woman in ratiocination. Some of the other depicted women look like they are vegetating, flaunting, listening to someone else talk, or posing for a portrait. Yet no one could miss that “Standing Nude” is fixated on her thoughts, with just the same intensity David stares down Goliath.
Other pieces not exactly in keeping with the theme of “reverie” nonetheless grab attention. The girl “Tomika Levelle” radiates boredom, but occupies the intriguing space of the artist’s studio. It is easy to believe the painting homages Velázquez’s “Las Meninas.” Many of the same elements are there: a girl, a mirror, paintings-within-paintings.
In an even more likely allusion to art history, “Martha’s Mother” presents a stark profile-view of a matronly woman in black Victorian attire. The similarities to James McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” can’t be missed, but neither can the differences. The backdrop flashes with color, rather than sulk in gunmetal. And where Whistler’s mother dressed finely but modestly, Martha’s mother’s anachronistic garb and feathered hat cry out for attention.
Several more of Kaman’s women wear fancy dress. “Olga” wears a frilly 19th century number, and a very slight wince. The protagonist of “Special Hat” has a similar costume, but looks giddy at the chance to play dress-up.
Some of an artist’s virtues do not make themselves known in individual pieces of art. Careful viewers have to see an entire body of work before a particular skill becomes apparent. This is true in Kaman’s case. Though there are over 50 images of women in this show, the exhibit never feels repetitive. While all are done in Kaman’s Impressionist style, the paintings are visually distinct from one another, and each of the models possesses her own personality. Artists working to learn how not to repeat themselves would be well served by seeing this show.
“Women in Reverie” runs through Friday February 17 at the Florence O’Donnell Wasmer Gallery at Ursuline College. The campus is located at 2550 Lander Road, Pepper Pike. For more information, please call 440-646-8121 or go to the gallery’s website.
Special thanks to Gallery Director Anna Arnold for her assistance with this piece.