DANA OLDFATHER IS OUT OF THE WOODS AT THE MCDONOUGH MUSEUM
Dana Oldfather’s paintings have always walked a fine line between abstraction and reality. Visual contextual clues could be found, if you dug deep enough—often hiding beneath her trademark bombastic layers of paint—but her new work, which will be on view at Youngstown State University’s McDonough Museum of Art this fall, shows the artist at her most representational. With this comes a vulnerability that was perhaps not as noticeable before, but lends a new level of emotional acuity to her already intense work.
These new paintings are all windows into domestic life, motherhood, sexuality, and the frantic pace of daily life. Narratives peek out from layer upon layer of paint—more than Oldfather has ever used before. As she explained, “I started wanting the surface of the painting to give more to the viewer, so I doubled the amount of layers, and added more marks and paint in those layers. There are acrylic pour layers, drip and splatter layers, drybrush, airbrush, spray paint, and wet-into-wet oil layers on top.” And it shows. Take a close look at Family Bed: Snakes and Potatoes and revel in the delightful stringy mess of body parts, fingers, legs, feet, toys, etc.—a cluster of forms that calls to mind the difficulty of sleeping in the same bed as a spirited child, all knees and elbows.
Paintings like The Laundress and The Dishwasher are even more explicit—the hunched form in The Laundress tackles the seemingly never-ending flow of dirty clothing, a blur of motion beneath a glowing window and glow-in-the-dark stars that resembles a child’s bedroom. The Dishwasher is hard at work in the kitchen, tackling piles of dirty dishes, with a toddler simultaneously clinging to her leg, hindering her movement. The water splashing, her hair flying astray, again the pace is very fast, and the eye delights in the panoply of imagery in the maelstrom—citrus segments, wallpaper, pots, pans, kitchen tools and a picture window hinting at a very separate world outside.
These images of a mother in service to her family are foils to a very different theme in the show, that of a mother reasserting and reclaiming her sexuality. In Queen Bed, for example, the towering diptych features a couple barely visible at the top of the composition, tussling about on a patchwork quilt. Again, the movement is tangible: feet, toes, naked buttocks, the swirl of motion of the quilt—and hints of the outside world flanking the periphery. A fleeting moment perhaps, but Oldfather captures it almost monumentally. The scale of the canvas and the shape of the composition has an almost religious connotation—like an altar to a private space where two partners can connect.
Recently Oldfather was reading and thinking about how French women, in particular, view motherhood—how Parisians embrace women as being sexual, beautiful, and having their own needs, but don’t separate these from their role as a mother. She explains, “There is a balance between the needs of a mom and those of the child. Whereas I, and I think many Americans, have a hard time reconciling these ideas. I’m not sure why that is, but making and putting these images out there helps me push through the feelings of shame and guilt I have about my body.” Female artists over the years have addressed the complex relationship between being a mother and the female sexual body, from Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) to Judy Chicago’s Birth Project (1980-1985), to Catherine Opie’s Self Portrait/Nursing (2004, in the photograph Opie—overweight, naked, and tattooed—brazenly nurses her son Oliver).
For Oldfather, paintings like No One Can Hear Us show how she is literally grappling with reclaiming her sexual body after motherhood. It is a mess of limbs, a breast, hands, clutching, writhing, and perhaps most noticeably, two high-heeled shoes, sticking out of the melee like exclamation points. Far from the house, in the green of a field, construction barrels and wind turbines mark civilization being close nearby; the tryst happens far enough away from it all to be just out of earshot.
Borrowed Field similarly demonstrates a hasty sexual encounter—this time cozied up to a fire hydrant, in grass marked with little lawn flags—but the pile of bodies here borders on the grotesque. And it is in this mangled form that perhaps some of the guilt and the shame comes to the surface—having to steal encounters in strange, uncomfortable places, with the industrial urban world as a backdrop is very different from the camaraderie and comfort of Queen Bed.
If you look at this body of work as a whole, you can see that Oldfather is striving for a somewhat elusive sense of equilibrium. There is tension, yes, but ultimately she is seeking a balance between her own needs and those of her child: “My greatest hope is that these images help other people trapped in this paradox know they are not alone, and ultimately, help change our culture so we can lead healthier lives as parents.”
Dana Oldfather Out of the Woods into the Weeds will be on view at the McDonough Museum of Art, Youngstown, August 23–October 26. ysu.edu/mcdonough-museum