Larger-than-life cliché

Rosemary Bjorkman’s Conflation of Conflict brings together sexuality and obesity in an eye-catching, but not particularly original, way

“Figure with Lace Curtains” by Rosemary Bjorkman

“Figure with Lace Curtains” by Rosemary Bjorkman

“Fat bodies, overly sexual bodies or bodies that represent sexual ambiguity don’t stay within cultural limits,” Rosemary Bjorkman, 53, says in her artist’s statement. “In the case of fat bodies, they literally spill over into other peoples’ space.”

On my way to see Bjorkman’s paintings of nude, overweight women, I am skeptical. I can tell from the postcard invitation that Bjorkman is a skilled painter, but I am inclined to think that her paintings will deal with an already done-to-death subject.

The postcard I received was graced with one of Bjorkman’s pieces—the upper torso of an overweight woman, topless, cupping her breasts in her hands. Except for some make-up, the woman’s head is androgynous. She sports short spiked hair and a sculpted face. Her lips are painted crimson and her nails burgundy. Her body emerges free, sensual and feminine, but her synthetic, sterile face masks an inherent masculinity. Her voluptuous breasts, symbolically and literally, spill out and over her thick and manly hands.

Why do I find this clichéd? Because many young women in my beginning art classes were trying to do what Bjorkman has done. That is, they tried to revolt against the fashion-magazine feminine ideal, and against cultural rejection of promiscuity, and even sexuality, in women. Freshman girls in my photo class would do this by taking ridiculous pictures of razor-thin women in magazines and placing them next to some flour (I don’t know, maybe it was real cocaine) on a mirror.

As I walk into Sheppard Gallery, Bjorkman is chatting with gallery director Laurie Macfee. I stroll through the gallery, conscious that Bjorkman, not yet aware that I am the one who will interview her, tries to gauge my reaction.

The paintings are pleasing to behold. They are fleshy. They are rich. Having taken figure-drawing classes myself, I know that the curvier a body is, the more enjoyable it is to sketch. It is clear that Bjorkman relishes her articulation of the flabs, folds and expanses of skin that are not often found on a thinner body.

I introduce myself to Bjorkman. We chat awhile, and then I ask her about the possibility of her intent being overly trite.

“I’m trying to go beyond the cliché by not having too much narrative here,” she says. “My paintings can mean totally different things to different people. You don’t want to be too specific about what you’re trying to tell people.

“I want to say as little as possible about what this work is to me, because I don’t want to taint what it might mean to others.”

Although Bjorkman’s paintings may deal with a tired subject, her saving grace is that she doesn’t want to tie her viewers down to the interpretation she offers in her statement. She even admits that, for her, the paintings have another meaning. But that’s her own secret.