For several centuries, the point of being a woman in a painting was to be looked at by men. You could be a nude muse, a buttoned-up Victorian, whatever, as long as you looked good. And the person calling the shots about how you looked was almost always a man.
And all the way up through my teens and 20s, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it felt as if much of the point of even being a woman was to be looked at by men.
Refreshingly, that’s shifted. Women now call more of the shots about how we look in pop culture and art. This has been a relief.
But there’s something about the way the cultural chips have settled that won’t last, I suspect. We’ve come to acknowledge that male desire doesn’t need to be used relentlessly as a power tool, but I don’t think our reckoning with it is over. We’ve asked it to take a back seat for now, but we all know it’s made partly of biological impetus, and it’s not going away. And while I’m pleased it’s no longer OK to use male desire as an excuse for abuse or oppression, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the desire itself is villainous.
This, in a nutshell, is the lifetime worth of context I carried into the Hub, 727 Riverside Drive, to see Christopher Newhard’s paintings.
They are expertly rendered oils, all pictures of women, ranging wildly in tone. One is a trim Asian model in 1930s dress, eyes averted. Another is a muscular African-American reprising Michelangelo’s “David,” victorious in battle and so empowered she’s downright confrontational.
At first blush, some paintings come off as proffering outdated exoticism. Others read as if Newhard tries to see individual women as they might prefer to be seen. After a conversation with the artist, I see the exhibition as a record of one person’s attempt at something we’re all trying to do lately—process fast-changing gender mores and representation politics through whatever our own filters may be.
Newhard has been making narrative figure paintings for 30 years. Long ago, he sat in on an art appreciation class taught by the legendary California abstract painter Wayne Thiebaud, whose words stuck with him: “If you’re an artist, you can do anything you want, as long as you can face the music.”
Newhard, a white Midwesterner in his 50s, can face the music just fine. He’s stuck to painting what he calls “slice-of-life” narratives for his entire career, despite whichever winds of change have been in the air.
“In California, I was too traditional,” he said. “In New York, I wasn’t traditional enough.” He’s been told time and time again that narrative paintings weren’t current enough.
Newhard is intrigued by women of color. He acknowledges that such a position “can easily slide down a slippery slope into exoticism,” and he thinks that’s a fair critique of his show.
“I understand where you’re coming from, but, no, I’m not going to stick to painting Scots/Irish Americans from the Midwest,” he said. “I paint what I want to paint. … That being said, I think we should always check our biases, and if somebody has a criticism, you should listen to it.”
Six or seven years ago, when a friend—a Filipina woman—told him, “You, as a white man, have no business painting women of color,” he felt defensive. But this month, when a young person—possibly Asian, probably transgender—confronted Newhard at the Hub, the two enjoyed a three-hour conversation on the topic.