What does a world without men look like? Celebrated Pasadena-born, New York-based figurative painter Judith Linhares’s current exhibition at Hollywood’s prestigious Various Small Fires aids the viewer in imagining this feminist utopia through a wide array of sumptuous female nudes lounging in lush landscapes, communing with nature, and performing a range of daily tasks. Perhaps a vision of a mythical, Amazonian-inspired tribe of women or an era after men, The Way She Goes to Town reveals social order and harmony without gender roles. Here, women seem to be entirely comfortable in their bodies, in nature, in leisure, as well as in their duties. Although the subjects depicted here are nude, they are not sexualized; rather, they are joyful and peaceful in their natural state.
Possibly drawing from her experience as an art student in Oakland during the counterculture movement and feminist awakening of the 1960s, here Linhares presents women unbridaled by social expectations. On top of this theme of gender equality, much of her work is deeply inspired by dreams and the fantastical, psychedelic, and often surreal realm of the subconscious. Over the past fifty years, the artist has recorded her dreams in a series of journals which were recently acquired by Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Museum. Her paintings offer echoes of the dreaming mind in their completely unexpected and deeply symbolic take on mundane items and daily tasks.
Like other recent paintings in this collection, 2017’s Dig features a woman in action. This swirling, brightly colored oil on linen composition features an empowered-looking nude digging a hole in the ground. The viewer is left unsure of why she is performing this task, but understands that it is a traditionally masculine one that she is doing well and unaided. In 2016’s Resist [bottom], an intriguing and inspiring gouache on paper, we see another nude woman wrestling a jaguar alone. The fearsome feline opens its jaws to reveal its gruesome fangs, while the woman seems completely unfazed. Considering the year of its making, this piece is clearly politically loaded: with its title borrowed from the popular rallying cry of peaceful protest against the current president, this image depicts women leading the charge.
The Way She Goes to Town also showcases women enjoying leisure time by picnicking and reposing in nature. This act of pleasure and liberation, seen here in Cove (2012), Slope (2011), Picnic Rock (2008), and Lunch (2012), is actually a subversion of Édouard Manet’s iconic 1862 painting, Luncheon on the Grass. Set in the male-dominated world of 19th century Europe, Manet presents us with two fully clothed men sharing a picnic with a nude woman. The painting shocked Parisians of the day not because of its nudity, but because nude women up until this point had always been depicted as lovely, divine goddesses. The woman in Luncheon on the Grass, however, is definitely mortal, and possibly even a prostitute. In the absence of men, Linhares’s figures take that sense of divinity back. They seem to be realigning themselves with the sublime through their relationship to nature.
In Tree (2010), we see a nude woman climbing a tree to get a better view of the heavens above. In this act of childlike wonder, we see ecstatic joy and awe on her face.
Linhares even manages to convey this sense of elation through a still life centering on a bottle of dish soap in 2017’s Joy. Typically extravagant and morose affairs with dead game, skulls, and ripe fruit on full display, 17th century Dutch still life paintings were made famous by acclaimed male artists, such as Frans Snyders, Adriaen van Utrecht, Willem Claeszoon Heda, Willem Kalf, and Pieter Claesz. Their moral message was clear: life is brief, often dark, and material goods are of no use to the soul. However, this cheerful oil painting on linen subverts this genre with a mass-produced, modern household item at its core. It, too, offers reminders of death with a childlike drawing of a skeleton pinned to the wall, as well as two pieces of fruit flanking the bottle.
Linhares adapts this historical painting style with bright colors and an overwhelming sense of contentment and freedom. The image calls to mind the traditional gender roles of the 1950s when women were expected to do the housework while the men were away at work. Advertisements for cleaning products were usually directed at women during this time and enforced the belief that homemaking was the only path to happiness for a woman. In the progressive society that Linhares has built in this collection, these outdated, toxic associations no longer seem to apply, as the women here do not only the housework but dig ditches as well. Without men around, they seem blissfully unaware of these limiting gender roles and their damage to womankind. In Linhares’s version of the Garden of Eden, women live in peace and happiness. We can also feel this exaltation in the exquisite green and blue latticework in Joy’s background wallpaper. This same type of decoration was used in Pablo Picasso’s portraits of his lover Marie-Therese Walter in the 1920s and 30s. As a period of bliss in the artist’s life, his work exploded with vibrant hues similar to the ones seen in this exhibition.
Linhares also borrows imagery from 17th century Dutch still lifes, again in this show in the form of her gouches depicting a range of flowers in pots. Instead of portraying decay, these images reveal the simplicity and beauty of daily life in striking and eye-catching colors, much like Vincent van Gogh’s beloved Sunflowers series from the 1880s.
Highly influenced by art historical tradition and yet incredibly fresh and jubilant, Judith Linhares’s The Way She Goes to Town is a celebration of womanhood in all of its multidimensional, sublime glory.
All images courtesy of Various Small Fires
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.