Melissa Carter, I'm an Oil Man, 2017, oil on canvas, 60 x 48 inches
Curated by: Emma Friedman-Buchanan
August 31 - October 13, 2018
Institute 193, Lexington
When dealing with the figure, Carter takes Rousseau’s and Matisse’s work as sources for her compositions. She stylistically appropriates their use of at areas of vivid color and pattern and the collapse of space in their depictions of hired models within carefully staged studios and “exotic” imaginary environments. Yet these settings completely give way to dream-like spaces where women are no longer passive decorative elements. Instead, Carter transforms archetypal images of odalisques, often exoticized concubines or sex slaves, into images of powerful women. As chess masters, astronauts, and academic artist-fellows, or as small, rotund genderless figures that freely roam the canvas, all sharply gaze out at the viewer. In Carter’s representations, the one-sided power dynamic between artist and model dissolves through her literal repositioning of women in art.
Playing with popular imagination, her non-figurative works call to mind the grandeur of the highly masculine Abstract Expressionist movement of the mid-1940s and ‘50s. ‘I’m an Oil Man’ prompts associations between the traditional use of oil paint by artists throughout art history, the cultural celebration of male genius-artists such as Mark Rothko and his color eld paintings, and the wealth and prestige generated by both oil moguls and famous male artists who continually outsell and overshadow women artists working contemporaneously. In Carter’s ‘Cosby Sweater’ series, smeary, gestural lines and bold colors resemble the knit texture and ‘80s palette of Bill Cosby’s sweaters. The monumental works conflate the Abstract Expressionist qualities of strength, force, and virility with the allegations of sexual abuse committed by Cosby, provoking a sense of cognitive dissonance surrounding the cultural ties between masculinity and greatness.
These images critique traditionally inadequate methods of art historicization and culturally sanctioned misogyny, both of which devalue the identities and contributions of women as artists, models, and human beings. As one of many groups previously left on the margins of critical and cultural conversation, Carter portrays women now in possession of their own image and at the center of their own experiences, revising the social dynamics and representational possibilities of the histories she engages with.