Throughout the history of Western art, certain tropes occur again and again in painting and sculpture. The motif of mother and child has been reflected throughout the centuries in the likeness of the Holy Virgin and infant Christ or in domestic family portraiture, like in the works of Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who specialized in the theme. The archetype of the female muse dates back to ancient Greek mythology and religion, when goddesses like Calliope or Melpomene were considered the source of creativity and knowledge. Brooklyn-based artist Ruby Sky Stiler challenges these preconceptions and archetypes in her ongoing series of Relief Paintings.
Stiler’s works play with gender conventions by turning the male subject into a muse for the female artist or representing parenthood through an image of a father with his children. In “Old Woman (Blue),” she taps into society’s lingering taboo of aging, especially for women. “I’ve recently been exploring the trope of the ‘muse’ and placing the male figure as object. And also in the role of parent, which is strikingly uncommon (in contrast to the abundant depictions of mother and child),” she tells Colossal. “I’ve also re-positioned the female figure in the empowered role as The Artist.”
In bold, geometric patterns, Stiler’s subjects are human-scaled and gaze directly at the viewer. Black-and-white, tile-like patterns provide the background for abstracted figures that nod to Cubism—a movement practically synonymous with masculine figures like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Stiler dismantles the “male gaze,” or the lens through which women are depicted as objects of desire for men in visual culture. She explores the notion of the gaze further in the way that the paintings are experienced by the viewer; from far away the outlines of the figures are easy to see, but the closer one gets, the more the fractal-like patterns distort the image.
A monograph of Stiler’s work is scheduled for publication by The Tang Teaching Museum in the spring, and a solo exhibition of her work will open in March 2023 at Nina Johnson Gallery in Miami. She is represented by Nicelle Beauchene, and you can find more of her work on her website and Instagram.
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At the heart of Garden of Eve, Harmonia Rosales’ comprehensive exhibition at UTA Artist Space in Beverly Hills, is the power of narrative. The show spans years of Rosales’ career, featuring dozens of portraits in oil and perhaps the grandest work she’s produced thus far: encircled with lights, an upturned ship towers over the gallery, allowing viewers to pass underneath and peer upwards at the frescoed expanse.
Referencing the vessels utilized in the transatlantic slave trade, the lofty structure re-envisions the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and uses Michaelangelo’s Renaissance works as a blueprint to recast Genesis through the lens of female empowerment and Orishas, deities in religions of the African diaspora. Dozens of Rosales’ paintings, like “Birth of Eve” and her 2017 “Creation of God” that garnered viral attention, cloak the ship with a narrative that’s both widely recognizable and subversive in its telling, with Black and Latinx subjects at the center. “I didn’t want it to be a chapel ceiling because then that’s against everything I’m trying to convey, especially with this Yoruba religion,” Rosales shares with Colossal. “So why not put it on the undercarriage of a slave ship, the very thing that brought these stories to us?”
Now based in Los Angeles, Rosales has roots in Chicago, the city where she began pursuing her art practice full-time and where she first conceived of the installation. Five years in the making, the project is a testament to the artist’s dedication to long-term thinking. Her process is relatively slow and requires as much research as hours at the easel, meaning she generally produces less than ten works each year. Back then, Rosales says, “I was trying to hide behind my paintings. I was thinking that, okay, if I just paint, people will understand that, but I knew I had to really speak on the paintings myself. This time allowed me to feel comfortable and to curate my message better in a way where all can understand.”
Rosales has long been concerned with communication and comprehension, particularly as she brings lesser-known deities into the mainstream and elevates such religious figures to the status of those within ancient Greco-Roman myth and the Christian iconography that have dominated much of art history. “All along, with all of these exhibitions, I was creating puzzle pieces, pieces to the Sistine Chapel,” she says about the smaller paintings. “Now people can go back and really understand it.”
Many of the works collapse time periods and blend references, like “Forbidden Fruit,” which centers on a woman encircled in a gold halo eating a slice of the pink melon. “Ever wonder why watermelon became a cruel stereotype?” Rosales asks. “It was the one fruit that symbolized Black self-sufficiency after emancipation.” Similarly, the titular work, “Garden of Eve,” centers on Yemaya, the mother of all Orishas in the Yoruba faith. Shielding her face from the chaos of children and florals, the spirit witnesses “the disruption of her perfect garden, (which) intentionally parallels the disruption of the African continent.”
Ultimately, Rosales wants to question dominant Eurocentric narratives and to expose that the Orishas and religions she’s referencing are as old, enduring, and relevant as others. “What came first? Why have these gods been hidden? Why haven’t they been mainstreamed?” she posits. “To hide these gods, thus our identity, it’s keeping us in check. The more that they get out, the more that we are realizing that this is old. It strengthens us as a whole.”
Garden of Eve is up through November 30 in Beverly Hills. Rosales will continue working within stories of creation as she prepares for her solo show opening in March at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Until then, find more from her on Instagram.
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One way to approach the cinematic sketchbook drawings by Katherine Akmulun is to think about literature. “When we read a book, not only do we look at the characters, but the characters are looking at us,” she says. “And they see much more than we think.” This awareness forms the basis of the artist’s ongoing series of drawings that capture intimate interactions, bold gestures, and momentary expressions. From a young age, a fascination with human anatomy and love of reading inspired a wish to become “a kind of writer,” she explains, and “since I feel insecure about words, the only way out for me was to keep a kind of personal diary with sketches instead of words.”
In ballpoint pen and colored pencil, Akmulun explores the duality of two facing pages by creating images that are distinctive from each other yet empathetic to one another. A close-up of hands grasping lightly at the fingertips complements a joyful scene of two women dancing, or a young child clasps her mother’s hand while gazing across the binding at a man who walks briskly across an open plane. Part story and part snapshot, the mysterious narratives reference historic images and are open to interpretation. “The funny thing is that different people can see different scenes in the same picture,” she says. “And this is incredibly cool, because we all have different life experiences, different environments, and different interests.”
Akmulun travels often and is influenced by the nuances of everyday experiences, which she captures using a minimal palette. She aims to collect and record feelings and memories in the books, but she’s not precious about keeping them intact. “I love to rip out pages,” she says. “I like to realize that the pages of my personal diary can travel the world, and can find their home not only in my sketchbook. I am pleased that people want to have a piece of my personal world in their home.”
Akmulun occasionally makes pages available for sale, and you can follow more of her work on Instagram.
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From his studio overlooking Monterey Bay, California, Kajahl has created a new series of paintings that draw inspiration from the sea and ancient heritage, continuing a practice that employs portraiture to subvert white, European historical narratives. The artist merges classical motifs and mythical realms in Submersia, a fictional underwater world where artifacts take on new life.
Greek and Roman vessels like glass balsamarii, wine jugs known as oinochoes, and conical rhyton vases often depicted figures or were fashioned in the shape of human or animal heads. Kajahl reimagines artifacts like these as mystical seaborne figures, redefining the historical portrayal of “aethiops,” an archaic term for dark-skinned people. On household containers, these often showed “individuals possessing phenotypes typically associated with Sub-Saharan Africa,” he explains in a statement. “Harkening back over two millennia, I interrogate these fascinating and controversial subjects, probing our relationship to these objects that confront us from an alien world.”
Kajahl’s “Iceberg Entities” are human-iceberg fusions that are starting to thaw, isolated in deep water. The figures gaze intentionally at the viewer, who is given a simultaneous view from above and below the surface that separates “the visible from the invisible world, emphasizing water’s ability to obscure, conceal, or reveal what was once beneath,” he says. On the sea floor, the “Oceandwellers” and “Coral Kids” inhabit a realm brimming with colorful rocks, coral, and shellfish. Air bubbles escape from their mouths, and their gaze also meets the viewer, represented not as inanimate artifacts but as living, breathing figures who are capable of emotion and perception.
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Native Hawaiian artist Noah Harders takes a whimsical approach to style in Moemoeā, his first institutional exhibition opening next week at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Translating to dream or fantasy, the show’s title offers a conceptual, political, and aesthetic foundation for Harders’ vast array of works that transform crustacean shells, skeletal remains, lush jade flowers, and other organic matter into sculptural wearables. The fashions are intricately constructed and mask most of the artist’s face as he captures their sprawling forms through bold self-portraiture, which he describes as fostering a connection between himself and the found objects. He explains:
When I put on these masks, I feel like I am embodying the spirit and essence of seemingly ordinary materials that can be found around us…These pieces are a way for us to step out of the harsh reality we are consumed by every day and simply have a moment to dream and feel inspired by what surrounds us on this earth.
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Feathers, flowers, leaves, and the human muscular system are spliced into an eclectic camouflage in MUMI’s surreal portraits. From vintage encyclopedias, magazines, and art historical paintings, the Argentinian artist cuts and layers images into compositions that vacillate between the whimsical and the bizarre. Led by a larger narrative, the collages commingle styles, eras, colors, and textures into disorienting portraits, all spurred by the artist’s desire to experiment. “I truly enjoy the organic process in which I let myself go freely,” MUMI shares. “There are endless possibilities when I cut an image. I take it out of its context, its direct meaning, or its origin, and I give it a new surreal environment.”
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