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Portraits of women, and self-portraits, on view at American Folk Art Museum
Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, Untitled, c. 1940s-mid-1950s. Gelatin silver print, 10 x 8” (17 1/4 x 13 3/4” framed). Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York. Gift of Lewis and Jean Greenblatt. Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York.

NEW YORK, NY.- Works by self-taught masters including Paul D. Humphrey, Nellie Mae Rowe, Inez Nathaniel Walker, and Eugene Von Bruenchenhein will be on view at the American Folk Art Museum, 2 Lincoln Square in New York City, from January 24 through May 26, 2013. Women’s Studies will feature images of women as expressed by these renowned artists, including self-portraits and more than 50 photographs. The exhibition is organized in conjunction with an exhibition of early American portraits by artist William Matthew Prior (1806—1873), titled Artist & Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed.

The artists featured in Women’s Studies worked from the 1940s through the 1990s, a time of radical transformation in the lives of women in the United States. Views of the female face and form in fine art, photography, and film changed as more and more women took up brushes, pencils, cameras and other materials. Women’s Studies considers, through the drawings and photographs on view—all by self-taught, or outsider artist—strikingly disparate images that raise questions of intent, portrayal, and self-identity. Are the portraits acts of creation, documentation, or domination? How is the gender divide expressed through these works by self-taught artists?

Paul D. Humphrey’s crayon, ink, and colored pencil drawings of slumbering women explore the theme of “sleeping beauties.” Humphrey manipulated images photocopied from books, newspapers, and magazines, and in an arduous process of copying, embellishing, and ultimately completing the work with colored pencil, Humphrey created works of art that evoke a sense of death.

Nellie Mae Rowe’s drawings depict a fertile imaginary world through saturated color, organic flowing forms, and allusions to the spiritual. Her work is an internal contemplation of a situation rather than an external observation of a particular woman, fusing elements of the physical universe and shadow worlds.

Inez Nathaniel Walker’s drawings are notable for their highly patterned, ballooning figures with oversized eyes ringed with lashes, and densely-drawn hair, which ranges from huge afros to tight waves. The artist, born Inez Stedman, was married to two men, Nathaniel and Walker respectively. It is possible that many of the drawings were made when she was serving time at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, convicted of criminally negligent homicide against an abusive man. Her works convey a sense of control over emotional engagement even as her evident need to make portrait after portrait suggests the desire for human connection.

Eugene Von Bruenchenhein—a man of myriad abilities—worked in many mediums including bone, ceramic, cement, and oil paint, but it is often his prolific photography that is initially most fascinating perhaps because of the overwhelming number of images revealing his relentless preoccupation with his wife, Marie. The photographs of Marie on view were created in the WWII era of pin-up girls, Hollywood starlets, and burlesque, and they clearly imitate depictions of female film stars in promotional posters and other ephemera targeted to male audiences. Marie’s complicity in the making of the photographs is unclear, and although Von Bruenchenhein sexualized his wife as a seducer (ostensibly a position of power), she is subjugated to his vision. The photographs on view suggest awkward role-playing, a lack of emotional engagement, and a sensibility based on vulgar prototypes.

The female portraits provide stark contrast to the early American paintings of William Matthew Prior. Prior’s portraits, in the days before photography, provided invaluable records of loved ones near, far, or departed. One of the country’s first “artist-entrepreneurs,” Prior offered patrons a sliding scale of fees based on the level of detail and nuance in the portrait, thereby making such “likenesses” available to middle-class patrons. He is credited with democratizing portraiture in America’s earliest years.

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