Just steps off Barracks Row, down a quiet side alley, a community of sorts has temporarily taken up residence in The Fridge gallery. No, strike that; it is too demure a statement. The women of Lisa Marie Thalhammer’s Intimate Network possess the walls on which they hang, staring through the viewer into the eyes of the artist who must be standing, paints in hand, just behind you. I feel slightly out of place, like I’ve been invited to a soiree where everyone knows everyone’s name, and there is a kernel of truth to that emotion. Thalhammer’s muses are from her inner circle of friends, cohorts and paramours. Singly, they each display a unique bond between subject(s) and artist; as a group, they burst open the artist’s own psyche for the audience to examine.
I have always associated The Fridge’s exhibition program with graffiti and street-inspired art, but Emma Fisher, the gallery’s assistant director (and my guide for the afternoon) explains that notion is only partially correct. “We’re really about showing people who don’t traditionally have a voice in the art world,” she explains, adding that the gallery also strives to strengthen the artistic community in DC by representing emerging artists. In that light, Thalhammer’s aesthetic, with its scratchy lines and bold color choices, certainly feels at home in this space. Considering that the models and artist herself are all part of DC’s LGBTQ (‘Q’ for questioning) community, I understand exactly why gallery Director Alex Goldstein would extend an invitation to host Thalhammer’s latest body of work.
While there are 13 pieces in this exhibition, the four large-scale portraits dominate the room. Created during the last three years, they provide a unique sampling of how the artist’s techniques are evolving over time. Thalhammer has long been interested in portraying strong female forms using sharp, jagged lines in color combinations ranging from bold to just this side of garish (and I mean that as a compliment). If Dutch painter Willem de Kooning (in a Xanax moment) and German Expressionist Ernst Kirchner could have somehow spawned a progeny, Lisa Marie would be the result (In a follow-up conversation with Thalhammer she credits Max Beckmann and Wangechi Mutu as inspirations, so I don’t think I’m too far off the mark). Yet that crude comparison only tells half the story; the emotional complexity of the works – the fleshing out of subtle details in the eyes, lips and hand gestures – is a product of Thalhammer’s unique journey through life. The four portraits are produced on canvas, paper and wood panel, and for long-term followers of her work, it is interesting to note the subtle ways in which the materials affect the final product.
And that’s when I have my first “aha” moment. I’m standing in front of Realism in Respect to the Relational Nature of Human Beings: Casey, a portrait of a semi-nude woman partially reclined in what appears to be mens’ striped boxer-briefs. The subtleties of her brushstroke are apparent, but what immediately strikes me is the fact that while clearly sexual, Casey is not sexualized. Thalhammer takes a centuries-old practice of painting the female nude and strips it of the male gaze. In Casey we see an indirect, almost coy reference to Francisco Goya’s The Nude Maja (painted some two hundred years ago), but whereas Goya and other (male) painters focused on the female form as an object of desire, Thalhammer’s models own their sexuality. In the case of Casey, that sexuality is in some ways fluid given how her legs are splayed open in a masculine manner, prominently displaying the aforementioned underpants. That Thalhammer can make a model feel comfortable enough to share those intimate details of her life speaks not only to her skill as an artist but also to the intense emotional connection she has with her subject.
Casey and a companion piece titled”Realism in Respect to the Relational Nature of Human Beings: Jean are the newest portraits in the show, produced during a residency in Indiana last May where she discovered wood paneling as an alternative to canvas. Thalhammer tells me studying the grain of the wood was a “fun challenge” as she thought about how to move her brush along its surface. In comparison to her portrayals of couples on canvas and paper, these images feel more nuanced, even with skin tones embellished in pinks, greens and whites. Here the artist allows the wood grain to shape the female body, informing the fleshy tones of skin and giving potential movement to musculature. Even knots in the wood find function in the final form: in Casey one such knot guides the shape of the breast. The oil paints used in these portraits have been chemically “watered down”, meaning that the varnishes don’t hide the grain so much as embellish it. In gazing quietly at Jean’s visage, I’m struck that the wood grains don’t hide possible human flaws, but help create a patina of age and time across our skin.
Where the singular pieces are hushed – bordering on meditative – Desires for Connectivity: Shauna and Jaime and Desires for Connectivity: Lisa Marie and Ebony are bold and brashly unapologetic in their declarations of love and commitment. They’re immediately identifiable as Thalhammer’s work, but have a completely different visual impact given that the oils and pastels impart all the emotive activity. Again I’m struck by how visceral the couples’ emotions play out before us; they may be posing publicly, but their private emotional connections only extend as far as the artist. In an essay accompanying the exhibit Washington Post Express Arts Editor Shauna Miller (posing with her partner Jaime) describes these works as, “a contract our friends made with Lisa Marie,” which is certainly an apt metaphor, given that these works comment on Thalhammer’s psyche just as much as the sitters’.
The intricate web of emotional connections created by the portraits is underscored by abstract works composed of prismacolor markers on paper. With a nod to graffiti and a whiff of politics, these linear abstractions visually link the women throughout the gallery. It’s a complex web to untangle, given that it encompasses larger debates around politics and social mores on top of personal displays of love, affection and gender identity. Viewed in conjunction with the portraits, the abstractions raise the personal emotions of the sitters to the level of public discourse, which is Thalhammer’s intent at a time when same-sex relationships are under the scrutiny of the courts and body politic. Two silkscreen works, Seven Shades of Equality and Rainbow Equality accentuate this public debate, highlighting the ways in which the personal relationships of some citizens have become cause for national debate. These pieces are colorful and dare I say fun, and I certainly understand their intent within the context of Thalhammer’s mission, but I find in some ways their simple joys are overwhelmed by the emotional complexity of the portraits. A large part of the issue relates to sizing; with the exception of Rainbow Networks One they are simply visually dwarfed by the larger works. In our follow-up interview I questioned Thalhammer about the relationship between the figurative and abstract works. She explains to me that they are sketches that “conceptually work for me because they describe the intimacy in my life.” By being placed around the portraits they work to envelop the portraits – to infuse them – with a sense of pride. Further, their meditative, introverted qualities balance the outpouring of emotion from the larger pieces.
Her words are food for thought. Part of me would have liked to see a site-specific, graffiti-esque swirl of lines covering the walls and ceiling of The Fridge, serving as a backdrop to the portraits and matching their frenetic energy line by line. Listening to her though, I can understand her need for balance. So perhaps it’s sweetly ironic that just as I’m formulating this criticism in my head, I turn to see the last piece of the show, Rainbow Bursts. In an instant, I realize Thalhammer has framed her entire exhibition — both its overarching sociological arguments and the connections of her personal relationships – in a piece no bigger than a breadbox. The simple message: joy. It is an exuberant coda to the exhibition and I’m left with the belief that if the universe can encompass all the colors of the rainbow, then surely our society can embrace relationships in all their complex forms.
“Intmate Network” runs through February 24, 2013. Lisa Marie Thalhammer will present an artist’s talk and live mural painting Saturday, February 16 from 12-2pm at The Fridge gallery. For more information and directions to the gallery, please visit their website here.