The focus of Jane Corrigan’s first solo show at Kerry Schuss (September 13–October 26, 2014), is young female athletes who, by virtue of their age — they are adolescents — are likely to be undergoing biological changes as well. However, by portraying them as young women who appear to have rejected the overt signifiers of femininity (pink bows and feminine colors) in favor of what might be considered gender neutral colors and jock culture, Corrigan reveals the gap between the conservative, mainstream notion of biological change and femininity and the conviction that young women should have the freedom to elect how they present themselves to the world.
In the oil painting, “Hurt (red yellow blue)” (2014), the artist uses a loaded brush to quickly lay down the paint. A young woman is seated awkwardly on the ground, holding her knee, which is bleeding. Dressed in a yellow jersey and blue shorts — a school gym uniform — she looks pained, bewildered and determined. One detail that grabbed my attention about this painting — which I soon discovered was true of a number of others in the exhibition — is that the young woman’s sneakers are too big. Corrigan’s subjects are girls who are competing in sports. The oversized sneakers invite all kinds of symbolic readings — from what some believe is the unseemliness of women in sports to the inequality of prize money at the top professional levels, such as in tennis.
In “Three Girls in a Field” (2014), two girls — also in yellow jerseys and blue shorts — are running across a field, from the painting’s right side to its left, while looking behind them. The girl on the right side is grabbing the other, trying to prevent something from happening. It’s not clear what the struggle is about. And in what I think is a perfect complication by Corrigan, the free right arm of the girl who is being grabbed as it extends forward, cropped by the painting’s left edge, arches protectively over a teammate sitting in the distance. Despite the competitive struggle between the two most prominent of the figures in the painting, one of them has found a way to be protective of the other lesser figure without being claustrophobic, which runs counter to the received opinion that competitiveness leads to child abuse or domestic violence, as a way of an excuse.
Corrigan is an empathetic painter who tries to elicit the human traits of her characters without settling for their “camera face.” Her adolescent girls may not know who they are, but they are clear about what paradigms they have rejected. She depicts strong, independent young women who are ease in their bodies, content with the way they look. One girl sits cross-legged, guzzling milk from a large glass bottle, seeming to care not a whit about how she are supposed to present herself to the world. In his poem, “Adam’s Curse,” William Butler Yeats famously said: “To be born woman is to know— / Although they do not talk of it at school— / That we must labour to be beautiful.” Corrigan’s women reject this coercive paradigm, which has its roots at least far back as Ingres and was continued by Andy Warhol. This is how the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire put it in his groundbreaking essay, “The Painter of Modern Life”:
[T]he great failing of M. Ingres, in particular, is that he seeks to impose upon every type of sitter a more or less complete, by which I mean a more or less despotic, form of perfection, borrowed from the repertory of classical ideals.
So while some critics find it thrilling to see the marriage of perfection and money on display at Jeff Koons’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, while conveniently forgetting its deeply conservative, oppressive sources, I find it more thrilling to discover Jane Corrigan — an artist whose work I had never seen before. She isn’t trying to make beautiful for those artists who refuse to celebrate historically oppressive and sexist paradigms without — equally important — being self-righteous about it. Some artists don’t need to tell viewers that they are more successful or morally superior than others; in their modesty and self-confidence, they refuse to support the hierarchical thinking that plagues both the right and left.
The thing that strikes me about Corrigan’s paintings is the sympathy that she shows for her subjects, who seem to exist in a dream-like domain. They seem to be unaware that they are being watched. This adds to their power because they are not performing for others. At the same time, the artist doesn’t hide their awkwardness, determination and pain. In my mind, these young women are at the forefront of social and perceptual change. If society is to transform itself, it will be because of them.
It seems to me that Corrigan, who had her first solo show at White Columns (October 27–December 15, 2012), is establishing a territory to further explore. Her use of humor is unlike anyone else’s. She isn’t interested in either slapstick or black humor, anything obvious. The young women clutching their bloody knees elicit our compassion, while the narratives they evoke are fragments with no obvious closure. The sinuous brushstrokes are simultaneously paint and rolling clouds, hills and grass. Everything is fleeting, conveying a world in constant turmoil. Corrigan’s adolescents are also undergoing change. They feel a bit out of sync with the rest of the world.
Jane Corrigan continues at Kerry Schuss (34 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 26.