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Anne Harris, “Figuring Ground” (2014–15) (an ongoing project) (detail), oil, acrylic, collage on 300 lb arches cold press paper, 30” x 22” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

CHICAGO — In a show of works on paper, titled Coddled and Bruised at a new Chicago artist-run space, Cultivator, painter Anne Harris depicts the female body in a way that brings to mind writer Christine Alic’s phrase “the contested landscape of the female gaze.” This means that Harris uses the female form as a site to wrestle with representations of the female body in art and to undermine its subjection to the male gaze, in common with painters like Frida Kahlo and Lisa Yuskuvage, who reimagine their visible selves either through direct representation or hallucinatory reimagining.

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Anne Harris, “Figuring Ground” (2014–15) (an ongoing project) (detail), oil, acrylic, collage on 300 lb arches cold press paper, 30” x 22” (click to enlarge)

The show includes two small oil paintings on panel that are part of Harris’s established body of work: paintings of heads that might have been drawn from reality (a self-portrait, a photograph of a face), but which over a long period of overpainting and elaboration are transformed into eerie, unsettling images of an unstable physicality, as though the flesh on the body or face were emerging through mist and might disappear at any moment. Perhaps the artist included these paintings to contrast them with these new pieces, which are far looser and more experimental. With the overall title Figuring Ground, the new series mostly consists of roughly-painted torsos, seen from the front. The outline of arms and a body sometimes emerges from the monochromatic ground via thinly painted marks, or is announced loudly with a broad-brushed line. There are faces, but they are depicted in ways that seem to cancel themselves out: a quick, semi-abstract mark, furtive smudges of paint, a collaged face cut out from another painting.

The artist told Hyperallergic how these paintings came about in response to the death of her mother, and how they enabled her to approach painting again after a period of grief. She is interested in “processing the facts of the self through one’s mind, and how self-perception is so malleable in the attempt to make that visible.” Certainly these works present an accomplished artist asking questions about her own practice, questions such as: How can I paint the body in a more immediate way? What sort of mark delineates the content of the body or the edge of the body? At what point can a painting be considered finished?

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Installation view of ‘Anne Harris: Coddled and Bruised’ at Cultivator

The resulting works are less satisfying perhaps because of the hesitations in their execution, in contrast to her paintings which manifest a more settled set of conclusions about the body in paint. Nevertheless, this seems absolutely permissible in the context of an experimental gallery, a space where artists can try something new. Harris’s new work takes a risk, and it is to be admired for that.

Anne Harris: Coddled and Bruised continues at Cultivator (4636 North Ravenswood #204, Chicago) through December 13. 

Philip Hartigan is a UK-born artist and writer who now lives, works and teaches in Chicago. He also writes occasionally for Time Out-Chicago. Personal narratives (his own, other peoples', and invented)...