One of the more ferociously beautiful shows you’re likely to see this season is by a 79-year-old painter who was barely out of high school when she was given six months to live. Over the six decades that followed, Juanita McNeely has faced down cancer, disability and sexism, creating a body of work that resonates with the screw-it-all truth-telling of a genuine survivor.
McNeely’s micro-retrospective at Mitchell Algus Gallery on the Lower East Side is called “From the Black Space II” and Other Paintings. There are six big works in oil on canvas dating from 1975 to 2014, two undated painted ceramic vases, and two colored pencil drawings from the mid-70s.
The exhibition title refers to the disarmingly strange, seven-panel showstopper, “From the Black Space II” (1977), which measures 85 x 324 inches, taking up an entire wall of the gallery. The most striking thing about the panels, which alternate between narrow verticals and near-squares, is the sheer blankness of the fields, five of which are activated by a single, wildly expressive figure (in the other two, fish skeletons and black bats hold sway).
The extreme poses of the figures, their limbs splayed apart or pulled into a defensive crouch, anticipate the exaggerated anatomies of the Neo-Expressionists, particularly Francesco Clemente, by several years, and the coloring of their skin — dark, disagreeable earth tones and unnatural shades of violet, pink and lime green — comes off as diseased or seared, as if radiated.
The puzzling nature of the blank fields, which abandon every compositional convention, finds some answers in the artist’s biography, which is the subject of “Juanita McNeely: Art and Life Entwined” by Sharyn M. Finnegan — an absorbing essay published in the Fall/WInter 2011 issue of Woman’s Art Journal.
By the time she painted “From the Black Space II,” McNeely had received her second cancer diagnosis; the first came when she was in her first year at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts at Washington University, and her doctors wrongly predicted that she had only three to six months to live. According to Finnegan:
When her doctors recommended she do whatever made her happy, she went back to art school. She survived, but “that was the beginning of what really formed me as someone who spoke about the things that are not necessarily pleasant, on canvas, things that perhaps most people even feel uncomfortable about looking at, much less talking about.” It was the beginning of the bond between her work and her life experiences.
In response to her second bout with the disease, which was “her last and the most difficult to beat,” McNeely decided she had to go through “a process of lightening her life, discarding possessions, dressing in white, simplifying, as if this lighter self could then fly through this illness.”
The blankness of the panels comprising “From the Black Space II” could therefore be seen as part of McNeely’s attempt at simplification, but the imagery is anything but salutary. There is even a naked wild woman wielding a pickax.
While the other figures are less overtly violent, they are no less disturbing: a Grünewald-esque character, whose head is swathed in bandages, grapples with a bright green chair; a piebald woman with a hairless skull and amputated arms prances above a stick-like, unidentifiable object spewing red discharge like an arterial gash. Finnegan doesn’t tell us the type of cancer that afflicted McNeely, or anything about her treatment. But with four out of the five figures being bald (including, it would seem, the one beneath the bandages), it is not too much of a leap to suspect that these images derive from the experience of radiation and chemotherapy.
No other painting in the show approaches the formal austerity of “From the Black Space II,” although a similar spareness is evident in the two colored pencil drawings, both untitled pictures of demonic dogs. There is nothing demonic, however, about her treatment of the figures in the three portraits on display, which are suffused with warmth and humor, even if the humor is a bit on the caustic side, and darkness has a habit of creeping in.
Two of the portraits feature the artist’s friend, a woman named Delores Martinez. In “Delores on the Way to the Fifth Avenue Cinema” (1975), a six-foot-tall canvas in which the subject stands before a wall illuminated by sunlight from an unseen window. (McNeely habitually works big, which became a challenge after she needed to use a wheelchair following a spinal cord injury in 1982.)
The color in this painting is radiant, with an absolutely convincing grasp of the effects of sunlight and shadow. The invisible window is bedecked with shelves full of potted plants, which, in silhouette, enter into a dance of positive and negative quasi-abstract shapes across the pool of light.
Dressed in blue-violet tights with a flared cuff, a crop top with exposed midriff and a long scarf draped over her left arm, Delores inexplicably holds a tiny yellow pail in her left hand. Her face, looking straight at the viewer, is boldly simplified, with her Jheri curls rendered as a jumble of umber and black brushstrokes encircling her head and falling into her eyes.
In the second portrait, “My Friends: Peter and Delores Martinez,” dating from the 1980s, Delores dominates the narrower of the two panels making up this 112-inch-wide diptych. Her outfit is even more flamboyant than the one in the previous painting — a black, caped number with large purple ruffles on the bodice and the hems of her tights. Instead of that inexplicable yellow pail, she holds a cavorting monkey at the end of a purplish, ribbony leash.
In the panel on the left, her husband, Peter, whose head is covered in matching Jheri curls, sits jauntily in a director’s chair, his legs spread wide. They don’t connect as a couple, each seemingly enclosed within a separate world, an estrangement underscored by the way the wall behind them changes color as it transitions from one panel to the next.
But that’s not all that ails them. Behind Delores, as if painted on the wall, there is another skeletal fish as well as a creature resembling one of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz (1939). Behind Peter, a half-human whatzit convulses in what could be a dance of death or a giant sneeze.
If that weren’t enough, on a bright yellow wall at the canvas’s left edge, two greenish, impressionistically painted, definitely menacing-looking fish peer into the room toward Peter. Neither he nor Delores seem the least bit aware of the foreboding visions encroaching on their personal space. You begin to ponder the scads of personal information that must have gone into the making of this picture.
But explanations, it would seem, are for the faint of heart. McNeely provocatively leaves the presence of these monsters, and the role they play in the lives of her friends, as much of a mystery as the fate of the figures in “From the Black Space II,” though she does afford Dolores and Peter a legible, if unstable, environment to pose in.
“Tea at B. Altman’s Palm Room (Mother and Son),” another painting from the 1980s, is a full-blown satire, portraying a pair of indelibly odd New Yorkers who caught the artist’s notice at Altman’s department store cafe. Although this image is somewhat embedded in reality, the pair’s expensive, anachronistic duds, coupled with such surreal touches as an orange stuffed rabbit planted between them, ratchet up the unexplainable factor, but not so far as to distract you from the painting’s shimmering, almost too-sweet color.
The most recent picture on display, “Tagged” (2014), is one of the many images McNeely has made of a nude, lanky woman, often a stand-in for herself, trapped in some kind of uncomfortable, often intolerable situation. In “Tagged,” the woman squats, turning away from the viewer, with what appear to be scraps of paper taped up and down her back. Behind her head, there is a section of white wall smeared with red paint or blood. Once again the image is impenetrable, but its gist, invoking exploitation and degradation, is clear.
The most electrifying piece in the exhibition is “Wild Dogs” from the 2000s (McNeely often prefers not to pin exact dates on her paintings), which depicts a pack of dogs tearing apart the carcass of a deer. It’s tightly composed and intensively worked-through, with an overcast, twilit sky providing a lush, moody counterweight to the unnaturally colored, bloodthirsty canines.
No unpleasantry is spared in the rendering of the carrion, whose viscera are popping out in at least three places. This painting evinces the most friction in the show between form and content. The earthy greens, rich blues and delicate pinks, accented with slashes of red, are sumptuously painted, leading your eye toward everything at once. You may recoil from the imagery at first, but after that initial jolt, all you want to do is look and look.
The complexity and contradiction of “Wild Dogs” perfectly aligns with McNeely’s decision early in her career, as reported by Finnegan, to make “painful images […] more ‘seductive’ on the canvas, with beautiful color and a smoother surface.” The artist is also quoted as needing “to make the ugly and the terrible beautiful for [her]self.”
Restricted in her movements due to her spinal injury, yet insistent on making large, boldly expressive paintings, McNeely forces the issue on “the things that are not necessarily pleasant” by wrapping them in gorgeous color and sensuous brushwork. It’s a trap laid with honey, and we’re caught up in her uneasy, alienated world before we realize where we are. It’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s real.
Juanita McNeely: “From the Black Space II” and Other Paintings continues at Mitchell Algus Gallery (132 Delancey Street, 2nd floor, entrance on Norfolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through February 14.