Vaginal Davis, “Miyoshi Umeki” (2017), watercolor paper, nail varnish, glycerin, witch hazel, mascara, eyebrow pencil, Jean Nate perfume, Afro, Sheen hair conditioner, hair spray, pomade, 5.125 x 3.375 inches (all images courtesy Invisible-Exports)

Chimera was first used by the ancient Greeks to describe a mythological, multi-headed, fire-breathing monster. In modern genetics, a chimera exists when a single organism is composed of cells from different zygotes, often resulting in a living thing with both male and female sex organs. Something illusory, that which we can never quite grasp, is commonly referred to as a chimera.

Vaginal Davis, the intersex icon who revolutionized drag in the 1970s and has a longstanding visual arts practice, might have a take on all these themes in the current show Chimera, at Invisible-Exports. The exhibition features 20 small paintings, each no larger than an index card, completed entirely out of potions and elixirs strongly associated with womanhood and femininity: make up, nail polish, perfume, and hair products. Davis’s performance has skewed to the bold and audacious; by contrast, these little paintings are ethereal and introspective. The delicate contours of the works, their sensual compositions, display a sincere reverence for the ritual of applying makeup. Each one takes as its subject a bygone female film or television star — most of them women of color — and rendered an interpretation of their essence, rather than any sort of concrete likeness, in beauty products. They seem so personal that it is as if Davis has captured in them the traces of the emotions each star has evoked in her.

“Miyoshi Umeki” (2017), named for one of only three Asian actors — and the only Asian woman — ever to win an Oscar, depicts a grayish-white form, long and straight, with undertones of pale pink and eggshell blue. Like the other paintings, there are no articulated faces or other bodily features, yet the form assuredly indicates a body. A suggestion of hands seems to be clasped at the waist. Downward streaks of the blue coloring (likely nail polish) run along each side of the figure, as if it were exuding an aura. In “Pearl Bailey” (2017), the vaudeville, stage, and television actress is portrayed as an undulating shape, the curves so nearly palpable one longs to trace them with gentle fingers. This time veins of lavender accentuate the silhouette, adding buoyancy and lightness to the work.

Vaginal Davis, “Pearl Bailey” (2017), watercolor paper, nail varnish, glycerin, witch hazel, mascara, eyebrow pencil, Jean Nate perfume, Afro Sheen hair conditioner, hair spray, pomade, 3.75 x 2.5 inches

Louise Nevelson might at first seem an unlikely fit with these gossamer paintings, but her lone work on view, “Colonne II” (1959), anchors the exhibition. The black wooden spire commands the center of the gallery, an authoritative presence that drinks light from the room as if it were a giant straw.

Installation view, Chimera

Davis’s paintings quiver around the sculpture like ghosts around a maypole, or a totem whom they venerate. The effect works: taken as a whole the exhibition distinctly shows two artists whose works are conversant. Nevelson, the mid-century sculptor whose commitment to making austere wooden objects both stumped art world observers of her day and solidified her reputation as a pioneering and renegade female artist, was famous for her daring sartorial choices and makeup, and her dramatic application of false eyelashes. Had Nevelson been an actress, Davis might have painted her.

Chimera continues at Invisible-Exports (89 Eldridge Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 22, 2017.

Jessica Holmes, the former longtime Deputy Director of the Calder Foundation, writes regularly for and the Brooklyn Rail. Her work has also been included in The Magazine Antiques, Vanity...