Clarity Haynes, “Jaece” (2015), oil on linen, 58″ x 66″ (all images courtesy Kniznick Gallery and the artist)

WALTHAM, Mass. — Wander into Clarity Haynes’s exhibition Baba Na Gig at Brandeis University’s Kniznick Gallery, and you’ll find yourself immediately awash in a sea of larger-than-life flesh. The scale, in terms of its proportional relationship to the viewer, almost evokes a nursing experience.

Except none of the breasts here feel as if they are here to feed you.

Instead, they seem here to tell stories, to show pride, to push boundaries about what should be showcased versus hidden, or to just ‘hang out.’

Clarity Haynes, “Michael” (2016), oil on linen, 11″ x 16″

This small grouping of mostly large works spans from 2009 to 2017, but traditional chronology does not apply properly here. Each of these portraits of torsos — which belong to women, trans and gender nonconforming people —feels like a long investigation. Because they are. Drawn (in charcoal) and painted (in oil) from multiple live sittings rather than photographs, they are studies as much as they are biographies. They also live within the context of a larger series called The Breast Portrait Project, which Haynes has been immersed in since the late 1990s.

You need the backstory to get the full “front” story.

Haynes grew up amidst the ephemera of second-wave feminism. A vitrine in the gallery contains a few early versions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and most notably a well-worn, vintage, black-and-white coffee table photo book that was clearly a huge influence on Haynes’s work. The mysterious, unlabeled book features two women’s torsos per page, framed very similarly to her own work: chin- or neck-down nudes that end at the waist.

Also on display are the DIY record books Haynes has kept while working on The Breast Portrait Project. Here, you see the larger process: models sit for Haynes (originally at a women’s festival, “Womongathering,” in Pennsylvania in 1998), and then describe their experience in the book, which features a photo of them and their torso portrait by Haynes. With the backstory in the room, this work becomes invulnerable to the kind of critiques that pornography draws when it frames women’s (and men’s) body parts in ways that disambiguate them from their larger identity.

Selection from Breast Portrait Project

A surprising amount of these people’s personalities is communicated through these torso and breast portraits, immediately challenging the way that porn frames women’s breasts. Even more importantly, these bodies seem comfortable; they are clearly relaxed, regardless of how ‘perfect’ or ‘imperfect’ they are.

Not having a face to look at forces the eye to find hints of identity in a bitten thumbnail, a drawstring waistband, a tattoo, or a piece of jewelry. Scars, nipples, freckles, and wrinkles start to speak to the viewer as if they were character traits, raising larger philosophical questions about how much our bodies and genetics are ‘us.’ For example, how much of a person’s identity is transmitted via a mole or a scar?

Clarity Haynes, “Gwen” (2010), oil on linen, 58″ x 76″

Haynes likens these torsos to landscapes — that is how they feel when she is working on the portraits — and the analogy is apparent when you’re up close to them. Step far enough back, and you’ll experience a bit of pareidolia, breasts and stomachs becoming creature-like faces.

If the show has a weakness, it’s the title. The name, an amalgam of female folkloric figures Baba Yaga (the wise elderwoman of Eastern Europe) and Sheela Na-Gig, (a UK/Irish pagan figure) feels contrived. It’s a bit over complicated, and the allusion to Baba Yaga ends up putting the focus on the aging body rather than on simply how interesting and varied embodiment is. Because ultimately, Baba Na Gig is a celebration of all of the colors and shapes, variations and vulnerabilities, and strengths of people’s cores.

Clarity Haynes: Baba Na Gig continues at the Kniznick Gallery at Brandeis University (415 South St, Waltham, Mass.) through February 16.

Heather Kapplow is a Boston-based conceptual artist. Her work involves exchanges with strangers, wielding talismans, alternative interpretations of existing environments, installation, performance, writing,...