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Recently, when I was in Chicago, a friend told me that Judy Ledgerwood’s paintings had gotten even more “vulgar.” I was not surprised since I had reviewed Pussy Poppin’ Power, her 2016 New York show at the now shuttered Tracy Williams. My friend was referring to the paintings that he had seen a few days earlier in the exhibition Judy Ledgerwood: Far From the Tree at Rhona Hoffman Gallery (April 6 – May 19, 2018), which inaugurated the gallery’s new space. Being a longtime fan of Ledgerwood’s work, I soon went to see what she was up to, and was not disappointed.
Ledgerwood belongs to the generation of artists born between the mid- and late-1950s, who had to address the widespread view that everything had been done in painting and that there was nowhere else to go. Instead of embracing this commonplace paradigm, she stood Pattern and Decoration painting (or P& D) on its head and gave it a good shake. Along with bringing its feminist underpinnings to the foreground, Ledgerwood undid P&D’s insistence on order through repetition. The reason for undoing this emphasis is one of the underlying motivations of her work: she wants to move the ornamental from background to center stage in a very different way from her forebears. For one, she wants to make female sexuality the center of our attention.
Ledgerwood’s vocabulary includes hand-painted quatrefoils, interlocking triangles, diamond-patterned grids, thickly painted labial shapes, and metallic paint. Compositionally, she often employs irregular rectangles — a surrogate for a piece of embroidered cloth or quilt — painted on an immaculate white ground, with a wide border between the rectangle’s pliable and uneven edges and canvas’s rigid physical borders. Rivulets of watery paint drip down from the painted rectangle’s bottom edge. Many of her circular forms are discs made of thick paint. Her paintings evoke fecundity and ripeness — they literally and figuratively brim over.
Ledgerwood’s drips, thickly ridged lines of paint, intense colors (magenta, pinks, and hot reds), and overt delineations of what can only be called feminine shapes add up to a frank celebration of female sexuality. And yet, even as I state this, I have to consider whether I am toning down what Ledgerwood does. What my friend affectionately called her “vulgarity” is what singles her out. I am thinking specifically of the paintings “Yoni” (2017) and “Sheela” (2018). In both, the artist draws a diamond in thick paint, with each of its four points touching one of the painting’s four edges.
In “Sheela,” Ledgerwood draws the diamond’s thick line over a ground that has been divided into four rectangles. Each line of the diamond is a different color (purple, two variations of dark green, and reddish brown), while each rectangle is defined by washes of color adding up to an overall, spring-like atmosphere: orange, grass green, turquoise green, and rose madder. It is likely that Ledgerwood knows that the colors can be read symbolically, since green jade green is considered to be healing stone, and rose quartz opens the heart.
In the middle of the diamond, the artist has made a smaller, concentric diamond consisting of six rows of colored lines laid next to each other. The smaller diamond is encased in a vertical, double-pointed oval painted in a ghostly green wash. Ledgerwood’s use of softly glowing washes and thick lines of paint reminds us that sight and touch are basic to our apprehension of the world, as well as to any erotic experience we might enjoy. “Sheela” is an abstract version of a vulva. By emphasizing both the visual and the tactile, she imbues a stylized symbol with a physical presence; the ridges of paint register the labia’s physically sensitive existence in the world. Ledgerwood’s frankness is refreshing.
“Yoni,” a Sanskrit word, conflates vagina and sacred space. Visually, it is often represented as a diamond-like aperture. In her painting “Yoni,” Ledgerwood uses oil and metallic paint to make a yellow and fuchsia rectangle on the painting’s bright white ground. The rectangle stretches from the painting’s left to right edge, while the white ground is visible across the top and bottom edges.
Ledgerwood’s works are both painted surfaces and things. She has overlaid the ground with a diamond of thickly painted, concentric lines that ripple out to the painting’s edges from a central, open diamond. Inside the open diamond, whose ground is horizontally divided between fuchsia below and orange above, the artist has drawn a double-pointed oval in metallic gold paint. The surface of the oval is crusty and dripping. Meanwhile, the concentric lines are done in yellows, magentas, fuchsias, reds, pinks, and turquoise blues. Often, the concentric lines are painted in clusters of two or three ridges of color. In the yellow ground between these clusters, Ledgerwood paints orange, fuchsia, and dark yellow daubs, as well as dripping splashes of metallic gold. Rivulets of pink and yellow are dripping down from the rectangle of paint.
Ledgerwood uses paint in a direct and even crude manner. She does not try to finesse the lines of thick paint, nor does she try to make the wafer-thick discs of paint perfect. None of the paintings feel as if they have been extensively revised or reworked. A delicious tension animates the combination of decorous pattern and thick, dripping paint. It seems to me that the internal conversation we witness in her paintings is between unbridled desire and well-mannered structure, with neither quite dominating the other. Ledgerwood’s indecorousness injects P&D with a fresh life. In paintings such as the optically pulsing red and blue “Eyeopener” (2018), I sense Ledgerwood’s push to expand her possibilities, and to bring other visual possibilities into play.
Like many of the P&D painters that preceded her, Ledgerwood could have settled into a mode of production that didn’t challenge the view. Luckily for us, this is not the case. The paintings are sexy, bold, outlandish, funny, and most all, in your face.
Judy Ledgerwood: Far From the Tree continues at Rhona Hoffman Gallery (1711 West Chicago Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through May 19.