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SAN FRANCISCO — Growing up, Maggs Dao loved anime, cartoons, and creating characters online. They would go on doll-maker sites and make different ones, selecting from a variety of options, such as pink hair and cat ears.
“I was using this composite approach to scramble hyper-feminine signifiers and express my own gender fluidity,” Dao said. “I was looking for boundless ways to be expressive against restrictive convention and using colors I found appealing.”
Dao, who was wearing a pink sweater with a picture of a white rabbit (a rabbit is her avatar when playing games online), was teaching a class on “Anatomy and Nudes” as part of the exhibition The Feminist School of Painting at the nonprofit art organization KADIST in San Francisco. The school has a small library and murals on the walls in pink, turquoise, and brown. The large table had papers with anime scenes and crayons to color them in with. On seven Saturday afternoons in October and November, the school, a project of Argentinian, Buenos Aires-based artist Ad Minoliti, has offered free classes in traditional subjects including still life, portraiture, and landscapes. But the approach is not traditional. In this class, for example, Minoliti and Dao wanted to challenge traditional ideals of beauty by emphasizing different types of bodies, as well as creating identities through collage and avatars.
Minoliti showed the 25 or so people gathered around a table the artworks often shown in high school anatomy classes, such as Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Then they showed Chicago artist Harmonia Rosales’s 2017 version of the painting, “The Creation of God,” with Black women replacing God and Adam — and all the white figures in the background. Rosales has reimagined other famous works, including Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Vitruvian Man,” saying she hopes to change how people see the world.
“Imagine our universe if this were art history,” Minoliti said.
Minoliti, who also hopes artists will rethink who they’re representing in painting, cited Rosales: “White figures are a staple in classic art featured in major museums. They are the ‘masters’ of the masterpieces. Why should that continue?”
Minoliti screened the video “Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture,” where performance artist and bodybuilding trainer Heather Cassils, lifted heavy weights, changed their diet, and took steroids for 23 days, documenting their body as they added more than 23 pounds of muscle.
Diversity in images is important, Dao said, and they’re grateful they had diverse models to paint when they were getting their BA at UC Berkeley. At the end of the class, they asked the students to use the watercolors, brushes, and paper to craft their own avatars.
Kat Kosenko, a user experience researcher who lives in San Francisco, wasn’t sure what she would paint — she planned to just start and see what came to her. Photographer Courtney Trouble used green paint to make a picture of a belly — she said she had recently gone to the emergency room with gastritis. Trouble is friends with Dao, who is creating the Queer Porn Coloring Book, to be published early next year, based on Trouble’s photos.
Trouble says she and Dao talk a lot about avatars and the possibilities they open up for creating identities. “For queer people, there’s this freedom of expression,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to experiment with identity and with gender.”
Julie Marie, a painting student at CCA, heard about the class from Minoliti when she came to the school to invite students to participate. Marie took her up on it and helped paint one of the murals on the wall: a hand with green nail polish.
Marie painted a fish with legs as her avatar, since she thinks she was a mermaid in another life. “I don’t work digitally at all,” she said. “I found it interesting to think about what a painting can look like with non-binary and non-gendered subjects.”
Minoliti sees The Feminist School of Painting as a space for artists and non-artists alike. With the big tables and crayons, they wanted to create an atmosphere of a kindergarten and to welcome all ages. For them, the whole project is an experiment.
“This is a speculation of what kind of school I would like and what kind of approach is necessary to rethink painting,” they said. “Anything can be feminist if you rethink it from a different perspective.”
The Feminist School of Painting continues at KADIST (3295 20th St, San Francisco) through December 15. The workshops continue through November 17.