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Judith Linhares, who was born in Los Angeles, has cited two of her early inspirations — the upbeat, self-contained cartoon worlds of Walt Disney, and meeting the artists Wallace Berman and Bruce Conner as a teenager.
In the late 1950s, she moved to the Bay Area, where she studied art and lived for two decades. She began teaching and became active in a lively, anti-establishment art scene and culture that embraced underground comics (R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson) and second wave feminism, and strong women artists such as Joan Brown and Jay DeFeo .
In 1976, Linhares lived for four months in Guanajato, Mexico — which is famous for its museum of 19th-century cadavers, which she told Brooks Adams had “heads that look like pumpkins in the field when they’re collapsed.” During this time, she also became familiar with the art of two strong woman working in a magical realist vein — Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo.
What Carrington and Varo share is a highly detailed evocation of an alternative world with women at the center — busy at arcane activities whose meaning eludes us. They are precursors to Joan Brown whose visionary work is filled with a personal iconography, which, for Linhares, suggested a path she could follow to her own territory, which is exactly what she has done.
In 1978, Marcia Tucker included Linhares in Bad Painting at the New Museum, alongside Joan Brown, Eduardo Carillo, William Copley, Charles Garabedian, Neil Jenney, and others. Two years later, she moved to New York. By this time, she had already entered her personal realm of women and animals — often birds — through a synthesis of the painterly stroke with a narrative sense favoring quirky, open-ended tales.
By 1990, after working many years in gouache, her oil paintings became decidedly open and loose. This I think was the big change that lifted her work into a different, freer place. She was painting wet-into-wet, often beginning with a ground of abstract brushstrokes from which she teased out her offbeat images.
You can see her mastery of this improvisational process in her debut show at PPOW, Judith Linhares: Hearts on Fire (February 14–March 16, 2019), which consists of 17 paintings in an indescribable palette of acid and bile greens, saffron and egg yolk yellows, bubblegum pinks, different shades of plebeian browns, hot reds and dusty violets, and assorted blues and grays.
In terms of subject matter, the paintings can be divided into four distinct groups: still-lifes of daisies and other ordinary flowers; portraits of animals (frog, dog, and tiger); landscapes populated by naked women involved in every kind of activity — carrying buckets, riding a tired horse, drinking, eating chicken legs, or pulling their hair; and one outlier, a green figure with a long Pinocchio nose and a shock of frizzy hair, holding up her skirt. This last painting hints at another group, which I am reluctant to name until I see more examples. Taken together, the paintings are goofy, joyous, strange, funny — and most important of all, stylistically unclassifiable.
In many of the paintings, Linhares seems to have first laid down a ground of stripes. These can be narrow, multicolored, and jarring, or relatively wide and tonal — evoking wallpaper, curtains, an overcast sky, or the sun’s bright rays. Going back into the painting, she often makes additional abstract bands, which, with a change of color, can become a woman’s legs, or, if she uses a similar color, the stripes of a tiger. This is a fairy tale world, and the colors are unreal — the woman astride the tired horse in “Dawn” (2017) is painted in a variety of green hues. Her skin color is echoed by the rocky landscape and the streaked sky, where a green celestial body hovers just above the horizon.
One of the great things about Linhares’s work is that everything in the painting seems straightforward until you look closely and start asking questions. A naked woman carries two buckets. Why is there a plate with three apples on the ground, a few feet away from her? What is a hexagonal log cabin doing behind her? And why are flames rising from behind it? Unlike the cartoonists who influenced her, Linhares doesn’t feel the need to spell it all out, make clear what everything is. Her works follow an internal logic and sense of randomness that far outpaces anything found in cartoons, which tend to adhere to Isaac Newton’s worldview of cause-and-effect.
In “High Desert” (2018) — which is Linhares’s brightly colored riff on Henri Rousseau’s crepuscular “Sleeping Gypsy” (1897) in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the woman is nude and awake, lying on a patterned blanket that reminds me of a stained glass window with leaded rosettes.
A lion stands on the rocks a few feet above her. The sky is a bright Technicolor series of yellow, orange, pink, red, green, and blue stripes, with yellow dominating and echoing the lion’s thick mane. While Rousseau’s painting takes place at night, evoking a dream, Linhares’s painting takes place under a searing yellow, orange, and pink sky — and yet the weather seems not to have the deleterious effect you might imagine.
This is not a dream but a vision — something seen with eyes wide open.
In “Thirst” (2018), Linhares depicts a long-snouted dog with big saucer eyes and its tongue hanging out. In “Frog” (2014), the title amphibian’s yellow eyes are staring up at the sky, while it sits on its haunches in some position of attention that seems very un-frog-like.
Linhares’s animals are visionaries and messengers, though we are unlikely to know what they are seeing or what message they bring unless we are on the same wavelength. In both of these paintings, the sky is a series of soft, abstract brushstrokes.
In the five still-lifes of flowers, all of which are bouquets in what look like inexpensive turquoise green glass or plastic bowls and vases, we see a prominent display of circles and stripes, with a striped background forming a niche for the surface the receptacle sits on.
In “Perfume” (2018), Linhares paints alternating wide and thin bands of tawny paint into a wet brown ground. Her synthesis of the masterful and the casual is one of the many solid pleasures she imbues into her work. Her sense of color is impeccable and odd.
In “Mother II” (2010) — which I think of as an outlier in this show — we see pink brushstrokes of hair shooting straight up from the green head with orange eyes, which, together with the long Pinocchio nose, lend the figure’s demonic grin just the right weird accent, underscored by the streaked, rust brown sky. If this is the mother, you have every right to wonder what the child is like.
Building and extending upon the work of Carrington and Varo, as well as that of her near contemporary, Joan Brown, Linhares has become a pioneer who paved the way for a generation of women artists to develop their own alternative worlds. I am thinking of Amy Cutler, Hilary Harkness, and Dana Schutz, who has acknowledged Linhares’s importance to her work.
Linhares has been the subject of museum shows outside of New York, and it is time for a museum in the city to honor her formidable achievement.
Judith Linhares: Hearts on Fire continues at at PPOW (535 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 16.