Art

Angela Dufresne Queers the Portraiture Tradition

The Brooklyn-based painter’s intimate portraits of her mostly queer artist friends play with gender fluidity, sexual ambiguity, and a collaborative creative process.

Angela Dufresne, “Dean Moss” (2017), oil on canvas, 5 x 7 feet (All images courtesy of the artist and Yossi Milo Gallery)

Since growing up in Olathe, Kansas, 50-year-old painter Angela Dufresne has eschewed realism. “I’ve always been drawing grotesque figures and monsters,” she said in an interview. “As a child, that’s all I ever drew. I was not trying to imagine a transgender body, per se, but a post-human body, one that’s not limited by its own parameters or its own identity or gender type.”

Today, the Brooklyn-based artist is known for tableaux vivants that mash up eroticism and mythological creatures. The 33 portraits featured in Just My Type: Angela Dufresne, on view at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz, further embody this hybridity, playing with gender fluidity, sexual ambiguity, and myriad contradictions within type.

These intimate, large-scale oil-on-canvas portraits depict Dufresne’s loved ones, including her partner and her community of mostly queer artist friends. While she references the Western art canon, with nods to Velazquez, Goya, and Gainsborough, Dufresne shakes up portraiture tradition and upends the conventional artist-subject power dynamic by working in collaboration with her subjects. She asks her sitters to provide prompts, dictate their backdrop, and determine when the work is finished. She regards painting as a co-creative process.

Angela Dufresne, “Danica Phelps” (2008), oil on canvas, 34 x 50 inches

Some of the sitters’ requests are highly specific. Artist, filmmaker, and writer William E. Jones wished to appear as John the Baptist, beheaded. With an open mouth and a direct gaze, the bearded Jones appears to be talking and thinking while raw flesh trails from his severed neck, offset by a lime green background. He is both alive and dead, a person and an object.

As Israeli scholar Sara Cohen Shabot writes in her essay on the grotesque and cyborgs, grotesque bodies “are not clean, closed, well-defined, clear-cut beautiful bodies striving for symmetry and order. Rather, the grotesque body is a body that defies clear definitions and borders and that occupies the middle ground between life and death, between subject and object, between one and many.”

Danica Phelps, known for her pencil drawings, sits in a burgundy armchair, near a lamp resembling a jumping blue marlin. Her chest recalls an open portal into vegetal life. In lieu of human lungs, we see sunlit trees that branch like arteries.

Angela Dufresne, “Brian Tolle” (2017), oil on canvas, 48 x 70 inches

Artist Sheila Pepe wished to be depicted as a gigolo with the charged red backdrop from Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits. Wearing black pants and suspenders, a button-down red shirt, and a fedora, she assumes a performative masculinized stance, gazing at the viewer with one hand fingering her belt loop. With her other hand, Pepe props herself up against a ledge with an awkwardness that counterbalances her machismo. The subtle combination of power and vulnerability dramatizes her gender fluidity.

Dufresne’s portrait of artist Geoffrey Chadsey, shown in his red-infused studio, is a Dionysian version of Bronzino’s “Portrait of a Young Man” (c. 1530). The two subjects strike nearly identical poses, with one hand on a turned hip.   Unlike Bronzino’s youth bound in a satin doublet, though, Chadsey exudes sexual vitality: he holds a beer instead of a half-open book and wears a bulky black parka that hangs open from his strapping shoulders. Four paintings within the painting depict unabashed sensual revelry: a child fucking a goat while a smiling grown-up watches; a satyr fondling a woman; a masked man thrusting his phallus forward; and a Jesus-like degenerate holding a cup as if proposing a lascivious toast. These are miniatures of Dufresne’s own anti-puritanical works, set into Chadsey’s studio, which adjoins hers.

Angela Dufresne, “Nicola Tyson” (2017), oil on canvas, 6 x 6 feet

Meanwhile, the portrait of genderqueer artist Kerry Downey — who boyishly jostles on a swivel stool, with one foot running out of the picture, their cool yellow sweatshirt almost bleeding into a rich yellow background — exudes the hope, love, generosity, and youthfulness of Dufresne’s community.

Two wonderfully loopy videos of Dufresne playing multiple versions of herself underscore the complexity of identity. In various stages of undress, the artist engages in repetitive, rhythmic gestures, such as banging a stick on a tire or clinking a fork on a glass, to accompany other selves who sing and play guitar.

“I will try to be who I am, in my body with the tools that I have,” Dufresne said. “Can I be a middle-aged lesbian, chubby and spanking my ass in the bathroom? Hell, yes, I can.”

Angela Dufresne, “Torkwase Dyson” (2017), oil on canvas, 84 x 55 inches

Just My Type: Angela Dufresne, co-curated by Melissa Ragona and Anastasia James, continues at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, at the State University of New York at New Paltz (1 Hawk Drive, New Paltz, NY) through July 10. 

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