Juanita McNeely’s works illustrate the life of a woman whose body betrayed her from an early age. In her paintings, currently on view at James Fuentes Gallery, McNeely’s torment is palpable in blinding fluorescent hellscapes; her physical pain pulses vigorously through the twisted limbs of wrung figures, strapped-in and tied down, as crows peck at formless masses.
But these are also portraits of a woman whose body sustained her. McNeely’s strength pours in from the glimpses of blue and yellow that punctuate her figurations like skylights. Her resilience cuts through the misery with beauty and even humor: an absurdly enlarged organ; a buckled horse with an awkward gallop.
Organized in collaboration with Mitchell Algus, Juanita McNeely presents two massive, multi-panel works that bridge nearly two decades of the artist’s life. “Is It Real? Yes, It Is!” (1969) chronicles McNeely’s nightmarish experience with abortion, before Roe v. Wade decriminalized the procedure. (McNeely discovered she was pregnant while at the hospital for a tumor that required surgery, which made doctors reluctant to treat her.) She rendered bodies wrangled, bound, and confined in coarse black outlines.
The 13-panel work “Triskaidekaptych” (1986) was painted nearly 20 years later, after McNeely suffered a fall that damaged her spinal cord. She shed her heavy outlining in favor of a diverse range of approaches. Meticulous networks of line and form coexist with spasmodic explosions of color. While some images are direct, clear, and explicit — a close-up of a roaring gorilla — others are geometricized and fragmented, jumbling our sense of figure and ground and conveying an unsteady vertigo.
The episodes McNeely paints are harrowing, but her work also makes me think of the routine moments of discomfort women experience every day. It takes me back to my feet in cold stirrups, legs sprawled, as I’m told there isn’t enough research on chronic fatigue syndrome yet — one of the many conditions that likely remain enigmatic because they disproportionately affect women.
Looking at McNeely’s work through the lens of pain is almost inevitable — physical suffering literally constitutes her subject matter. But it was a feat of strength for McNeely to paint some of these canvases at all, as doctors insisted she would never work at such a scale again. These two women — the one who agonizes and the one who persists — are one and the same, and they create a rare tension that makes for thrilling painting.
Juanita McNeely continues through March 1 at James Fuentes (55 Delancey Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan)