We are only beginning to understand what a female self-portrait looks like. Most qualities that define a person as female are neither pretty nor sweet, yet the past x-thousand years of male painting have spawned docile Sleeping Beauties, ripe for the raping. Though a handful of female avant-gardists have long told a more complete story, we are still, unfortunately, the gentler sex.
Given all that, I wonder whether Lily Ludlow's work at CANADA Gallery is all woman. Her series of thirteen paintings in “Ten for Aidas” depict huddled and twisted nudes, heads often resting on each other, curled up in each other’s rounded, chalky limbs. The art deco style, industrial design forms, and pastel colors recall at once the voluptuous drapings of O'Keeffe and Gorky's early, muted figures; their aesthetic of antique modernism dates them anytime between 1910 and 1940. This is a really girly style, and the reasons for its frequent use are at first unclear. Either the 1920s was the authoritative decade for female expression, or this combination of palette and shape is an intuitive language for many female painters.
Ludlow's sculptures provide a little more contention. Upon entering the second room, one is confronted with a full-length, neck-down dress form, displayed off a vertical pole in the back corner. Aided by the exposed stone floors and the 19th-century look of the contraption from which she hangs, the mannequin appears to be a victim of the gallery. She embodies painting; she is draped with a primed canvas that loosely forms a shirt, which neither fits her body nor covers her pubic area.
Directly across from the dress form sits an empty chair, whose dark-stained legs and hourglass back immediately evoke parts of a woman's body. The marshmallowy seat is painted in feathery pale beige and light turquoise. Considering the dialogue between the chair and the canvas-clothed woman, and its placement in the cavernous, stone-floored back room, Ludlow seems to be asking: “what do we do to a chair?”
The paintings start to make a lot more sense as the furniture-painting relationships become clear. Female bodies are nestled in groups, sometimes pale forms against dark landscapes, but more often curved together inside light, rectangular frames. Pared-down legs, feet, backs, necks, and faceless heads are smoothly jammed into preformed, furniture-like packages. Like designs for constructions, the hand and the pencil lines are sketchy, but the forms smooth and confident. Paint, often in the exact hue of the dark chair, is frequently chipped or worn away, as it would be on an antique stain; on other legs, thighs, and breasts, the paint is smooth and velvety, like the cushion.
The press release, though, completely undercuts any chance of a clear connection between painting and sculpture, which would greatly strengthen Ludlow’s work. I'm a fan of ambiguity – not everything should have an answer – but according to the text, these are less battered women and more shameless nostalgia. If, as the press release claims, these are, indeed, “Pocahontas in a ray of light doing it,” then I'm skeptical. These are not the women of O'Keefe, Kahlo, Benglis, Schneeman: these are a gentler, idealized version, akin to a baby Venus on the halfshell. Why can't we see Pocahontas in a ray of light fucking? The paintings are beautiful; I'm just not sure that womanhood is a chalky pastel.