With the exhibition “Let Virtue Be Your Guide” and a forthcoming monograph of the same title, Frances F. Denny explores the multilayered nature of female selfhood and identity one family photograph at a time.
Denny comes from a long line of WASPs—high-status, influential White Americans of English Protestant ancestry. Tracing her lineage to the early settlers of New England who came to America on the Mayflower, the artist looks deeply into her family legacy in an effort to understand its values and traditions.
Adopting a documentary approach, she turns her lens on the women in her own New England family. By photographing women in domestic settings—private residences held in the family for generations—she juxtaposes portraits and interiors of homes, finding herself in the intersections of womanhood, domestic space and cultural elite. But below the surface of a family history of virtue, there’s leftover cake lying around on the kitchen counter, mismatched china and ugly stains on the carpet. A iconography of imperfect femininity starts to unravel: Denny zooms in on old stained linens, worn-out furniture and housewives on the verge of nervous breakdowns, all within the luxurious homes covered in wall-to-wall floral patterns and oil portraits that hang on the walls, alluding to a heritage of class and morals—some kind of virtue.
Redefining notions of femininity, self-identity and family culture, Denny walks the line between history and contemporaneity. What was considered virtue then? What were the factors that shape it and in what ways is it represented today? Examining a word traditionally connected to female virginity and morality, the show explores the aesthetics of virtue passed down—and transformed— from one generation of women to the next. (Vasia Rigou)
Through May 31 at Schneider Gallery, 770 North LaSalle