Perhaps it’s just that I’ve been reading Jane Austen lately, but the young ladies Meghan Borah portrays in her paintings at Goldfinch Gallery might just as well be English ladies of the eighteenth century. Borah’s women may not be desperately waiting for a smart beau, but they all appear quite pale, elegant and sensitive as they try on new clothes, ride horses, swing on tree-hung hammocks or stretch out on the lawn to daydream about motherhood. Seemingly burdened with no responsibilities, they’re engaged in no physical or mental activity beyond just being themselves. There is, however, a melancholic feeling that this idyllic, Arcadian state is as temporary as the materials from which these paintings were made.
The artist works primarily with distemper, a glue-based medium often used in applications like stage scenery where economy and ease of removal is more important than longevity. It also has the advantage of offering a softer, warmer surface which the artist has occasionally contrasted with small areas complicated with a powder of fine glass beads. The rich, tactile quality of the surface and the mood it creates cannot be conveyed by even the highest resolution of photo images. This is one exhibit that has to be seen in person.
The paintings all have a pleasant, dreamlike quality. In one scene, a girl rides naked on the back of a horse. In another, the top of one girl’s head is pressed up between the open, denim-clad thighs of another young lady. But there doesn’t seem to be any sexual energy here, or any other kind of energy, for that matter. These girls are drifting through life like clouds floating across a summer sky.
If an ironic social critique of privileged millennials were intended, it slipped right past this viewer. With pieces hung in odd corners of the gallery, the exhibition is more like an installation than a collection of paintings, and feels like a sincere invitation into the private space of a sophisticated young adult who is developing her identity as a woman. It’s a quiet, meditative, beautiful place to be.
The artist has titled the show “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail,” more as a plaintive wish, it would seem, than a path already being followed. The women she has depicted are too soft to be hammering away. The pictorial technique, somewhere between fabric art and oil painting, has effectively created the poignant ambience of hopeless desire. It does make me long, however, for either the greater sensuality of dyed and woven fabric or the sharper drawing, greater luminosity and pictorial dynamics of an oil painter like Thomas Gainsborough. Back in the eighteenth century, he also depicted an Arcadian, elegant world. The Art Institute has not given him a special exhibit since 1894. Perhaps it’s time he had another. (Chris Miller)
“Meghan Borah: I’d Rather be a Hammer than a Nail” shows through April 27 at Goldfinch, 2319 North Albany.