These small, dark, unattractive paintings need some getting used to. The pleasures of line, tone, texture and color—either rough or polished, tight or loose—don’t jump out at you. The pieces seem to move toward pictorial power, but it remains some way away. There are occasional flashes of elegance, but like lightning before a storm, they vanish into the humid darkness. This is a personal, unpretentious body of work, created by someone fascinated by European pictorialism and wanting to make it her own, with the single-minded purpose and sensual denial of an anchorite in the desert.
Nine of the nineteen pieces on view are nude life studies of young women, plus two more in bathing suits. Apparently this subject is as important to the artist as it has been to so many male artists in European art history. In contrast to that patriarchal tradition, however, they are neither sensual nor heroic. The sketchy contortions of the faces usually do not allow for interaction with the viewer. They appear to be doing nothing more than model at an art school, and as most models do, they’ve withdrawn into their own private worlds.
Three solitary male figures are also portrayed, none of them nude, and all of them boyish, as they enjoy themselves dancing, eating or slicing a birthday cake. By contrast with the female nudity on display, they establish a conventional distinction between the genders which the artist neither celebrates nor challenges. It’s just the depressing reality of the world in which she lives. Another reality is that she perseveres—as expressed by the open, resolute stare in her brisk, angular self portrait.
Her consolation appears to be painting the world as she feels it, a world that includes European paintings that were likely studied as reproductions in art books. Three such images have inspired similar-sized paintings of her own. The basic layout is recognizable, while everything else belongs to her. Chardin’s rabbit is still hanging by its hind legs, but the naturalistic drawing of those legs is gone. All that matters is that the poor creature is dead and ready to be gutted and skinned. The Virgin Mary is still lamenting over the dead Christ, but the emphasis is now on her personal grief rather than devotion to divine will. The stately power of the medieval Pietà de Villeneuve-lès-Avignon is no longer required. Cezanne’s resting bathers are still scattered about a landscape, but it’s more about their rambunctious young bodies than an unusual spatial arrangement of compositional elements.
Most of these pieces might well be overlooked if hung near more cheerful or eloquent examples of the European tradition. But grouped by themselves they tell about a passion for paint, pictorial space and one person’s determination to honestly express her creative, solitary life. (Chris Miller)
“Janice Nowinski: Bodies of Paint,” Riverside Arts Center, 32 East Quincy, Riverside, Illinois, through October 12.