The F-Word in Art

On New Paintings by Kimberly Brooks at Taylor De Cordoba, March 3-April 7

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"Hot Faucet" by Kimberly Brooks
Oil on canvas, 18 x 18 inches
Courtesy Taylor De Cordoba, Los Angeles

With Nancy Pelosi having taken her historic position at the rostrum and Hillary Clinton hitting the presidential campaign trail, we have undoubtedly entered a new era of feminism. The F-word is once again being bandied about, as is that perennial question, "Can we have it all?" And it is thus no surprise to find that in her latest series, "Mom's Friends," the artist Kimberly Brooks adds a new voice to the debate. In making her starting point her childhood in Marin County in the 1970s, Brooks concentrates on women who are, according to her, "endlessly fascinating and mysterious . . . particularly because they were in such a state of transition." While Brooks explores the theme of womanhood through the imagery of female liberation some thirty years ago, she is also able to investigate to the complex relationship between reality, memory and representation.

The "woman question" has been continually up for discussion since the inception of modern feminism in the late 1960s. As universal as this topic is Brooks was specifically inspired by her role as the mother of a young daughter, saying in her artist statement: "Now that I am a mother with a daughter of my own, I see the way she studies me and my friends, how she imitates the way I walk and talk or wants to traipse in my heels". Recalling how she used to do the same, Brooks turned to her own mother for inspiration, using photographs from the 1970s of her mother and her mother's friends (actual, and recreated with friends in vintage clothing) as the basis for her work. By presenting women who migrated to California from the Midwest and East Coast and consequently "melted their inhibitions, heated up their styles and . . . shed previous notions of themselves," Brooks's paintings fix us at a significant time and place vis-à-vis the role of women. Indeed, beginning in the 1970s many of the women of that generation sought, for the first time, to forge their identities apart from their husbands and families. And it is this feature--their newfound autonomy--that Brooks presents, and inevitably positions, against the current state of feminism in her work.

The explicit connection between the paintings and decades old photographs adds a provocative dimension to this conversation between past and present. It is as though we've seen the pictures before. In that way, the paintings are not unlike those by Eric Fischl or Elizabeth Peyton. Like these two painters, Brooks creates an aesthetic of memory through the familiar, carefully framed, high contrast visions found in a photo album. In so doing, she demands that we consider both the subject of the picture and the memory of the subject itself.

In The Sophia Loren of Mill Valley, for example, the limited palette of the sun-soaked, feather-haired women is applied in severe contrast, this a result of basing the work on a black and white photograph. Moreover, the extreme tonal range in this essentially monochromatic painting resembles the dramatic, cinematic lighting utilized by another of Brooks's contemporaries, Mark Tansey. While his large, single-toned illustrative canvases relay the complex relationship between reality and the painted surface, Brooks's re-presentations inevitably recall the same fraught connection. Although not her primary concern, Brooks notes that "sometimes a memory can be indistinguishable from the image of a photo, as if the photograph suffices in our minds, like an emotional Cliff Note." The memory of a real event is deeply imbricate with its representation.

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"The Sophia Loren of Mill Valley"
Oil on wood, 30 x 30 inches
Courtesy Taylor De Cordoba Gallery, Los Angeles

Despite these associations, for Brooks it is the subject that generates the most meaning for her: the frozen figures, with confident bodies and smiles thrust up to the picture plane, appear to present their newfound freedom. Yet it is the pictures' relationship, once again, to photography that complicates these ostensibly straightforward images. That is, although the gazes of the female figures in Brooks's paintings are direct, they are not entirely convincing in their self-assurance. Their stance, likewise, remains noticeably self-conscious. Whether this insecurity is a convention of the pose or an uneasy reflection of a newly created identity is up for us to decide. In either case, the figures subtly caution on the struggles that come with freedom. And the look--as if they know they are being watched--returns us to Brooks's earlier explorations of women as object. Even in their freest context, women cannot avoid but being both subject and object at once.

This connection is made even more apparent in Brooks's striking gouaches and ink washes, for it is in these intimate, jewel-toned works on paper where the artist is most successful in exploring the object/subject divide. Here, though, the pictures are not solely reserved for representations of women, although the strongest of the series remain those with all-female casts such as Hot Faucet: Study and Mom's Friends: Study. These exquisitely executed paintings heighten the contrast and intensify the tonal range seen in the oils, and along with their size and medium, are linked most directly to the photographs upon which they are based. They can be handled, too, as photos, and some of the sheets, such as Red Stroller and Thank God We Left Michigan have multiple vignettes that resemble actual album pages. Although some of the images are more snapshot-like in their composition, losing heads and limbs to the edges of the picture, others maintain the rigidity of the oils. In any case, these links between the work and its visual referent lead us beyond the subject as object and demand a consideration of the work itself in relation to its objecthood. The physical nature and technical makeup of these works on paper transforms them from subject to object themselves.

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"Red Stroller"
Ink & Gouache on Paper 9 x 12 inches
Courtesy Taylor De Cordoba, Los Angeles

In addition to these artistic concerns, Brooks's paintings are at their core an inquiry into the very meaning of womanhood. By juxtaposing "mom" with "friend," in both word and image we are forced to consider the traditional role of women alongside the sisterhood--a support group beyond the family unit--that grew out of liberation. Here lies the fundamental struggle for women in this post-feminist age. That is, for better or worse, the notion of complete freedom from an established, and frankly biological, gender role is inevitably qualified. No matter how "liberated," Brooks's smiling, posing, women are in one way or another defined by their role as mother.

In the end, Brooks addresses the myriad ways that women are in society today. She provides a thoughtful re-assessment of "Can we have it all?," reframing it to the more apposite "Do we have it all, yet?" One of the last pieces to be created for the series is a picture of five little girls, of which the artist is one, entitled Filmmaker, Lawyer, Artist, Business Owner, Doctor. In it, Brooks describes what these girls went on to become, marking the journey that their mothers' generation began. The title of this final work could just as easily have included "Madame Speaker." Throughout her explorations of reality and representation, Brooks remains equally interested in the freedoms that the modern era has unequivocally afforded. In this new body of work, Brooks has answered the question that her paintings, at least, can have it all.