The Transverse Review of Books
Dee Shapiro: Readdressing the Nude
Dee Shapiro has been a working artist for five decades. Like other women artists, she has dealt with personal and professional hurdles in her career: obfuscation by an art scene that marginalized women, especially those who, god forbid, had a family and children; becoming a wife and a mother to two children; living outside of New York City, the center of the art world in the post-war era; and most importantly, coming of age in a time where women were still expected to be wives and mothers rather than professional artists. Long before the rediscovery of important figures such as Hilma af Klint, if one was a middle-class housewife and lived outside of New York City, she was often considered a bourgeois hobbyist rather than a serious artist.
Today it is easy to forget the paths that were paved—with great amounts of determination—by second wave feminist artists. In the 1960s and 1970s it was a rare occasion for a woman artist to have a show in a commercial gallery. Even as recently as the 1990s and early 2000s, it was unusual to see a solo exhibition of a contemporary woman’s work in a gallery, let alone a major museum or an art fair. At present, women artists proliferate the contemporary art world ecosystem: from MFA programs to major art fairs, biennials, and the global satellite galleries, women artists are finally fashionable and covetable. It took thousands of years of material cultural production for this to come to fruition, so let’s celebrate this moment. For perhaps the first time in history, the white male artist is not the axis on which the art world is spinning in terms of critical recognition and curatorial consideration. This has the concurrent effect that today’s art broaches new subject matter, often the personal experiences of female artists as well as a critical engagement with the history of art, both popular tropes instituted by second-wave feminist artists.
Dee Shapiro’s new body of work, on view at David Richard Gallery, is indicative of the present state of feminist art. The artist unflinchingly and unapologetically reveals the record of male dominated art history as one that capitalized on idealized female standards of beauty, often through naked models of seductive visual consumption, ciphers of male desire. (Indeed, these paintings were commissioned or purchased by male collectors as few women had the agency or desire to obtain such possessions.) Shapiro’s new series tackles two major topics in this regard: the legacy of western European painting as well as the troubled history of the female nude. Just one of these would be enough to make some artists shudder with hesitation; however, Shapiro confronts both without trepidation as she pushes her audience to reconsider how women’s bodies were objectified, commodified, and rendered anonymous by male artists for centuries.
Shapiro is not the first feminist to question the objectification of female bodies. In the 1970s Sylvia Sleigh, Joan Semmel, and Betty Tompkins, among others including proto-feminist forerunner Alice Neel, sought to reclaim the female body in unforeseen ways. The first and most obvious departure was the female body as unidealized, warts and all, hence a more realistic representation of female experience. Neel’s self-portrait from 1984 is an illustrious example of this: the artist is seen as a nude octogenarian, a far cry from the supple odalisques that viewers expect from the so-called masters. Sleigh and Semmel likewise showed bodies from new points of view—from their own viewpoint, including a perspective of female desire, and at times with sagging or displaced flesh. Tompkins confronted female and male genitalia in larger-than-life scale, a topic previously considered taboo.
Like her colleagues, Shapiro’s unique approach to readdressing the female nude involves representing the body with patterns and even objects to render it less hypersexualized and assigning identity, through the insertion of found imagery, to her subjects. Drawn and Redressed is Shapiro’s third solo exhibition with David Richard Contemporary. Two previous exhibitions showed a range of the artist’s work, from her earlier Fibonaci-based process paintings and pattern obsessed works to her “sexy drawings”, where body parts swirl and float throughout the compositions, appearing in places similarly to botanical specimens. Here the female body is truncated and removed from an integral whole, symbolized by a genital or breast; likewise, sperm are strewn throughout some of the compositions.
Shapiro’s current exhibition focuses on one series—her latest—in which the artist deconstructs and then reconstructs masterpieces of art that feature nude female protagonists. But these aren’t just any masterworks; they are a selection of the world’s most iconic and popular paintings, each of which featuring a nude female figure as central to its composition. From Sandro Botticelli to Francisco de Goya and Paul Cézanne, Shapiro’s new subject matter leaves no pillar of art history untouched as she traverses centuries of art production and patronage. Using a collage-based approach, the artist undermines the objectification of the nude through the insertion of pattern, as derived through her own marks (in paint, pencil ,and pen), textiles, paper, objects, and even wool and pubic hair. The exhibition consists of five large works that are hung directly to the gallery walls, five framed works completed with the same technique, and five small studies in which the artist uses an economy of marks as well as found imagery to reconfigure western masterpieces.
My Goya 2022 is one of the largest works in the exhibition. Shapiro takes Francisco De Goya’s The Naked Maja 1795 – 1800 as the subject and source for her iteration. As anyone who has seen the two Maja paintings in the Museo del Prado in Madrid can attest to, the canvases are paragons of female seduction and palpable lust. The sitter, originally thought to be the Duchess of Alba, was actually Pepita Tudó, the mistress of Manuel Godoy. Godoy was likely the commissioner of the works as they were originally hung over a door in his palace. For two decades in the early 1800s The Naked Maja was sequestered by the Inquisition and only later entered the museum’s collection. Considered a masterpiece of western art, it is a ubiquitous stop on the European grand tour, akin to how most tourists will see the Mona Lisa in The Louvre or the Birth of Venus in the Uffizi. The fact that a nude woman is considered an integral element of the western canon, yet women are still not legally allowed to go shirtless or breastfeed in some parts of the US, is a typical paradox in our puritanical culture. An idealized female form orbiting outside of time is acceptable, but a real woman is too messy and uncontrollable for many Americans.
Shapiro’s Maja is freed from her male captivity and upgraded to full technicolor exuberance through a vivid palette and decorative motifs. As in the other works in this series, Shapiro first draws the basic shapes of the composition. She then randomly pours ink onto the paper (the works are created on heavy white paper as substrate), which helps determine what the artist terms as “a way of breaking through the figure”. One can see the ink in the white, blue and red lines that intersect Maja’s body as well as the background. Shapiro proceeds to fill each section with clashing patterns and colors. She uses a deep cobalt to register the turquoise divan that the original sitter is seen lounging upon in Goya’s paintings. The flesh is also rendered through various patterns, some of which pre-exist as fabric or printed papers, while others are created by the artist’s hand. Small red beads replace Maja’s painted nipples and the artist’s own pubic hair substitutes Goya’s whisp like rendering of her groin. Shapiro uses real lace and hand appliqued sequins to replace the ruffled pillowcases and draped fabric on which Maja is propped in the original oil painting.
Goya’s Maja confronts the viewer with lascivious eyes and rosy cheeks that suggest post-coital satisfaction. In Shapiro’s work the eyes of American screen icon Marilyn Monroe look aside rather than confront the figure, suggesting a reticence to be seen as the ultimate object of desire. Given Monroe’s tragic biography, as well as her instant recognizability, Shapiro presents an alternative image of a female, one revered, commodified and ultimately abused by modern society. My Goya’s non-rectilinear shape is also appropriate when one considers the history of traditional painting, which is based on square, rectangular or circular supports. Shapiro’s large works have uneven borders and are hung directly to the gallery wall, challenging what is typically constituted as “high art”. In the history of material culture tapestries and fabrics were attached directly to walls, and considered ornamental, of a lower grade than fine art. In every aspect of the work, Shapiro subverts and challenges the historical lineage of paintings.
My Dream is another of the large works in the exhibition and is a restaging of Henri Rousseau’s The Dream 1910. Painted just a few months before his death, Rousseau’s canvas was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris in the Spring 1910 and now resides in New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s hallowed collection. Rousseau’s painting is pure fantasy—while he repeatedly painted exotic jungle scenes, the artist never left Paris and learned of flora and fauna through his visit to the city’s Jardin de Plants, which combined a zoo and botanical gardens. While Shapiro is faithful to Rousseau’s composition and elements, the nude is much larger in My Dream, as if the artist has zoomed in, and her colors are more exuberant, lacking the heavier Surreal palette of the French master. She also employs three-dimensional objects, including painted pistachio shells and leaves, to reconstruct various plants in the scene.
As in My Goya, In Shapiro’s My Dream she collages found imagery of the face of the late singer Amy Winehouse and uses braided pieces of black wool to construct her hair. The insertion of an iconic and admittedly tragic contemporary young woman brings Shapiro’s nude into a clearer focus. The tremendously talented Winehouse was also a mainstay of tabloid fodder, almost a cultural obsession in the early 2000s, whose death was as notorious as her life. Winehouse famously sang “no, no, no” to rehab. Shapiro, with this collaged face, gives a personality to the nude figure rather than leaving it an anonymous vestige of a male artist’s gaze. Winehouse’s determined profile lends Shapiro’s work with a much stronger female presence than Rousseau’s nameless figure. It also reads as an homage to the late British singer songwriter.
Shapiro used a similar tactic of inserting iconic contemporary women in other works in this series. For example, Elizabeth Taylor’s face is seen on My Standing Nude, a recreation of Paul Cezanne’s Standing Nude c 1898. The screen icon’s trademark eyes and dark eyebrows are instantly recognizable, a far cry from the morose protagonist in Cézanne’s original. Shapiro in this instance uses patterns in shades of brown and tan to mimic Cézanne’s heavier oil-based palette. Scarlett Johansen’s face is seen in another work, a small study, that features in the exhibition. My Olympia, where only patterns and colors comprise the face of the lounging nude, is indeed the most anonymous in this series.
Aside from the larger works with bold colors and clashing patterns, Shapiro also shows a group of more restrained studies on paper. It is in these modest, pared down works that one can see the seedlings of her larger creations. In these studies,the artist used charcoal to sketch the basic outlines of nude figures, again from iconic artworks. One recognizes these figures from artists including Gustav Klimt, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, or Henri Toulouse Lautrec. Study 1 is a sketch for My Two Sleeping Women, a larger work of Shapiro’s seen in this exhibition. The sketch version is left mostly unadorned by pattern or color, except for the women’s hair and a vase with flowers in the upper left quadrant. In other studies, figures consist of rudimentary sketches. Shapiro’s inclusion of a collaged shell for a knee or a face feels lighthearted and comical in places. The viewer sees how the artist stays close to the original form and then how she subverts the template through the addition of patterns, color, textile and objects. These elements are reminders of how strictly a western art historical tradition stayed close to the academic and classical and then how feminist artists sought to dismantle such traditions, often through the inclusion of new mediums or in this case, new patterns and imagery.
Shapiro, who has always been interested in the processes of weaving and cross-hatching, finds the perfect medium with the fabrics inserted into these works. That weaving and sewing are considered as “women’s work” is central to the artist’s interest. Why are such craft-based techniques considered as “low” rather than “high” art? Why does domestic art production elicit such disdain in the mainstream art world? The use of textiles in second-wave feminist art that has transitioned into big business in the contemporary art world with artists such as Rosemarie Trockel, Louise Bourgeois and **. Indeed, the Pattern and Decoration movement was the place where Shapiro felt most accepted and comfortable as by her own account, she “did not fit into the male dominated art world” at the time. Shapiro, alongside other feminist artists including Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro, is associated with this movement, which was founded on principles that challenged what the white, male dominated history of painting by using elements that were considered too ornamental. The Pattern and Decoration artists looked to the history of ornamentation and pattern through the textiles, architectural features, wallpaper, embroideries, and more from all world cultures for inspiration. Shapiro’s longstanding association with this movement is seen in the flourishing and clashing patterns that occupy these new works.
Drawn and Redressed, while a logical trajectory for a Pattern and Decoration artist, shows a significant departure from the Shapiro’s previous work. While the series was born from an abstract work that unintentionally resembled a torso, Shapiro hopes that viewers will immediately recognize the painting that she is deconstructing. It is as if the artist has defiantly tackled the history of renowned male artists, asking viewers to reconsider the sitters for these works as a significant part of their greatness. This intersubjectivity between artist and model, as well as artist and viewer, is the key to their success. Like other feminist artists who have examined the representation of the female body, Shapiro asks the viewer to look closer at the work, to see the fine details, and to consider the female nude as an evolving icon.
 Women artists have not yet achieved an equal share of the art market, with women artists selling for less than their male colleagues and less women artists represented in the market.
 The artist in discussion with the author, April 16th, 2022.
 Hair has become a poignant topic for the artist, who lost her hair during the COVID19 shut down as a result of hypothyroidism.
 The artist in discussion with the author, April 16th, 2022.
Dee Shapiro: Readdressing the Nude, Battista, Kathy