Home > Shellie Lewis' Art, Uncategorized, Visual Culture > The Ongoing War For The Content of My Mind

The Ongoing War For The Content of My Mind

June 17, 2011

Many elements went into the creation of my newest triptych, which is primarily me pushing back against the greater culture and hoping to insert my own influence regarding the portrayal of women.  I hope for these works to have some effect on the long term creation of culture, or at least inspire dialogue.  These paintings were ten years in the making. 

Some time prior to 2001, I made a painting I had titled Blue Sky Woman; it was on 24” x 36” canvas in acrylics with a gold metallic sun disc.  I was more into symbolism then and had strong feeling from a sunny, warm, breezy day where a lot of puffy cumulus clouds were moving over wide open flat fields.  For me, the painting was inspired by the feeling of joy on a day with great weather.  I had hung Blue Sky Woman in my arts & crafts store and many women commented on it, how much they loved it, loved how she was beautiful but not perfect.  The painting caused happiness, empathy and relief in the women who praised it.  They related to a body portrayed in clouds because of its shape.  Honestly, I didn’t get any derogatory comments on the work in the nearly two years this painting was on display.

I should have pursued the resonance the women had with the figure in the painting, but I was muddling around with styles of painting and content.  I was also discouraged that it took a many years to sell this particular painting, despite all of the praise it reaped.  Also, when you run an arts & crafts store, you have rent and bills to pay.  The abstractions of intellectualism and philosophy were not paying my electricity bill.  Back then, I was hoping more to come up with a kind of painting that I liked to make and people liked buy.

Fast forward to May 2010 and I have graduated private art skool.  I did not learn a damn thing about how to paint or about finding my own style -no one was teaching anything remotely like that- but the endless debates on what to paint and why were valuable.  The strongest condemnations in classes were heaped upon decorative works rather than poorly executed ones.  The ongoing message was that you-the-artist had better be doing something important and not wasting other people’s time.

Now if anything is true about private art skool, it is that you are not going to get through it to the point of earning a degree without seeing at least some of your classmates get naked.  The pressure to do something important leads to impulses to push the envelope on edgy work, to try and formulate shock art… except that nudity of one’s generally young, early twenty-something classmates has arrived at a certain degree of predictability, and thus lacks shock value.  Really, it can be a bit uncomfortable for some people to view, but I wondered what these kids had to worry about in their prime?  No one whose physique was outside of mainstream aesthetics went in for using their own nudity in art; especially with ours being a culture that overwhelmingly rewards people for looking as young and thin as possible. Thus, the young and thin were stripping.  In America, severe anorectics are complimented on their appearance right up to the point they are admitted to in-hospital psychiatric care for forced feeding.

In private art skool, I tried to show two extremes of what a “model” was with two large graphite drawings from actual photographs of models I had found online.  This was for a drawing class assignment to make a diptych.  The 19th Century artist’s model was voluptuous and heavy.  The 20th Century fashion model was severely skeletal.  I hung them side by side in class.  People fussed about the lack of background, how the works were stark.  One suggestion was to shade the background, even if it was just a solid medium gray, maybe an ink wash.  I liked that the drawings made people uncomfortable; uncomfortable is better than no response or rapid dismissal.  I also like tension in art: polarizing opposites is an easy way to achieve tension.  I did not want to soften or detract the impact of the large drawings I had made [of actual people] and left the backgrounds alone.  Also, it was odd how the surfaces the models were on reflected their bodies: a table top versus fluffy cushions.  Overall, I knew I had hit upon something: showing human forms that were outside of the advertising / mass media mainstream.

The Model: 20th Century by Shellie Lewis, graphic on Rives BFK paper

The Model: 19th Century by Shellie Lewis, graphic on Rives BFK paper

This year, I came across an image of a statue, a Roman copy of a Greek work by Praxiteles who lived in the 4th Century BC.  Just as Blue Sky Woman had resonated with women that saw it, this photograph resonated with me.  It is really close to my physique, damn close.  If I had been hanging around 4th Century BC Greece I would have been pretty hot.  I would have had some mad game going on in ancient Greece.  Current time and location, not so much.

The dominant message for women is to be slender with large breasts, generally this is impossible without surgical intervention.  Tall, slim women generally are dainty breasted.  The market for cosmetic surgery is a huge millions to billions of dollar industry and goes on to such a bizarre assortment of “corrections” that some women are even having cosmetic surgery their genitals.  The dynamics of the drive for unrealistic “perfection” and the subtexts of these messages are explained extremely well by Jean Kilbourne in Killing Us Softly 3.  The reality is that the dominant aesthetic of what a woman should be – at least ideally- is thrust upon our minds hundreds upon thousands of times a week.  (I give a great deal of Dove for beginning and sticking to their “Campaign For Real Beauty” advertising campaign.)  Dominant sources of visual culture are feeding the population imagery of women that a 1% – 3% minority of the population may actually fit within the parameters of.

Today’s Chicago Woman magazine, March 2011 issue

Approaching forty, I’m in an odd place with a weird history with my body and a tangled history of surviving extreme physical violence and multiple sexual assault.  I graduated high school as a “classic” anorectic at 87 pounds, eating very little and skating through my days on caffeine and sugar.  I was not a pretty girl and never could be one of the beautiful people, floating by on the high of hunger had nothing to do with vanity; it was a passive suicidal phase in an unstable home.  Also, it was easy to grab a carton of milk and a packaged cake treat and spend all four years of my lunch room time in the art room instead.

In my early to mid-twenties, I did a lot to overcome my sedentary life and fucked up eating habits.  My brittle hair and nails broke.  I was thin, but wheezy and weak.  I went on to learn cooking, gardening and evolved into a fitness club nut.  I joined karate and yoga.  I was in top shape from eating well and being active – a definite improvement from high school when I could not manage to run a mile and two flights of steps made me feel like my heart was going to blow out.  I was at my optimum body weight for my height, generally clocking in at 135 pounds.  For someone who had never been in any kind of sport before, I was in great athletic shape.  I had a few weight gain and loss “yo-yo” time periods, going from more physical work to desk work, then going back to ditch the weight with fitness and avoid the snack foods that chunky office workers devour like locusts.

In my early to mid-thirties, I went into treatment for severe depression (among other things) and wound up maxing out the dosage on Lexapro.  I gained 64 pounds in four months time and was horrified to have arrived at obesity.  Lexapro worked for a minimum of time and inflicted a maximum of negative side effects.  Withdrawal was a total bitch, and my body was wrecked.  My metabolism seems to have died, too.  I’ve been steadily rolling back the weight gain, and got about 20 pounds off on my own, chipped a few pounds away here and there, but I really did not buckle down and rejoin a gym until after graduation.  Whenever I go back to fitness and especially weightlifting, my body weight will tend up as I thin down; muscle mass is heavier than fat, but I lose inches.  I will eventually get to the point where I will start bring down my body fat content.  I have been staying a steady fitness course in the past eight months and have been trying to lay off of the beer and burgers et al.  (I’ll exercise like mad but I loathe weird protein shakes and other non-foods.  I’m a foody these days.)  Today, I am wobbling around between 155 – 159 pounds.  I’m at a sort of balance where I’m riding a line between bit heavy and fit: caught between curvy and the more athletic shape I could get back to if I keep up the fitness regime.  I decided to work with all of this as subject matter, the place I am at right now, in light of my personal history, art history and the greater culture.

Praxiteles Muse II by Shellie Lewis, oils on canvas, 24” x 36”

I came to a point where I decided “I am tired of being colonized!”  I am tired of being told I am inferior or invaluable.  I though about doing this triptych off and on over a period of time and how I would execute it.  I almost ran coward from the project, but then I dragged up some determination and had my boyfriend shoot photographs in one session for me to work from.  I did want the paintings to be of myself but also referential to art history via the Praxiteles portrayal.  Truly, ideas of aesthetics are not fixed and fluctuate over time.  These paintings are my input into the greater culture.  Women have to cope with the colonization of advertising every day.  Women have had far less input into the art historical canon than men have regarding the portrayal of women.  It’s our time to catch up, to have a voice in the art world.

I can make all kinds of value judgments about what is desirable or undesirable about my body – or those of other women- because I have been programmed.  I cannot say that I was brainwashed; the term “brainwash” indicates that something conceptual was there first and was later replaced by something else.  I had Barbie dolls and much more going back to early childhood contributing to beliefs about the female form and desirable aesthetics.  I had at one point wondered to myself that if Mark Rothko had to confront his physique and personal appearance within the context of a greater culture that constantly conveyed a message that he was inferior, he probably would have killed himself a lot sooner than he did.  Maybe this is an unfair analogy, but Rothko’s works were often about trauma and pathos.  I perhaps somewhat oddly correlated this to the struggle women have.  You can try to not care about “conventional beauty” or be independent, but advertising imagery is pervasive, stalking your consciousness continually.  Most of the “beautiful” or “perfect” or “desirable” women are false portrayals, arrived at through arranged lighting, make-up and digital manipulation.  It is a kind of constant mental karate for me to remind myself that much of what regarding photographs of women or images of women in movies are not real.

Also, an aspect of these paintings involves emotions surrounding a sense of mortality.  I’m aging, it’s noticeable; I need to work with this on a personal level.  Every day we get older.  We all die.  Maybe I will have some kind of Renaissance when I finally reach forty and blossom, I’ve seen this happen with some women.  I can work toward that.  Meanwhile, I am taking the advice of an anonymous feminist graffiti artist and stop hating my body.


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