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Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks. Simonides

Joan Semmel

Joan Semmel

''Joan Semmel’s self-image paintings, done in the 1970s, are iconic feminist works. In them the artist presented her body and those of her children and lovers from her own vantage; a woman imaging herself and claiming the visual currency arising from this depiction. Done by a young woman, these paintings were both empowering and paradoxical. The intimacy of their perspective resonated with other women, giving palpable visual form to women’s experience of their own bodies and lives. Yes the paintings were problematic as well. In presenting a young, beautiful woman they could still, begrudgingly, be viewed as complicit with the passive, objectifying value structures of male-oriented representation.

In her recent paintings, done over the past two years, Semmel breaks new ground. Returning to the conceit of the self-image, she is enthrallingly explicit about both the representation of her aging body and the logistics surrounding its depiction. While her body is once again the subject, the previously unseen mechanics of its disclosure have assumed constitutional and metaphorical weight. It is the artist’s camera and mirror which structure these paintings; the camera becoming the pole around which the paintings revolve, and the mirror the inscrutable infinity of the paintings’ psychological space. Such formal bedrock imparts a bracing rigor to Semmel’s newest work, the foundation upon which beautiful color and the variegated texture of the artist’s body rest.''


Born in 1932 in New York City, Joan Semmel graduated from Cooper Union and Pratt, and lived in Madrid Spain for seven years in the 60’s. She currently lives in NYC.
She has produced several distinct bodies of paintings exploring the emotional and political implications of representations of the body. In 2007, she will present works in "Dangerous Beauty" at the Chelsea Museum, NYC, in "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" at MOCA-LA, in "The Naked Portrait" at The National Museum of Scotland in Edenburgh, and at the American University galleries in Washington D.C. In 2008 a survey of her work from the 70's to the present will be seen in "Solitaire, Three Painters" at the Wexner Center, and in the Fogg Art Museum, curated by Helen Molesworth.
Mitchell Algus Gallery exhibited her most recent work in 2003, having previously shown her early self-images in 1999. Her paintings from the seventies are widely known, and were seen in recent exhibitions such as those curated by Robert Gober at the Mathew Marks Gallery, NYC in 1999, and "The Figure, The Other Side of Modernism" at the Newhouse Center for Contemporary Art at Snug Harbor, NY, a four person show with Yayoi Kusama, Lee Lozano,and Ana Mendieta at the Jack S. Blanton Museum in Austin TX, all in 2003. The Jersey City Museum exhibited her "Mannequin Series," in 2000. Her work has consistently received critical attention in the press, as well as being cited in many art historical articles and books. She is Professor Emeritus of Painting, at Rutgers University, has lectured across the country, and has taught at Skowhegan, and the International Sommeracademie in Salzberg, Austria. She has served on state grant juries in New Jersey, in Boston, as well as the National Endowment For the Arts.

''Much of the revolutionary nature of feminist art has been a seeking for new forms to invent a voice free of the dominant patriarchal tradition of the past. I have tried to find a contemporary language in which I could retain my delight in the sensuality and pleasure of painting, and still confront the particulars of my own personal experience as a woman. My intention has been to subvert the tradition of the passive female nude. The issues of the body from desire to aging, as well as those of identity and cultural imprinting have been at the core of my concerns. Sexuality for women has changed radically in the last century, and the possibility for female autonomy is connected to these changes. My sexual pictures and self nudes speak to these contemporary attitudes. The obsession with youth and idealized beauty, which has been so pronounced an aspect of the culture are addressed in the "Mannequin" and "Lockerroom" series as well as in the most recent self-images. As a woman artist I am always confronted with the fundamental problem of subject and object. My early work positioned the nude lying prone and the viewer seeing the body from the model/artist’s point of view. In the last three years I have explored the use of both the mirror and the camera as strategies with which to destabilize point of view, and to engage the viewer as participant. My new work continues to use the prism of the nude self view, as a way with which to focus on the social and psychological aspects of gender and age. Rather than simply self-representation, I am interested in the possibility of a female self-articulation.''

Joan Semmel 2006


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