Young Women Take on Age-Old Issues of Image, Identity

The teen and twentysomething artists of After the Fall, Women Representing Women are just beginning to explore what being a woman means. I’m twice their average age, but I can relate. I am still sorting out questions of feminine beau

click to enlarge "Clara" by Ava Roberts
"Clara" by Ava Roberts

The teen and twentysomething artists of After the Fall, Women Representing Women are just beginning to explore what being a woman means. I’m twice their average age, but I can relate. I am still sorting out questions of feminine beauty and identity. Prairie Gallery’s show is not just for young women, nor is it for women only. 

As the father of three teenage girls, owner David Rosenthal found that the coming-of-age themes of high school senior Sylvie Hayes-Wallace resonated with him. The Walnut Hills student’s photographs and collages suggest competing forces on the way to being a woman. 

For “Investigate Self,” Hayes-Wallace layered paper barricades, ripped, crinkled self-portraits and torn bits of a red and green pattern under a case. Red-tipped pins (representing hearts or blood?) hold some pieces in place. Even as the artist’s image appears to break free of the barriers, their shadows still lurk on the wall.  

“I appreciate her open-ended metaphors,” Rosenthal says. “I responded to the grates, the idea of restraint or self-restraint.” 

Rosenthal also loves the destruction and reconstruction. Nearby, Ava Roberts takes a similar approach, cutting apart and reassembling portraits of young models. Faces have become full, wrinkled — even surreal. Shoulders slump, bellies swell. Are these the same women? If they appear older, are they also wiser? Are they still beautiful? 

Contemporary women are confronting images and issues as old as Genesis. The exhibit’s title comes from Adam and Eve’s fall. As the temptress, Eve was cursed to a life of procreation. But carrying out that role depends on the ability to attract. Accordingly, the female nude in art traditionally has represented seduction. 

“There’s a lot of flesh in this room,” Rosenthal says as we look at nude photographs by Abby Friend and oil paintings by Olivia Hinds. 

Friend, who attends the University of Cincinnati, had a child while in her mid-teens. She presents distorted, severely lit pictures that suggest unresolved feelings about sexuality and motherhood. Her subject isn’t necessarily ashamed like Eve, but tension is evident. The flesh appears white-hot, and the figure seems to be trying to cover up. 

All is laid bare in Hinds’ “Nude #1” and “Nude #4,” which depict reclining torsos with the genitalia as the obvious focus. “If she’s objectifying anything, it’s the reproductive system and not the female body,” Rosenthal says. The powerful paintings are not easy to look at. 

Maybe that’s because both are based on works by men — Lucian Freud and Gustave Courbet.

Hinds explains: “When I think about how I see myself in contemporary society, I immediately think about my sexuality and how it relates to being able to bring forth new life and how, with contemporary societal structures, this sacredness that we possess becomes an over-sexualized and masculine ideal.” She studied the men’s representations in order to deconstruct them.

Her two other paintings, of live models, are warmer and more relaxed, portraying “fleshiness as beauty,” as Rosenthal puts it. Hinds has reclaimed women’s ownership of the female body. “Reproducing life,” she says, “is the essence of culture, suppression, expression, fear, love, everything. The female body is where it all begins.”

Hinds’ paintings are faceless (an approach also used in clothed self-portraits by Iza McIlvain), but across the gallery high schooler Violet Brady has compiled dozens of smiling profile pictures from Facebook. They provide relief from the heavy themes of Friends and Hinds, but they also raise a different set of questions about image and sexuality. If social media sites give females control over how they’re perceived, then what do the images they select say about them? These girls are trying to establish their individuality, but they’re taking cues from what’s already online. Repeated photos show girls with glossy “duckface” pouts, hands posed on hips, or cell phone cameras pointed at a mirror. 

On the other side of the wall, fashion photographer Robin McKerrell presents models in the types of photos the Facebook girls want. Each mini-portfolio includes beauty and fashion shots plus one that could be described as a candid. But as a model adopts multiple identities, the puzzle is: Which is the real woman? 

Back on Brady’s wall, both Rosenthal and I are drawn to a picture of a girl in a Reds cap who appears to have a not-so-perfect figure and is wearing a slightly goofy expression. She’s the one I’d most like to “friend.” Though she’s less than half my age, I think she’s years ahead of me in figuring out what being a woman means. She’s already comfortable in her skin.

AFTER THE FALL, WOMEN REPRESENTING WOMEN is on view through April 6 at Prairie Gallery, 4035 Hamilton Ave., Northside. 513-703-5729;

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