Reclaiming the Female Form
Allison Zuckerman’s paintings and sculptures of women are a subversive romp through the history of art.
“A lot of art was made for men by men, and the female figures have been idealized, and they’re submissive and anonymous,” Allison Zuckerman C’12 is saying. “I want the figures to be intimidating—grotesque but beautiful. So it’s kind of just reclaiming the female form and taking ownership of it.”
Zuckerman is discussing the heroic-size paintings and sculptures that make up Stranger in Paradise, her current exhibition at the Miami-based Rubell Family Collection. Since her goal as artist-in-residence there was to “make a monumental work of women from art history,” she says, “I needed these figures to be huge and in your face and unavoidable. Because that’s part of my artistic mission: to reclaim them from art history and usher them into the present moment and make them my own.”
Though the eyeball-grabbing figures are definitely her own, she’s lifted so many iconic artists’ styles that her recent work could be seen as a kind of art-history-soaked Brides of Frankenstein.
Yet if there is such a thing as crossover feminist art, these works would qualify. Her women are outrageous and subversive, but they’re also funny and sometimes joyfully luscious. Think of her as a kind of trickster shaman, paying homage to artistic traditions while squirting hallucinogens into the male gaze.
“Sometimes when women are expressing themselves, and they’re using emotion to do that, they’re told that they’re being too much—‘You’re over the top, calm down,’” she adds. “My approach is to subvert that, and to be maximalist—like, ‘Oh, you want me to be quiet and behave? Well, I’m just going to do the opposite.’”
Zuckerman revels in art history’s stylistic cornucopia. She cites as inspiration Richard Prince (“the one I hate to love and love to hate”), who became famous for appropriating other photographers’ work—including Instagram screenshots of young models—and putting them on canvas with minimal adjustment.
“Art history is all about appropriation and building upon itself,” she says. “Manet looked to Titian, Picasso looked to Lucas Cranach, and I want to talk about that history and that building. But I’m also taking exclusively from male artists, and I want to be very brash about it and up front. So the Lichtenstein references are clearly Lichtenstein, and the Matisse references are clearly Matisse; I’m not trying to say this is my own work. It’s kind of like remixing music, or writing a paper and citing other literary works.”
For the 28-year-old Zuckerman, the Rubell Family Collection gig was a giant step on several levels. Having already expressed a desire to “scale up” after the tight confines of her New York studio, she ended up with the kind of space most artists only dream of—which was a challenge as well as a thrill.
“My studio, which was the biggest exhibition space in the museum, was so big it would be really easy to have the work swallowed up by the room,” she says. But soon she was reveling in the size and scope of her project. “I was painting on a lift and going up and down 20 feet in the air. I felt like Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel—I wasn’t lying on my back, but it was definitely a new way of painting.”
Zuckerman’s work evolved from “tightly rendered” paintings into something looser and more experimental during her “formative” undergraduate years at Penn, where she studied under Jackie Tileston, Matt Neff, and Gabriel Martinez. (She even made the pages of the Gazette with “Please, Oh Please, Stop Throwing Those Uppercuts!” [“Notes from the Undergrad,” Mar|Apr 2011], which first appeared in The Penn Review.) A Kelly Arts Research grant enabled her to create a series of paintings of body parts as a way of celebrating the arts (for her homage to dance, she painted feet), which was presented at Williams Hall Café and earned her a memorable conversation with President Amy Gutmann.
Stranger in Paradise , which opened last December, runs through August 25. Zuckerman will then move her operation to Ohio for a show at the Akron Art Museum, which opens in October. Chances are it will not feature modest, submissive women. —SH