Kelly Reemtsen’s paintings explore the paradoxical state of being female in in post-feminist contemporary society.
Her iconic image is that of a woman clothed a vintage party dress. In some paintings the woman carries a tool usually associated with masculinity. In other works the woman appears to be falling through space like Alice down the rabbit hole. Reemsten has described these figures as ‘falling out of love and/or falling short of expectations.” Another on-going series of paintings and sculptures lovingly present arrays of candy-bright pills that might be found on a bedside table in Valley of the Dolls.
Though the artist makes no overt allusions to film or television, one can’t look at Reemtsen’s paintings without thinking of both. In their bright, sumptuous dresses, the women bring to mind classic television icons of femininity from the 50’s and 60’s. A woman in one of Reemtsen’s paintings could easily be taken for June Cleaver, Donna Reed, or Anne Marie of That Girl.
Despite the seeming optimism connoted by the bright dresses and opulent jewelry, there are noir undertones to her imagery. Heads and faces are rare in her paintings, and when depicted are shielded by a hand or prop so that the subject maintains anonymity. In the majority of her paintings, the part of the woman seen is mostly dress and a glimpse of legs without feet. Her identity is what she wears.
The figures are solidly three-dimensional, but they occupy not real space but a frosting-thick gestural atmosphere of white paint. Where the figure carries a tool that gives the impression that the woman is ‘taking care of business,’ the task she is embarking on is both ambiguous and usually slightly threatening. The tool could be used to repair or nurture. But it could also be used as a weapon. A woman in a spring dress carrying a chain saw is the darkly humorous as well as unnerving. One bearing any of the following is equally mysterious: a pair of bolt cutters, a chain saw, a pair of lawn shears, a crow bar. Even a coiled hose holds the threat of menace. It could be used to water flowers drooping in late afternoon sun, but it could also be used to tie someone captive, or strangle a would-be assailant. Since we do not see the faces of any of the women, their thoughts and intentions remain forever unknown.
The tools however can also be seen as symbols of feminine empowerment, and the women viewed as heroines who are ‘doing it all.’ Dressed to the nines, these super women are putting the obsessive finishing touches on the yard and the home minutes before the guests arrive, with or without the aid of a few of the candy-hued pills on the nightstand.
The titles affirm the dark humor of the work as one subject refers to the garden hose as ‘The load I carry.” Another says “I don’t need a key to your house” and another figure sighs “I’m not falling for you.” A falling girl is titled “Failure to Engage” and another figure bearing a wrench is simply “Divisive.”
Reemtsen’s luscious, thick paint pushes the confectionary quality to the point of dark humor about art history and art making as well. The rich paint deliberately references the work of Wayne Thiebaud. That artist is best known for painting desserts which one of Reemtsen’s hostesses might serve party guests after she puts away the bolt cutters. The gestural drips and dollops in the white backgrounds however are also the hallmarks of 1950s Abstract Expressionism, whose practitioners were mostly hard drinking and hard living male painters. Just as her figures have taken the tools men traditionally use, Reemtsen has appropriated the larger-than-life macho male gesture of Action Painting.
In reference to Wayne Thiebaud the paint presents the ultimate paradox. The thick paint so closely resembles cupcake frosting that one might be tempted to taste the paint. However sweet and tempting the colors are, paint is toxic.