My work falls within the context of identity politics, with equal parts feminist agenda and lesbian narrative. I make paintings that are full of symbolic complexity and social relevance while also portraying women who are confident in their own sexuality. By taking the route of translating my own biography into a sort of composed fiction, I create works that present the viewer with images of intimate relationships between two women, acknowledging and emphasizing the female gaze. I draw on my life with my partner of fifteen years as well as on the intimate lives of lesbian couples in the community to build visual narratives that champion our undeniably intense, complex, celebratory and (still) taboo relationships.
Realizing that paintings depicting the intimate lives of women together were lacking in museums and galleries, the idea of revealing my own “otherness”— dissecting it and even celebrating it—began to germinate when I was in graduate school. The idea of painting lesbian couples became the clear direction for my work. Historically, the notion of the very existence of lesbian couples has been ignored by society. Images of female couples in both painting and photography have been repressed, hidden or explained only as erotic material for the male gaze.
I use a process of appropriation to insert lesbian narratives where patriarchal ideals have had a strong-hold on our visual memories. Through borrowing and building upon powerful, recognizable iconography, I create work that alters the narrative and subverts the erotic moments between the figures. In Our Dream, I paint two women reclining together as in Courbet’s The Sleepers but my women are not sleepily on display for the male-viewer, they are consumed with one another. I added the shape of the vase from the Courbet painting into a composition that otherwise resembles Rousseau’s The Dream in which a single nude female reclines on a sofa in the heart of an imaginary jungle. I paint the dream-like lush jungle for the couple in the painting to inhabit together.
These surreal botanical backdrops and elements of theatricality like costumes, curtains and mardi gras parades bring magical and dramatic qualities to my work. Two female figures standing hand-in-hand on a beach or facing one another in Schiele-inspired poses present viewers with fleeting intimate moments. My process usually begins by photographing a lesbian couple—often in a constructed pose that I mine from both historical paintings and photographs. I capture a couple’s personal dynamics, their individuality and their contemporary domestic spaces as my source material. When choosing to work from historical works of art that depict traditional male/female couples, I replace both figures with women but one is often more androgynous. I try to blur the lines between female and male identities by making gender distinctions more ambiguous and challenging viewers’ expectations. Only on closer inspection do the two female forms reveal themselves. I hope that my body of work will increase the visibility and awareness of lesbian women by presenting our relationships as socially, culturally and historically relevant.
I seek to overturn the ownership of the erotic gaze by empowering the female gaze in representative portraiture and narrative. Mira Schor writes about the “return of visual pleasure as a feminist intervention in painting” in her essay, The Erotics of Visuality. Female subjectivity and self-representation have been repressed in favor of male eroticism in the history of Western painting. Schor poses the question, “what would a feminist erotics of visuality be?” I answer her question by turning male erotics upside down.
What does a feminist erotics of visuality look like? What can it look like? I present lesbian women with the image of the tomboy but also with images of the femme and the gender-neutral. Every painting becomes a presentation of my own identity. Through my work, I attempt to validate the presence of dynamic, complex, sensual, sexual and loving relationships between women—making them less taboo. I am creating a visual history of an identity that is deeply personal, distinctly “other” and yet familiar.