Paula Rego, "Dancing Ostriches"
By Kate Gartrell
I went to the Paula Rego show at NMWA intending to review it, and liked it so much that I found myself groping for possible criticisms, of either the show or the work. Most of the work is formally tight, and Rego’s trademark subjects are out in full mythological ghoulishness and fairytale whimsy. More Grimms than Disney, Rego’s is the territory of the playful deviant: we can’t but delight in a “Black Swan” ballerina pastel series populated by chunky dancers in black tutus with sometimes-distorted limbs, decisively rendered with dark contours. Solid technical skill in service of a vital and psychologically insightful feminist imagination is strongly evident throughout the show.
For me, the show raised broader questions about how we can fairly evaluate work that aims to be read quickly. The issue formed itself (albeit primitively) in my mind as: “this is good…but it’s not Rembrandt.”
An internal dialogue followed:
“Huh? Why do you evaluate everything in terms of Rembrandt?”
“Because. He’s so darn good.”
“But what if Paula Rego doesn’t want to paint like Rembrandt? What if she’s up to something else?”
“She is doing very well by the criteria she has set up for her work, but we have to ask about the value of a quick versus a slow read.”
“Yeah…but it’s so much fun.”
Rego’s work reads quickly in the following sense: it is possible to linger over the images from mid-distance, engrossed in the gestalt of the narrative, but little upon approach encourages marveling over this or that moment of painting or drawing. Up close, it is merely technically solid, losing its emotional charge. This is true even in a series dealing with illegal abortion in Portugal, titled Triptych.
Certainly, Rego is not Rembrandt. Her content is generally not the tender but something darker, wilder, and more overtly political. Still, the question remains: should a work of art hold up at all distances? Should we be troubled that Rego’s work delivers itself quickly and only from a certain distance?
The issue of touch provides one way to enter the question. The touch of an artist’s hand, experienced by the viewer, evokes a virtual touching by the viewer of the subject. In this sense, Rego may not want us to touch her (largely female) subjects. The virtual touch that is so seductive and moving in a Rembrandt- often a corrolary of “slow read” painting- may be exactly what Rego wants to avoid. Her work resists the viwer’s “touch,” compelling us to keep a distance to find them convincing. This is one way of inferring intentionality to the quick read they provoke.
In a post-feminist age, perhaps this is a worthwhile goal. Or maybe we are entitled to expect more from an artwork than to be kept at a distance by it. As enjoyable as Rego’s work is, as alluring are her robust, fanciful figures and the world they occupy, they don’t ask very much of our time. Call me a romantic, but shouldn’t we ask to be held captive by a painting, especially with the rest of the world bending over backwards to accommodate our rapidly reducing attention spans?
Rembrandt, "Self Portrait"