Written by Joseph Montebello
In a century in which many women have broken through the glass ceiling and are running major companies, there is still an inequity in the world of art. Galleries are representing more male artists than female artists at a ratio of ten man to two women.
“Women are not getting their shows on the wall,” said art consultant Lauren Della Monica. “If the artwork isn’t in a show or in a gallery, collectors don’t get to see it and if no one sees it, they don’t get to buy it. The trickle-down effect is that the work doesn’t wind up in private collections, and thus it doesn’t get donated to museums for their collections.”
Recently Della Monica helped bring attention to this problem by curating a show at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury. The show called “Making Her Mark,” a multimedia exhibition, featured six women artists, all diverse and unique in their style and execution.
“Picking six women out of the world of choices was the biggest challenge,” explained Della Monica. The final cut includes Laurie Simmons, Claudia DeMonte, Hayv Kahraman, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Lisa Ruyter and Sarah Hinckley.
“The first thing I wanted was a multidisciplinary show, one that included painting, photography, sculpture and drawing,” she said. “Yes, they are all women, but I wanted as much diversity as possible within this small group. First and foremost it was about the type of work they produced; then the levels of success. I included a young emerging artist represented by a hot gallery in Chelsea. Two of the artists have been showing for years and have had long-term successful careers. Culturally, there was a Nigerian-born artist, and an Iraqi-born an artist who now lives in America. I wanted to show how their backgrounds affect their work and to challenge the viewer. Would the response be the same if the work were unidentifiable as having been done by a man or a woman? Why has that become such an issue?”
Georgia O’Keeffe, undeniably one of – if not – the most famous woman painter of her time, was considered to be at the forefront of the feminist movement. She worked in a discipline dominated by men. When asked if she considered herself the woman artist of her generation she replied: “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”
Della Monica explains, “She didn’t see her art – or any art – as having to be categorized in that way. It is the outside observers, curators, collector and gallerists who have introduced the categorizing of art by the sex of its creator.”
With the advent of more female executives, business owners and perhaps a new president, it is conceivable there will be a more level playing field in the art world.
Della Monica started her art consulting business, LPDM Fine Art Consulting, over ten years. After graduating from Vanderbilt University with a degree in fine arts, she earned a master’s degree of connoisseurship at Christie’s and then had to figure out how to turn her expertise into a career. After meeting several women who were attorneys at auction houses and museums, Della Monica decided to apply to law school.
“It seemed the perfect combination,” she said. “After graduation I was fortunate to be offered a job with a law firm representing artists and museums. I was able to take advantage of my art history knowledge as well as put into practice my law degree.”
Admittedly, though, Della Monica missed being in the art world and after two years in the legal arena, she began to work her way back by building a website and using her expertise to help people build their art collections.
“People begin collecting for different reasons,” she explained. “Either they have started one on their own and want to know how to complement and implement what they already have. Others started collecting for investment and while they know what they like, chances are that they will not hold onto some of the pieces forever.”
Della Monica has her finger on the pulse of what is going on in the art world. Art Basel Miami and the art fairs in New York are part of her annual travels, and she has also attended the Venice Bienniale.
To implement her knowledge and to have a reference point for potential clients, she wrote “Painted Landscapes: Contemporary Views.” Published three years ago, it brought new meaning to that genre.
“Across the board, most people are comfortable with pretty images of places they know and understand,” she said. “Landscapes are really about places and ideas about places, but not everything is pristine and pastoral. There are traditional scenes, of course, but there are also grittier aspects of landscapes, dealing with place, environment and situation.”
Now Della Monica has put together another volume called “Bodies of Work: Contemporary Figurative Painting” and once again has reinterpreted the category.
“Just as with landscape, figurative painting has been around for a long time and yet it is still compelling,” Della Monica said. “I was going around to galleries and art fairs and I began to keep a list of artists who were doing figurative painting. In art from every continent artists were continuing to paint the figure. I began to ask myself why, and that became the starting point for the book.”
The most compelling categories became chapters in the book, ranging from Portraits, to Social Statement, Body as Form and Narrative Paintings.
The word “portrait” conjures images of a person sitting for long hours while the artist capture the subject on canvas. In many instances, these paintings were commissioned to commemorate a royal or wealthy person or a historical figure and were very formal in their execution.
Contemporary portraits cover a range of styles and are open to the viewer’s interpretation of what is happening. Della Monica has very astutely presented not only well-established icons like Chuck Close and Alex Katz, but she has brought to us some of her new discoveries – artists who are just now achieving their fame and some who are waiting in the wings and whose work will be equally well-known.
“Today’s portraits are frequently less formal and may depict a cultural concept as much as a rendering of a particular person,” Della Monica explained. “Marlene Dumas, for example, paints unsentimental portraits exploring some of the gritty topics of life, such as mortality, sexuality and racism.”
Each chapter introduces a new thought-provoking idea and challenges the reader to step back and look at figurative painting in a whole new light. The combination of artists from different countries and different mediums is not only informative, but exciting, thanks to Della Monica’s thoughtful observations and a most readable text.
“Social Statement” introduces artists such as contemporary Chinese realist painter Liu Xiaodong, whose subjects represent the transitional state of affairs in China, presenting working class citizens who struggle to try to benefit from the industrialization of their country, but to no avail.
“Body as Form” features artists likes Kim McCarty whose paintings capture youth as well as beauty, her figures straddling the line between reality and fantasy. Her backgrounds are white and bare, providing a backdrop open to the viewer’s imagination.
In the final chapter “Narrative Paintings,” Della Monica has chosen artists who are, at turns, like dramatists telling stories through their characters but allowing the viewer to fill in the emotional details. Each painting is subject to a unique interpretation by the observer. And that, of course is what art is all about.
It took Della Monica a year to produce the book. But, as she has observed, it is just a snapshot of what is happening. Five years from now there will be a new crop of artists expanding and interpreting this genre in their own way.
“It’s happening in every area of art,” said Della Monica. “Abstract painting, for instance. There was a sea change in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists were all painting huge works opening the viewer’s eyes to a whole different set of ideas. But abstract painting is more covert than figurative painting. The work is beautiful, but I don’t know that there are as many questions to answer. It is meant to be looked at and not necessarily explained or be read into. There is not a narrative that has to be explored. I haven’t figured out how to do a book on abstract painting, but it certainly challenges me.”
And as Della Monica is always open to a challenge, we can look forward to her next book and discover a whole new aspect of abstract painting.