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Josephine Halvorson’s painting practice focuses on place and the careful acts of observation and transcription. Working outdoors, Halvorson selects a particular site, sets up her tools and materials, and takes in her surroundings, translating what she sees into painted marks. The resulting paintings capture the heterogeneity and brilliance of the mundane, revealing each square inch of earth to hold countless colors, shapes, and textures. 

Station Meter is from a body of paintings (many of which were made during the COVID-19 pandemic), centered on artistic genres of still life and memento mori, which “hover between liveliness and decay,” according to the artist. Halvorson settles on many of her subjects—often overlooked scenes that appear to hold little value otherwise—during her walks and travels, drawn primarily to seemingly forgotten corners of different environments. It is Halvorson’s deep investment in her subjects through which she locates the latent meaning of each scene. She spends hours looking closely and working in a vérité style in order “to make a painting that remembers better than I can,” says Halvorson.  

Station Meter centers on a watt hour meter, a device that measures and records the electric power flowing through a circuit over time. The meter is mounted on a weathered piece of wood whose brilliant blue paint is peeling, its appearance neglected. The mounted meter is represented frontally and crowds the canvas against a backdrop of train tracks, an overpass, and electrical lines, conveyed through an economy of means in very little space. As in many of Halvorson’s works, the meter is painted with a poetic exactitude that renders it with a quiet dignity. It appears to suggest that despite being overlooked, the work nevertheless must go on. The passing and measuring of time apparent in the scene are analogous to Halvorson’s investment in moments of beauty that often go unnoticed. 

Aubrey Levinthal’s figurative paintings and still lifes suggest meditative and melancholic atmosphere that offer less a portrait of her subjects than an evocation of an emotional state, expressing her interest in what she calls the “uncanny in our everyday lives.” Drawing on scenes and experiences from her life, she slowly builds up layers of thin, semitransparent washes of paint on panel and then scrapes them down with a razor, lending her works an ethereal quality as if seen through the haze of time.  

In her most recent body of work, Levinthal shifts from a focus on her private life to encounters in the public sphere, all while continuing her emphasis on intimacy, close observation, and restrained compositions. In Airport, two figures sit facing one another at a small, circular table against the unmistakable setting of an airport terminal—its enormous windows opening to a gray tarmac and cloudy sky. One of the most striking features of this work is the merged faces of the seated couple: the bearded face of the rear figure joins the turned face of the closest figure to create a singular tonal plane, where the subtlest brushstrokes both define and defy the edges of the two figures. Likely a portrait of the artist and her husband, the painting reflects Levinthal’s characteristic use of distortion to heighten the mood and convey narratives within her paintings. “I hope my work is a real, tender accounting of my particular visual life,” says the artist. “The paintings can be inventive and distorted, as I often work from memory and through process, but I want them to carry resonance of my experience, which happens to be as a painter, woman, and mother.” 

For over twenty years, São Paulo-based artist Rivane Neuenschwander has honed a distinct multimedia practice that investigates the roles of collaboration and chance in the creative act. Whether in film, photography, or installation, Neuenschwander is principally concerned with what she calls “ethereal materialism,” or the role that ephemeral or everyday materials have in creating momentary experiences of wonder, chance, and enchantment in public space. The installation Um festival embananado is the sixth installment of a series of works Neuenschwander began making in 2004 titled Zé Carioca. The series title is a reference to the comic character José “Zé” Carioca, a dapper Brazilian parrot first created in 1941 by cartoonist José Carlos de Brito. The next year, the character was famously adapted by the Walt Disney Company as a companion of Donald Duck and later of Mickey Mouse. The creation of Disney’s new character was an extension of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, which sought to maintain strategic relations in the Americas—in this case through popular culture. Frequently featured in comic strips, animated films, and television shows, Zé Carioca has become synonymous with Brazilian culture even as the character’s stereotypical traits as a suave, streetwise malandro (rascal) speak to the complicated history of American political interference in Latin America in the twentieth century. In her series, Neuenschwander creates mural blocks of Zé Carioca’s comic panels stripped of the original text and image, leaving only vibrant, Technicolor squares and blank speech bubbles. The artist then invites the public to continue the artwork by writing or drawing directly on the murals. The result is a collective form of social and individual expression determined entirely by the chance encounter in public space. 

New York-based artist María Berrío crafts her large-scale, watercolor paintings through a meticulous process of collaging and painting torn pieces of Japanese paper. The Conference of the Sparrows is part of Berrío’s most recent series, The Children’s Crusade, which blends the history of the Children’s Crusade of 1212 CE with the contemporary mass movement of peoples across borders. Berrío frames her series as a fictional tale, with each painting and its descriptive text serving as a scene from an unfolding story. In The Conference of the Sparrows, a family appears on a boat in a vast expanse of dappled water. As in many of Berrío’s works, this painting merges recognizable and iconic imagery with flights of imagination and fantasy. The blue wooden boat resembles those used by many migrants crossing the Mediterranean, its hull filled with domestic items, foodstuff, and figural details. These realistic elements merge with the otherworldly, including a nude, winged central figure that appears like an angel or a ship’s figurehead, hovering over a plastic bucket and conjuring safe passage. About this work, the artist writes: “To make the crossing required as much hope and courage as it did desperation, or nearly so. But the children had been assured that their gods would look over them. Their faith in a better world to come would protect them.” 

The work of Marlene Dumas explores the thematic relationships between parenthood, sexuality, and death. Using a wide range of photographic source material, from her own Polaroids to newspaper images and pornography, Dumas creates paintings and drawings that are focused largely on the human body or face. She considers her source images to be political in their contemporaneity, showing the psychological realities of the era in which they were taken. She works in the tradition of portraiture, but she subordinates the aspect of individual appearance to the sitter’s mental and emotional state.

The Messengers reveals the fragile cycles of life in a four-panel painting that depicts three skeletons alongside a young child. While the anatomy is not detailed, Dumas creates a compressed intensity by scaling her figures to the height of the narrow canvasses and installing them close to the floor so they share our viewing space. Dumas made this painting when she was a new parent: the figure to the right is her daughter Helena. In contrast to the three small children sheepishly crowding around one of the skeletons, Helena turns her larger-than-life gaze directly toward us. Images of pregnant women and children recur in Dumas’s work, and Helena is a frequent subject. The Messengers is typical of Dumas’s way of suggesting that motherhood and childhood are not as distant from issues of mortality as we might think. The size and postures of the skeletons and Helena are the same, and the skeleton beside her holds a small figure near its pubis as though it had just given birth; the association emphasizes the inexorability of the cycle of life and death.

The striking and monumental The Messengers strengthens the representation of Dumas’s work in the ICA/Boston collection, which also includes her German Witch, 2000.

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Joan Semmel’s Erotic Series (or “fuck paintings”) of the 1970s, subsequent nude self-portraits, and recent unflinching depictions of her aging body establish her as one of the most important feminist painters of her generation. Over a fifty-year career, Semmel has practiced a radically self-possessed painterly project concerned with charged eroticism and frank, corporeal self-portraiture. Her practice has presciently combined photography’s unique subject/artist relationship and image cropping with painting’s viscous material capacity to describe and emulate flesh. In the 1970s, her work constituted a near-singular painterly investigation into desire and heterosexual sex from a woman’s vantage point.

In many ways, Green Heart is a key work in the development of the artist’s oeuvre. From 1963 to 1970, while living in Spain and South America, Semmel explored the potential of form, color, and composition in an abstract expressionist idiom. Moving back to New York in 1970, she began to bring her expressionist approach to the depiction of female and male figures tangled together in erotic embrace. In preparation for Green Heart, as with all paintings of the subject, Semmel asked a couple to have sex while she photographed them from above. Images of sex, so often depicted from a male perspective––whether for overtly pornographic purposes or with greater prurience in the high art context––are in Semmel’s work reconfigured from her perspective as a woman witnessing, capturing, and interpreting the act.

Semmel’s near-decade of experience with abstract painting informs Green Heart’s urgent paint handling, expressive color, and push-and-pull composition. Immediately compelling for its subject and formal decisions such as cropping and frontality, Green Heart shows the direction her paintings would take in the 1970s: carefully descriptive, cool, colorful depictions of sex and naked bodies, sourced by the disembodied camera, but reinterpreted in paint by the artist.

Green Heart adds to the ICA/Boston’s recently expanding collection of paintings. It joins works by Louise Bourgeois, Marlene Dumas, Cindy Sherman, and Lisa Yuskavage that examine and undermine art-historical representations of women.

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Dana Schutz paints abstracted figures in the midst of outlandish, gruesome, or humiliating situations. She begins by visualizing an absurd or impossible event––figures eating their own faces, carving shapes into their necks, or attempting to smoke cigarettes while swimming underwater––and proceeds to ask herself questions about the theoretical incident. Through these questions, Schutz imagines not only how the given situation might materialize visually, but also the feelings that would be associated with it. The resulting images are imaginative, humorous, and borderline sadistic in the treatment of their subjects. In its bright colors and loose brushstrokes, Schutz’s work recalls cartoons or children’s book illustrations, generating a strange contrast with the sinister circumstances it depicts.

Sneeze shows a graphic illustration of a physical event most sitters would prefer not to have immortalized in a portrait. Mucus from a woman’s nose, portrayed in exaggerated strokes of yellow, green, and blue paint, has sprayed several inches before ricocheting off her open palms. The painting might be called an “anti-portrait”; instead of presenting the sitter as dignified, it shows her at her most unappealing. The painting also departs from traditional portraits by capturing a momentary and involuntary pose that a subject would not have been able to hold long enough to have it documented.

Dana Schutz is an accomplished painter whose canvases have been seen in the tradition of the grotesque represented by artists from Francisco Goya to Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon. Sneeze joins works by other important quasi-representational contemporary painters in the ICA/Boston collection, including Ree Morton, Joan Semmel, and Amy Sillman.

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During an artistic career lasting only from the mid-1960s until her untimely death in 1977, Ree Morton produced work of remarkable breadth. While she achieved notable success in the 1970s, after her death she largely fell out of the art-historical purview, only to be “rediscovered” in recent years through her inclusion in such exhibitions as WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (2007). From delicate pencil drawings to expansive sculptural installations, her work forges unlikely partnerships between such aesthetic and political practices as minimalism, feminism, and regionalism. The modular units familiar from minimalism are not the clean products of industry, but ribbons, curtains, portraits, hand-painted logs, ladders, and other forms associated with craft and the decorative. In merging the formal concision and conceptual rigor of minimalism with kitsch and Americana, Morton makes it difficult to pin down interpretation of her work.

Completed toward the end of Morton’s life, Regional Piece is one of several works in which she stacked a horizontal painting depicting a sunset over water above another showing a tropical fish underwater. Despite their disparate imagery and spatial disjunctiveness, the paintings in Regional Piece have striking parallels, starting with a shared palette: in both, a bright orange contrasts with a brushy blue and green. A red rectangle—comparable in proportions to the canvas—interrupts each scene, floating on top with no apparent connection to the subject. A curtain-like length of green celastic draped over the two canvases makes reference to the theater and the domestic realm, amplifying the paintings’ kitsch character.

Regional Piece contributes to the ICA/Boston’s expanding collection of paintings, especially those that demonstrate transformations in the medium since the 1970s. It joins works by Jason Middlebrook and Matthew Ritchie that play with framing devices and the relationships between abstraction and representation. And, like works in the collection by Ambreen Butt, Louise Bourgeois, and Cindy Sherman, it supports the effort to examine and redirect the position of women in art and art history.

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Amy Sillman’s work is aligned with that of Richard Diebenkorn, Philip Guston, and Willem de Kooning in blurring the boundary between abstraction and figuration. What makes Sillman’s work unique is the freedom with which she experiments with color. Early in her career, she painted in a riot of pastel and acid hues, but more recently her sensibility has veered toward digital-like colors and jarring combinations. Sillman has consistently resisted ideas of “good taste” and instead uses color to investigate the range of possibilities in painting. Cuing color to emotion and incorporating nonverbal jokes inherent in cartoons and comics, she has been able to examine the whole range of human emotions, from joy and pleasure to awkwardness, anxiety, and neurosis. No matter how discomforting or melancholic her work becomes, Sillman infuses her paintings with a physical and robust sense of humor to convey the compassion and empathy that lie at the core of her project.

Unearth depicts two landscapes, one above the other, separated by a band of blue sky. In the upper landscape, we see a cluster of building-like shapes huddled in a chaotic mass. In the lower landscape, lines and geometric blocks of color might represent figures marching in procession. Although Sillman deploys the landscape genre, the typically clear division of earth and sky is confounded here by the presence of two realms, one worldly and the other extraterrestrial.

This work adds to the ICA/Boston’s recently expanding collection of painting, and its acquisition reflects the tradition of collecting works from significant ICA exhibitions: it was included in Amy Sillman: one lump or two (2014), the first major survey of Sillman’s work. It joins works by Louise Bourgeois and Tara Donovan, who also had solo exhibitions at the ICA, as well as recently acquired paintings by Jason Middlebrook and Matthew Ritchie that similarly explore the history of abstraction and mark-making.

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Throughout her more than sixty years as an artist, Nancy Spero maintained a commitment to socially and politically engaged art. In her paintings, collages, prints, drawings, and murals, she expressed stances that were antiwar, antiviolence, and, most notably, feminist. Spero was a member of a number of artist-activist groups, including the Art Workers Coalition, Women Artists in Revolution, and the A.I.R. Gallery, which dedicated itself to art by women. She consistently sought to meet what she considered to be the social obligations of the artist.

Determined to advance the representation of female experience in art, by the mid-1970s Spero depicted only women. Birth portrays the quintessentially female act of childbirth, an event that had been systematically excluded from art history. Spero’s representation of the act does not resemble the reality of childbirth—the woman stands, raising the infant in the air and seeming to thrust him or her forward, as if to emphasize the power that the ability to give birth confers. The image is rendered exclusively in brown, black, and off-white, and the background is filled in with rough brushstrokes. These qualities give the work the appearance of a prehistoric artwork. Spero often utilized ancient motifs and symbols, drawing on figures from Egyptian, Greek, and Irish sources.

Nancy Spero is a seminal female artist of the twentieth century. Birth augments the ICA/Boston’s collection of work made by the pioneers of feminist art, including Ana Mendieta, Joan Semmel, and Faith Wilding.

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