Behind the elegant appearance of New Jersey-born painter Dotty Attie, there lurks something less genteel—as evidenced by the skull-and-crossbones earring that hangs from her right earlobe. Attie will show a new body of work, her first in four years, at P.P.OW. Titled "The Lone Ranger" (Nov. 21-Dec. 21), the show comprises five works, each composed of a number of 6-by-6-inch oil paintings in gridded formations. Each small painting proposes a playful, delicately rendered riff on the idea of concealed identity. "All of my work is about our hidden selves, the part of us we don't want to share with others," said Attie, who spoke to A.i.A. recently at her East 22nd Street studio.
For this show, the 75-year-old artist drew inspiration from the titular American icon. "It's sort of the secret life of the Lone Ranger," Attie said with a laugh. Some stray to the naughtier side: Curious Places (2012-13) depicts nude or scantily clad women engaged in whipping, spanking and bondage. Another, Assistance Needed (2012-13), shows people in peril: men with guns to their heads and knives to their flesh. Rather than spell out the idea of a mask, these works highlight the notion that behind closed doors, everyone lives a different life-and that each one of us has the capacity for violence and sadism.
Attie's inspiration for the five works came from her previous series, "What Would Mother Say," shown at P.P.O.W. in 2009. Similarly made up of multiple small paintings, the series contained text panels that read "Keep That Up Her Mother Said" and "And Who Knows What You Could Become." The premise was to depict children engaging in typical, innocent behavior that could be read by adults as either provocative or shameful, or heroic and admirable—depending on the child's gender. One image depicted a little girl doing a backbend, revealing her underwear; the corresponding image revealed the feared future result: a nude, prone, sexualized female body. The complement showed similarly questionable behavior by a boy, with the opposite result. "I made a painting of a little boy kissing a horse, and then the boy grows up to be the Lone Ranger," says Attie. "It was the only body of work I ever made that I considered gender-specific. It was based on the idea that, if a little boy does something, he will grow up to be a hero. But the little girls, doing the same thing, all become whores."
Attie's best-known works feature her interpretation of famous paintings, such as Courbet's L'Origine du Monde, mixed with text panels inscribed with enigmatic prose. "At one point, I joined [women's gallery] A.I.R.," explains Attie. "There was a group show, and I didn't know what to do. So I made a lot of drawings, very small. All images from art history, and they were all kind of weird, of course. When I had done about 12, I saw that they made a story. So I kept looking for things to further this story. I had read The Story of O, and it impressed me. So I went through it and took sentences that I thought were innocuous or really, really sinister. I put them together with drawings, and I've kind of been doing that ever since."
As her latest series of images suggest, Attie is still intrigued with what remains hidden. "I was at a junk shop recently, and I found a series of books called Crimes and Punishment: A Pictorial Encyclopedia of Aberrant Behavior," Attie said, laughing. "I thought: ‘That was made for me!'"