Populated by female figures more nudist than nude, Judith Linhares's recent paintings have the clarity of a dream: the scenarios and moods are instantly readable, while nuanced meanings lie just beneath the surface. Cavorting in nature-sunbathing, picnicking, sleeping—the figures fall into the long and storied Western artistic tradition of nudes in a landscape.
Even in what might ordinarily be thought of as compromising poses, the characters feel playful, not sexualized. In Déjà vu (2009), one of 16 paintings in Linhares's first solo show since 2006, the pose is extreme: the figure bends over completely, looking at the viewer from between her legs, rear end exposed.
Yet she seems as innocent as the yellow sun, floating bubbles and a single distant pine tree that drift in the background. Although she has lived in New York since 1980, Linhares came of age as a painter in California, a fact as evident in her figures' ease in nature as in her style, with its connection to the figurative work of David Park as well as the bright colors and allegorical tendencies of Mexican folk art and murals. She manages remarkable combinations in her palette, often sneaking radically different hues into a single area, unnoticeable at first because they are of similar lightness. In Hound (2010), the shadow tones include magenta, olive green, sienna, naphthol red, purple, brown, black, dark turquoise segueing to purple, yellow, pale green and fire-bright orange. Her bold backgrounds—skies and terrain candy-striped in high-contrast, saturated colors—stay in their place, letting the figures grab our attention. These figures often have a brighter streak at what should be the darkest part of their shadows—where a thigh touches the ground, say—giving them a glow like that of films shot at the magic hour of dusk.
Linhares has influenced several waves of artists, beginning in 1978, when she played a leading role in Marcia Tucker's "Bad Painting" show at New York's New Museum, and continuing through today, with a recent crop of painters borrowing her style, often unknowingly, via Dana Schutz. That influence is a lucky thing for painting, since Linhares brings to the medium a Blakean ambition combined with a remarkable picture-making intelligence. We find feminism in subjects that are at once visionary and quotidian: in the figures' sense of agency, as well as in the many domestic touches and nods to the "female" traditions of floral painting and textile design.
In Tigress (2009), an hourglass-shaped cat sips from a shallow crystalline pool. She is zonked out, an effect conveyed through eyes painted in yellow-orange Os over two-stroke black and brown ovals. The cat stands in the water barely disturbing the surface, the partly submerged tip of her tail curled into another O. It's a downright hallucinatory image. But Linhares's tigress, with her long strokes of buttery paint, also falls easily into the lineage of Rubeniste painterliness, a descendant of Delacroix's tiger sipping at an oasis pool.
Photo: Judith Linhares: Déjà vu, 2009, oil on linen, 60 by 36 inches; at Edward Thorp.