Joan Semmel has been documenting her own nude body for the past four decades, but her new paintings and drawings are as sensual and bracing as was her work in the 1970s. Close-up views of body parts (arms, breasts, thighs) in canvases like Crossed Limbs, Cool Light, and Intimate Spaces (all works 2016) look like undulating, fleshy landscapes. A half dozen paintings in the show, as well as several of the drawings, experiment with a technique that Semmel first used in her mid-1990s series “Overlays,” in which she reproduces line drawings of her body atop erotic paintings from the ’70s to create layered, fragmentary compositions. In Blue Embrace, for instance, she covers abstracted, purplish breasts and limbs with gestural outlines of a woman’s nude torso, her arms crossed almost placidly.
—Leigh Anne Miller
Pictured: Joan Semmel: Blue Embrace, 2016, oil on canvas, 60 by 48 inches. Courtesy Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © 2016 Joan Semmel/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
“Across Five Decades” surveys the arc of octogenarian painter Joan Semmel’s career, from her richly hued abstractions of the ‘60s created in Franco’s Spain to her recent depictions of the aging female body. An untitled work from the “Sex Paintings” series (1971), made in New York soon after she discovered the feminist movement, sets the tone. In the explicit scene a male figure’s sketchily rendered face is buried deep in the crotch of a woman depicted from the neck down. Semmel would soon reverse the gaze of the headless body, working photorealistically from self-portraits taken looking down at her own figure; the examples from the ‘70s and ‘80s that show this distorted, unidealized point of view remain provocative today. Centered, 2002, is the first and best example of her method of working from “selfies” taken in mirrors. Here the artist crouches, her body partly fragmented and doubled at the reflective surface (perhaps an aquarium?), her posture roughly echoed by an eternally young (headless) statue behind her.