Edouard Manet’s Olympia sparked scandal at the Paris Salon in 1865, not just for the female figure’s nudity, but also for her direct, confrontational gaze, the frank stare of a prostitute rather than the demureness of Ottoman Empire odalisques painted by male artists since the 16th century. Texas artist Julie Speed inserts a 21st-century woman’s perspective into these objects of the male gaze by erasing the face of a classical odalisque and painting in a scowling, unhappy expression for Suzannah, Annoyed that screams, “Not so fast, buster!”
Frustrated feminism appears to be a theme running through Speed’s show, “Cut-Up,” at the Southwest School of Art, but maybe it’s just my imagination; since her metaphysical puzzles are intended to be like Rorschach tests, open to interpretation. However, the solemn women’s heads in Women’s Studies have hair and blouses patterned with Biblical scenes depicting all the trouble caused by Eve. Speed’s multimedia collages are embellished with her richly detailed illustrations in sepia ink, gouache and watercolor. The temptation is to label her work surrealistic, but her antique-looking, multilayered compositions more closely resemble Renaissance-style allegories.
Speed rarely paints nudes, but they dominate her two largest, strongest painted collages. Subverting the traditional idea of feminine beauty, Speed’s nudes are muscular and scrappy. Fish Supper might be a self-portrait, though it doesn’t resemble the artist, who left Austin to move to Marfa. A woman wearing a half-male mask topped by an elaborate thinking cap — a somewhat androgynous intellectual, perhaps adrift in far West Texas — talks, sips wine and dines on fish before a Spanish-style arched window overlooking a desert with Holstein cows. The Supplicants each have three arms and in the background are dramatic images of petitioners pleading before kings or popes. Does Speed think women, mankind’s eternal supplicants, will have to grow an extra arm before they can be considered equal to binary males, who continue to occupy most of the seats of power?
Wearing men’s clothing, The Pirate Queen is a vintage symbol of feminine freedom, though her eyes have a curious, cubist twist echoed in twin portraits, Hostage and Jawbone, which may capture the moment an angry woman switches from reasonable to irrational. However, unlike Speed’s conflicted women, the serene man in Infallible, possibly a new-crowned pontiff, is oblivious to the civilization crumbling around him.
Speed’s other mixed-media works are whimsical with a scientific bent, such as a moth popping out of a miniature launching device or a Victorian black hole consuming the cosmos, while her delicate, colored drawings of sea creatures, which may also be reproductive cells, have the amorphous forms swimming through Surrealism. “Cut-Up” partly refers to Speed clipping pictures for her collages, but she’s also smart and sometimes smart-alecky, a classy clown who backs up her sardonic social commentary with meticulous craftsmanship.
Julie Speed: Cut-Up
Southwest School of Art
300 Augusta, Navarro Campus
Artist Talk 6:30pm April 11
Through April 28