A Woman Defined

Art & Culture by Mahvash Mossaed

Alice Neel: Feels Like Home at the Orange County Museum of Art

July 17, 2023

June 23,2023 —  Oct 22, 2023 | https://ocma.art

The Orange County Museum of Art, designed by the award-winning architect, Tom Maybe, is located in its new permanent location on the campus of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Entering the museum, it feels just like any other cosmopolitan city museum, where you immediately encounter modernism and a state of perfection. I still can’t get over the fact that we are in Orange County, California, where art has always been played and displayed cautiously, in a safe and easy-to-digest manner.  However, the fact is that when any sort of art reaches a museum, it’s already considered old and sleepy. When I make the effort to go visit an art gallery or a museum, I want it to be an emotional experience. I want to be moved. I want to be inspired, like watching a great movie, and after leaving the theater, you just can’t shake it off for days, for the emotional experience has attached itself to your mind and does not let go of you. When I visit a museum, I am looking for that ultimate newness. I do not want to have heard or seen anything like what is on view in front of my eyes, some time, some where, some how before. 

Alice Neel: Feels Like Home.  

I am now walking into this room where the magic of Alice Neel is covering all the walls. Speaking of extraordinary and amazing, looking at these canvasses on the wall of this room makes me hold my breath and makes me feel nostalgic. Missing the good, old days, when everything was different and was said and done in a good, familiar, old fashioned way. It is my first time visiting Alice Neel’s work.  I am glad to see that all these paintings of hers, which I have already been familiar with through many years of viewing them in the media and in my own collection of art books, are quite large. They are human-sized and are not too small. I remember many years ago, when I had visited one of Frida Kahlo’s exhibitions for the first time, I was shocked by the size of her paintings. I was disappointed that all those beautiful masterpieces, which had already made such an impact on me as well as had amazed the art world, were, in actuality, created on quite small-sized canvasses.

Continuing to walk along Alice Neel’s paintings, I am thinking about how I have always loved the honest nakedness of her work. In her paintings, it’s as though she mercilessly strips her subjects of all their secrets by distorting the their shapes. Somehow, her work remains undoubtedly beautiful, in spite of showing all the imperfections, all the scars, all the wrinkles, and all the details which we desperately try to cover up at any cost. In her portraits, she stubbornly steps further, using her choice of solid, thick paint and confident brush strokes to tell us, “Here I am. I am real, fearless, and free.” We all realize how rare being real is, and, therefore, we all admit to how magnificent Alice Neel’s portraits are. People are complicated, but I can see how Alice Neel, in all her work, is aiming at the complexity of her subjects in order to simplify and reveal them.  She is dissecting what she sees inside of them by trying to corner them in their most vulnerable, emotional positions just to show us their best and their worst in one place. By revealing her subjects in her painting, she is really trying to investigate and reveal her own depths, her own soul, unfolding it all to herself and to us all. 

Artist Alice Neel’s life ran nearly concurrent with the 20thcentury:1900–1984. She studied at thePhiladelphia School of Design for Women (now Moore College), lived in Cuba, and moved as ayoung artist to New York City.A painter ofpeople and the world around her, Neelwas steadfastlycommitted torepresentationat a time when figurative painting was out of fashion:shechartedacourse all her own.Feels Like Homemoves through the 1930s to the 1980s, focusing on Neel’s honest, intimate, andastute chronicles of everydaylife.She was a witness to and participant in many of the world’sdefining events—the Great Depression, World War II,the civil rights and women’smovements,gay liberation—creating paintings thatencapsulatenot just the spirit and culture in which theywere made, but the truth of her subjects and their time. Whether capturing the ordinaryoccurrences of life inthe city—from two nuns walking arm in arm in the park to folks gathered in amovie theater lobby—or her fellow human beings—friends, family, lovers, and neighbors—Neel’spicturesembracepeople’scomplex interior lives.The intimacy ofNeel’sworksresonatesin part from theirsettings:she always painted at home,first in Greenwich Village, then in Harlem and the Upper West Side,with people constantlycoming and going through her apartment to sit with her.As she welcomedpeople into her home,she invited them to become part of hers,understanding the multitude of ways there are to be inthe worldwhileacknowledging that a life lived isonefull ofhardshipand joy,vulnerability andstrength,love and loss.Pushing against the tide inbothlife and art,painting was a lifeline for Neel—a form of personalconnection and a way to reach out into the world and connect with others. In her paintings across-section ofpeople and places, some familiar, some famous, others unknown—except in theirown everyday worlds—come together to form a kinship of souls. Presented together, theykeepus company, offering new ways toconfront the world andperhaps evenfindour ownhomewithin it.Alice Neel: Feels Like Homeis organized by Courtenay Finn, Chief Curator, withZiying Duan,Assistant Curator, Amanda Seadler, Collections and Exhibitions Director, and with support fromthe entire OCMA staff.Generous support is provided by The Segerstrom Foundation.OCMA Special Exhibitions are made possible by a Special Exhibitions Endowment Fund supportedby SK Hynix America, Inc.,and GANA ART LA.

Orange County Museum of Art

13 Women: Variation IV.

I walked through this exhibition room, and I stopped and examined every single painting in that room, trying to give them all a fair chance and a good portion of my interest and my attention. But, alas, I was still unmoved, admitting to myself, “It is definitely true. These art pieces do not do a thing for me.” It’s like I have seen them many times before! These are the types of art that the masses come to the museums expecting to see. In my case, I want to see the unexpected. I admit, I am difficult to please. 

Tony Lewis: Casual T.  

Let’s now briefly talk about this exhibition. The wall-to-wall drawings of Tony Lewis, where he uses graphite, paper and pencil, create a dynamic relationship between art and words. I like them. I sit in front of this huge wall covered by layers and layers of colors and some words thrown here and there.  I like the colors, the energy, the size, and the impact of it all. I think I know what he is trying to say, and I kind of see what he is trying to communicate with me as a viewer.  As I get up to leave the room, I have already made up my mind: yes, I like Tony Lewis’s work. 

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