When you look at the myth- and history-themed paintings of the Old Masters, the compositions often conflate several aspects of a story into a single scene, arranging the narrative as a tableau. Such is the case with Diana and Her Nymphs, for instance, painted by Dutch artist Jacob van Loo (1614-1670) in 1654. The scene depicts Diana, goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology, undressing to bathe with her entourage. Diana, off-center in the foreground, receives the greatest light, while background and sideline figures are more obscured by shadow. An art historian could tell viewers, perhaps, who each figure represents, but one’s attention is drawn to the goddess. Interactions abound among the other characters, but seldom do we have a sense of what they may be whispering to one another, of what conspiratorial secrets they possess. New York-based artist Angela Fraleigh zeroes in on these scaled-down, intimate moments to capture some narrative sense of the hushed conversations among women in art, seeking to make the bit parts they play in mythic and historical dramas the central focus in her own work. “You really don’t see women engaging in a lot of these tales,” Fraleigh told Pasatiempo. “But in Diana and the nymphs you see it over and over again.”
The subject of Diana was a popular one for Renaissance and Baroque-era artists. Domenichino (1581-1641) painted Diana and Her Nymphs in 1616, and Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) completed Acteon and Diana With Nymphs in 1565. Fraleigh looks at, and in some cases, appropriates these marginal figures for her paintings. “If the painting is about the interaction between two characters and a scene might be taking place on the sidelines and the background of a painting, and I’m really trying to highlight it, then I’m literally plucking it from the original painting,” she said. Fraleigh is one of a handful of artists whose work appears in the exhibition New Baroque: The Imperfect Pearl, currently on view at David Richard Gallery. The show also includes works by Monte Coleman, Chris Collins, Laila Farcas-Ionescu, Erik Gellert, Catherine Howe, Ted Pim, and Vadim Stepanov. New Baroque features paintings, sculpture, and gilded found objects that reflect a continuing interest in Baroque themes and subjects, which were often dynamic, suggesting movement, and designed to be read like a story in visual form.
Fraleigh’s new and recent works are almost exclusively of women, and developed out of a combination of her interests in myth and folklore and art history. In 2013, during a sabbatical from teaching art at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, she began research into the roles of female protagonists in the traditions of the past. “I’ve always been interested in narrative and how meaning gets made — thinking about social constructs, how power dynamics play out, and how the stories we tell are what shapes our experiences,” she said. “I was thinking about what could be the biggest narrative I could imagine. What’s something universal enough that anyone could plug into it? That led me to Joseph Campbell and his idea of the hero’s journey.” Campbell (1904-1987) was a prolific writer on the subjects of mythology and anthropology who identified major universal motifs in traditions the world over, including the motif of the hero’s journey. “As I was researching it more and more, I realized there was really no female version of the hero’s journey,” she said. “It started making me think and wonder and prod into other areas. That led me to this author named Marina Warner. She wrote a book called From the Beast to the Blonde, and it documents and uncovers how women have moved through story.” Warner, according to Fraleigh, sourced broadsheets from the 1600s that showed how Baroque-era social and political establishments actively discouraged women from congregating. “The underlying message there is that women’s words have power and that women, when they get together, will share knowledge — and that’s a dangerous thing,” said Fraleigh. “Even something like the word ‘gossips’ — looking at the history of the word and the meaning of it — is used as an opportunity to condescend and shame women away from sharing knowledge. This led me to start thinking, ‘What if we could change the present by changing the way we view the past?’?”
Her paintings, such as The Breezes at Dawn Have Stories to Tell and Watching the Moon Move, both from 2015, draw from specific sources. In the case of The Breezes at Dawn Have Stories to Tell, she envisions the Three Graces, goddesses of charm and beauty who were also popular subjects during the Baroque period, but her title suggests ambiguity rather than the specific, unchanging virtues associated with the mythic figures. “The hero’s journey for the traditional male figure was to strike out on one’s own, you know, to go fight the dragon on your own,” she said. “You’ll be tempted by water nymphs or something like that and then you come home. You do a 360. That’s the trajectory. For the traditional female character, there’s a gathering of the team, a gathering force to collectivity. If you look at any progressive grassroots movement, that’s how that functions. I was plugging into that with these paintings, too. I was thinking of the collective nature of progress for the female character.”
Other paintings come closer to portraiture than narrative scenes, but Fraleigh invests them with subtext by the manner in which they are painted. Shine, for example, shows a young woman with abstracted flowers in her hair and a bare suggestion of landscape. Hollow Moon, another portrait, also combines abstraction and figuration to obliquely suggest narrative. “How do I depict the essence of narrative, or tell a story with the most minimal bare bones? By pairing the abstraction with the figuration, it tells the viewer that I’m not depicting a reality. I’m depicting an alternate reality. It introduces a psychological space instead of the understood ‘real’ space.” Fraleigh also looks to the late Baroque or Rococo era for subject matter. Her vibrant use of color and the effusive floral environs in which she places some figures, as in her painting Through the Half Drowned Stars, is reminiscent of paintings from that period, but with a more contemporary, expressionistic application of paint. “I was looking at the Rococo movement and thinking about who the biggest patrons for those artists were. Rococo artists are often tossed under the rug of art history as being too feminine and too frivolous. At the same time, the primary person funding those artists was Madame de Pompadour, who was the mistress of Louis XV. What are the elements she’s uncovering or seeing in these paintings that are helping propel her agenda?”
Fraleigh, who has considered herself a feminist since she was a teenager, has been thinking about the power relationships between artists and art patrons as well as power dynamics among women throughout time. “I’m not afraid of the messiness of that. Can we just decide to see women as powerful just by looking at them differently? Can we just decide that these figures are intelligent human beings without making them take on the more dynamic masculine traits like engaging in war or something like that? Can we see them conspiring? My relationship with art history is a long one. I went to Boston University as an undergrad, which has an academic, really traditional program where you’re working from life, drawing and painting. My real love of making came from that practice. It’s where I spend my time looking, at these Old Masters. It took me a long time to give myself permission to use these figures. I had a real strong urge to do it, but sometimes you don’t make the connection until after you do it.”