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The Renaissance period is filled with paintings that tell biblical and mythical stories in one passionate frame. Google “Jael and Sisera,” for example, and you’ll find image after image of a strong-armed Jael hammering a tent peg into the head of the Canaanite general Sisera.
But what you won’t find in your search is a charcoal drawing of Jael, naked, with elongated breasts, driving a peg into a seemingly nude Sisera while she straddles him. That particular version of “Jael and Sisera” is one of several reimaginings of Renaissance themes in Jay Peterzell’s new Foundry Gallery exhibit, “Some Women.”
Peterzell’s paintings and drawings showcase a range of styles, and the most affecting of these are the most abstract. His drawing “Clytemnestra”—named for the woman of Greek mythology who murdered her husband and was killed by her children—is all earth tones and frenzy, a complex take on the many ways that Clytemnestra’s story has been artistically rendered. It suggests the chaos of Bernardino Mei’s painting of her death, but it also evokes something larger: the cycle of familial sabotage so common in Greek mythology.
Not all of Peterzell’s works are based on biblical or mythical themes. Some are figure studies of women that try “to capture the consciousness of the person,” says Peterzell. He hopes that when viewers look at one of these women, they can “see her thoughts or imagine her thoughts.”
The two most realistic paintings in his exhibit are these types of female portraits—one shows a topless woman with a green necklace, the other a fully nude woman with a black scarf in her hair. If Peterzell finds his stride in abstract art, he falters in these realistic portraits, which lack the same intensity and imagination as “Clytemnestra,” or his bleakly biblical “From Midian.” Gazing into their eyes, you might find the women in these two paintings seem to only be thinking one thing: “I am posing nude right now.”
Many of the other women in the show are naked, too, with strangely exaggerated breasts (in a drawing of a birth, the pregnant woman has large breasts and an unusually small stomach, given her condition). The most prominent painting of women’s bodies is “Rape of a daughter of Leucippus,” based on the famous 17th century painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Peterzell’s painting, like the original, shows two clothed men with horses violently abducting two naked women—it doesn’t explicitly show sexual assault, but it suggests it.
The image actually appears twice in the exhibit: The second version is a small crayola drawing, titled “The Riding Lesson”—a likely reference to a skit by the German comedian Loriot in which a man and a wife in marriage counseling are shown Rubens’ original painting and asked to describe it. The punch line: The man says it’s a picture of men giving ladies a riding lesson.
Peterzell thinks that in Rubens’ original painting, there’s some ambiguity about whether the women are being taken away against their will. In Peterzell’s painting of the scene, one of the women’s faces is smeared, almost erased, so that you can’t see her expression. But looking at her flailing body, the horrified face of the woman below her, and the menacing look of the abductors, it’s clear that she isn’t about to go for a riding lesson. The painting feels like a stale attempt to be provocative.
Art shouldn’t shy away from sensitive subjects, and not all women in art need to be clothed, but the preponderance of naked women in “Some Women”—not to mention the comparable lack of naked men—is questionable. In 1989, feminist masked avengers known as the Guerrilla Girls ran an ad on New York City buses saying that women made up less than five percent of artists, but 85 percent of the nudes in the Modern Art sections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It famously asked: “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” In the case of “Some Women,” the question isn’t that dissimilar: “Are a woman’s thoughts easier to read if she’s naked?”
Peterzell is a talented artist with a broad stylistic range, but there’s something that his most abstract works do that his realistic (or even his semi-realistic) nudes don’t: They show people without showing us the specific contours of their bodies. They’re most powerful because they don’t distract with exaggerated breasts; they take us inside of someone, to the space where there’s only chaos, or nothing.
2118 8th St. NW. Free. (202) 232-0203. foundrygallery.org.