WILKES-BARRE — Throughout the history of fine art, the feminine nude has been a focal point of celebrated and iconic works.
But has the female form been honored for its beauty, strength and splendor along this creative lineage, or has it been exploited by the patriarchal society that rendered these images?
That is the question Allentown artist and Chair of Studio Art at Moravian College Angela Fraleigh addresses in her work, which is on display through March 2 at Wilkes University’s Sordoni Art Gallery in an exhibit titled “The Bones of Us Hunger for Nothing.”
Fraleigh uses pieces from the Baroque and Rococo periods as source materials to create works that recontextualize the role of the female characters who, as subjects for the paintings, are thought by some scholars to have been rendered powerless and objectified by the “male gaze” through which they were viewed.
“Throughout my entire adult-work career, I’ve always been interested in how meaning gets made,” Fraleigh said as she stood among her works recently at the Sordoni Gallery. “Why we believe what we believe. Where perception comes from and how we construct it. I’ve made it my goal to deconstruct that perception.”
In earlier works, Fraleigh would videotape herself and her husband making out and use it as source material.
“I wanted to capture that moment where you couldn’t tell if it was voluntary or not — violent or sensual,” she said.
An example of this type of self-portrait examination of the power dynamic between man and woman can be seen in Fraleigh’s piece, “Slight,” which depicts an ambiguous embrace that is not easily definable by the viewer.
Theories about how the “male gaze” posed the female form in Western art to intrigue the male viewer and satisfy institutional norms have been argued by art historians as respected as Linda Nochlin and John Berger, as Eleanor Heartney points out in the forward, titled “In the Company of Women,” to Fraleigh’s exhibit.
“One outcome of these observations was the emergence of a strain of feminist iconoclasm,” Heartney writes. “They outlawed the nude, subverted traditional standards of beauty, and, in many cases, simply removed the body from art.”
But Fraleigh rejects those limitations and instead prefers to reimagine the stories behind the paintings of the “Old Masters” in a context that gives “agency,” a sense of power, to the female subjects.
“I’m trying to insert new meaning into familiar imagery we understand,” Fraleigh said. “I want to complicate the narrative.”
For instance, in Fraleigh’s piece, “These things are your becoming,” she provides original context to the figures depicted in Simon Vouet’s “Lot and His Daughters,” an image based on the Bible story of a man whose daughters got him drunk and had sex with him to conceive children.
The narrative, unlikely even in ancient times, can be interpreted as an apologist story for incest.
“Essentially, I removed the scoundrel,” Fraleigh said of her work that depicts Lot’s daughters in similar poses to Vouet’s piece but without the smiling Lot. “These images are fantastical in a sense. They occur in the frame before or the frame after the original. With this overarching system and power structure in place, I wanted to find a place where these marginalized characters would have power.”
Fraleigh also took inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s work “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” the seminal analytical text on the “hero’s journey” in mythology and mythological archetypes.
“There are few female lead protagonists,” Fraleigh said of the history of the hero’s tale. “I wondered, ‘What would be different for a female lead character?’”
And in her works, Fraleigh has bestowed her heroines with resources both history and storytelling have forbidden them.
“Women when presented with a challenge will circle the wagons,” Fraleigh said. “They’ll research; they’ll look to others. Traditionally, meeting places were not allowed because women share knowledge.”
In her work “We know of a land that looks lonely but isn’t,” Fraleigh depicts three nude women, but their bare buttocks are the only things that are exposed. Instead of treating the women as though they are on display and the onlooker has surprised them, she portrays an environment where it is the viewer that feels a sense of embarrassment, as if stumbling upon something sacred.
“I wanted to create a scene that was insular,” Fraleigh said. “I tried to create a sense that you’re entering into something secluded. I want the viewers to feel like they’re intruding.”
Ultimately, Fraleigh hopes the work speaks to young women who, she said, can learn that they can change history just by deciding to.
“If women grow up with the perception that they are powerful, it might change the way they move through the world.”