Commonwealth and Council presents “To The Torrid Sea I Fall,” an exhibition of Vanessa Conte's new paintings and drawings of the female body subjected to unidentifiable forces and faceless domination. Amidst a tumultuous time when the female body is politicized, celebrated, shamed, and reclaimed in public discourse, Conte’s work poses questions about the vulnerable shell of the human form, its disposition to surrender to impulses of human nature and depravity, and our reactions as bystanders, voyeurs, and, at times, participants.
Conte has explored formlessness and the body in her work via surrealism throughout her career. In recent years, these investigations have developed into more personally driven, figurative, sexual narratives of women whose bodies have been pushed toward the edge of destruction by the human hand and natural phenomena. In her comics-style drawings and paintings, Conte deploys humor in depicting desire and lust alongside physical brutality and humiliation to discomfit the viewer’s emotions and subvert the moralistic and philosophical ties to her body.
Inspired by corporal punishment fetish fiction and Baroque and Romantic painting and sculpture—particularly Gentileschi, Bernini, and Goya—Conte aims to express a personal longing for the limitations of the human body, and a desire to locate her agency in physical and emotional submission to it. Conte's paintings undermine the medium’s propensity to present a complete, discrete narrative; instead, they implicat the viewer as an uncomfortable, complicit witness. In “Blackwater” (2017), a large wooden oar plunges into the flesh of a supple brunette beneath the lake's surface, piercing the placid water and making the body bend to its rigid force. The symmetrical splash and the body’s bubbling descent make the assault a spectacular act of grace and cruelty. In “The Truth of the Physical Shell (for M. Lassnig)” (2018), a graphite drawing composed as a comic strip, a blonde's cheeks are slapped repeatedly by gloved hands. The hands crush, shape, mold, and strike the flesh while an enigmatic spherical glow wreathes her face. The woman’s mien reads as both ecstatic and fearful, relaxing and tensing to the impact of the blows. The last cell finds the woman at rest and looking out of the frame, leaving us to wonder whether it was reality or fantasy, consent or assault, violence or compassion, that lead to her final, inward state.
Vanessa Conte (b. 1977 in Yonkers, New York) lives in Glendale, CA. Conte has had solo exhibitions at Van Horn, Düsseldorf, Germany (2005, 2007); JB Jurve, Los Angeles (2011); and recently at Hester Gallery, New York (2016). She has also exhibited with Various Small Fires, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Night Gallery, and Rosamund Felsen Gallery. Conte received her MFA in painting from the University of California, Los Angeles (2004) and MA in Linguistics from California State University, Long Beach (2015). Her book of short stories, “Cures for Pouting Girls” (2016), is available at Commonwealth and Council.