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Amanda Besl's paintings at the "Undertow" at Nichols School's Flickinger Performing Arts Center

"Undertow" by Amanda Besl


Following the “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, a politically indigent era reaffirming “family values” and a conservative moral sensibility as a matter of public policy, socialization of the human body in art became a fetishized commodity. Artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andre Serrano, and especially women artists likeKaren Finley and Sally Mann, found their work, performance art, and photography part of a widespread critical assessment promulgating a retrenchment in federal funding for the arts and a general public aversion to art specifically dealing with the human body in an intimate/political context.

The portrayal of the female form, the vehicle through which “the male gaze” had for centuries enacted a means for gaining satisfaction and tangible action, once polemical and openly transgressive, produced a parochial fixation that routinely brought artists in conflict with conservative bias. Sally Mann’s sensitive portraits of her young children in the nude, especially, brought accusations of abuse and exploitation in a political climate that revealed an almost messianic desire to morally and legally micromanage every transition of human development.

Twelve years into the new century, cooler (and in this case wetter) heads prevail.

Amanda Besl’s acrylic and graphite paintings, now at the Nichols School’s Flickinger Center in an exhibition titled Undertow, underscore the challenges in presenting the young female figure in a narrative context while mapping a personal emotional territory (especially since an adolescent girl entertains a certain level of visual power that will arguably not be afforded to her as she matures into adulthood). Working from photographs, Besl paints small-scale, tightly focused scenes of individual young women’s bodies in bodies of water—cropped close-ups of submerged activity with emphasis on oblique vantage points, concentrating on water at torso impact, swirling and eddying wave forms—the effervescing of a current breaking into a churning of limbs, hair radiating in strands. In these paintings there is a particularly abstract sense of the liquid, a viewer muses in metaphorically murky meditations, of womb-like visions in a fluid state of embryonic passage. Lush gold and greens predominate in contrast to the sylphic presence of the figure’s bright white flesh.

These paintings are intimate whereas photos wouldn’t be. Photographically a viewer would accept the incidental nature of the scene—something vaguely commercial, as if waiting for text and product image to be shopped in. Resolved in paint, the intensity of color in contrast with the glimpse of skin in the bubbling cascades creates a window-like, aquarial confinement bordering on the voyeuristic.

But Besl’s vision is significantly her own, and permeating her work is an investigation into the emotional development of young women. From her languid portraits of girls and horses, to her present studies of adolescent women swimming in some private lagoon, like Sally Mann before her, she challenges the viewers expectations about “girlhood” in paintings that serve as antidotes to familiar notions of sweetness and innocence, in the subdued and shifting complexities of confusing emotions and developing identities as girls move into the nascent anxieties of maturity, sex, and longing.

Undertow remains on exhibit through March 5.

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