Annie Kevans exhibit empowers, rediscovers

Kevans,-Frida-Kahlo,-2014,-oil-on-paper,-16-x-12-inches
Jenkins Johnson Gallery/Courtesy

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The canon of historical art is filled to the brim with women. For centuries, a multitude of female faces have been meticulously crafted from brush strokes both big and small, with their bodies ranging from lithely slender to roundly Rubenesque and their frames from demurely clothed to brazenly nude. Indeed, museums of historical art are a great place to see women in art — but they’re not a great place to see the works of women who make art. Female artists are often left out of the exclusive canon, a reality that British painter Annie Kevans knows all too well.

It is the patriarchal normativity of the art world that inspired Kevans to create her new portrait collection, aptly titled “Women and the History of Art,” which is now showing at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco. Comprising 23 portraits, the exhibit includes pieces that are modeled after previous paintings of acclaimed female artists including Diane Arbus, Artemisia Gentileschi and Frida Kahlo, among others.

It seems the exhibit serves a dual role: It’s both a “thank you” to the women who have been inspirational to Kevans’ own career and a pithy “fuck you” to the historians and curators who continue to downplay their role in art history.

Kevans, who received a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Central Saint Martins School of Art and Design in London, uses oil on paper — the latter of which she now crafts herself — to create the light, breezy and almost luminous portraits of the female artists. A predominantly pale color palette adds a sense of delicacy to the works, while the occasional crimson red lip or royal blue scarf adds a boldness that matches the pictured woman’s tenacity.

Thick brush strokes on paper intimate a hasty application of paint, deceptively hiding what was truly a time-consuming process for the artist.

“I do a lot of research,” she told her audience at the exhibit’s opening Oct 2. “I can’t paint someone if I don’t know who they are. In fact, when I’ve tried to do that in the past, it’s turned out horrible, and I just get really stuck.”

It’s hard to imagine Kevans, who has been commissioned by designer Jean Paul Gaultier to make portraits and has been featured in Harper’s Bazaar’s “Forty under 40” list, ever staying “stuck” for long. She has been a part of more than three dozen exhibits, though this is her first on the West Coast.

For the collection, Kevans purposely selected female artists whose accomplishments are indisputable.

“I didn’t want to open that up,” she told Emma Acker, assistant curator of American art at the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco, during a public talk. “I didn’t want (their achievements) to be questioned.”

In doing so, Kevans chooses to tell a story of triumph rather than struggle — though the latter continues to be the unfortunate norm for female artists hoping to have their work shown in museums and galleries today­­. According to the exhibit’s press release, only 5 percent of galleries in London currently show an equal number of works by men and women.

This statistic makes the portraiture collection ever more powerful. By focusing solely on those who have found success in the male-dominant discipline, Kevans’ exhibit is able to transcend its applicability to the artistic realm and serve as a reminder to women in a variety of fields that success is possible. The proverbial glass ceiling can be broken.

The artist’s collection becomes a proxy through which her subjects’ own accomplishments can be lionized. The effect of each 16-by-12-inch portrait may be subtle­, but when viewed as a collection, the numerous paintings combine to broadcast a powerful message that betrays their illusory simplicity­­­: These women’s contributions will not be forgotten, try as a cliquish history might. The white showroom of Jenkins Johnson Gallery becomes filled with not only the innovation of Annie Kevans but also that of the talented women whom she painted. Who knew pretty little portraits could be so empowering?

“Women and the History of Art” will be exhibited at Jenkins Johnson Gallery until Dec. 23.