James Fuentes Gallery
September 8 – October 28, 2023
Currently debuting in Los Angeles at James Fuentes Gallery, a retrospective exhibit, Moving Through, may be deemed unfit for the faint of heart, and will even jolt viewers out of their skin a little. Artist Juanita McNeely is an expressionist painter notorious for her wild, large-scale renditions of the female body. Coming into her own during a time (the 1950’s and onwards) in which flatness was all the rage, and figurative work was mostly shunned, much less from a feminist standpoint, McNeely defiantly heeded her own intuition to create bursts of fierce, expressive movement. Indeed, she has spent the last 60+ years, courageously and unapologetically, referring to the female state in its rawest, most emotional form.
Within her distorted figurations, we might recognize hints of painters like Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele, yet McNeely’s expression is born entirely of her own imagination. In her world, the limits of the flesh are transcended, as women are seen exuberantly bending and leaping, challenging their relationship to materiality and space, as well as societal constraints at large.
Boasting only three pieces, venerably hung from the gallery’s main walls, the exhibition features oil on linen and canvas paintings, each consisting of seven to nine slender panels, which are fused together to create rich narratives.
The title work, Moving Through (1975), takes us on a journey through a series of aggressive obstacles in which woman is protagonist – albeit as both victim and vanquisher. The leftmost panel opens the scene with a flurry of savage primate figures, perhaps symbolizing the overbearing nature of testosterone. The panels that follow show several female nudes audaciously leaping into the air with sprawled legs and reaching arms, interrupted by additional inconvenient truths, such as gruesome medical operations.
In one scene, a row of images depicts close-ups of the vagina after what appears to have been a ghastly procedure, emphasized by certain skeletal elements. The central most panel, a bright chartreuse contrasting the other, mostly umber ones, is perhaps the most chilling, as it concentrates the breadth of physical suffering into one pronounced image.
Here, a female form is bound to a slanted medical chair. Her vulnerable feminine part is exposed through spread legs, one of which has been amputated at the knee, while the other is locked in place at the ankle. The squirming, contorted toes of the remaining foot, as well as a skeleton torso wrapped in mummy fashion, only add to the horrific, ominous atmosphere.
The other two pieces, From the Black Space I (1976) and From the Black Space II (1977) deliver equally bold and graphic imagery, yet remotely focus on McNeely’s soaring female figures, the environments with which they interact left muted. While this series successfully echoes the cries of universal anguish, there is also a message of triumph and strength that carries through: The declaration that, lest we abandon our will, there is nothing in the external realm that can fully break the human spirit.
Cover image: From the Black Space 1; all images courtesy of James Fuentes Gallery, photographed by the author.