Truthful Poses

Artist Bailey Doogan presents women's bodies with realism and beauty.

In these final days of the art year, there's still time to catch the work of Bailey Doogan.

Down at Etherton Gallery, Doogan, a retired UA art professor, is part of a three-person show of works on paper that closes in a few days. (If you don't have time to get there by Saturday, you can view her exhibition online at Her latest work, 13 pieces in all, continues her years-long investigation of women's bodies as they really are. In her masterly hands, female flesh is portrayed as it rarely is in art: lived-in, marked, scarred, yet beautiful, arresting.

In the past, especially in a memorable show at the UA Museum of Art, Doogan has rendered these women dark and fierce, in charcoal on great swathes of paper. Other times, she's cast them as semi-religious icons. In a previous Etherton show, they were real-life Blessed Mothers in oils on canvas, Immaculate Conceptions demure yet nude, and endowed with their own Latin inscriptions.

This time around, the works are small-scale monoprints--one-of-a-kind oils painted on glass, then printed on paper--that Doogan sometimes further works with pastel. There's one woman to a picture (a couple feature men instead), and all of them are lit by luminous fairytale colors, shimmering whites, pinks, pale greens. The monoprint surfaces are lively and textured, the artist having ploughed through the paint with combs, scratched it into furrows, spread it out with rollers, and spiced it up with her thumbprints. Some of them, like "Coup," are set up like greeting cards, with painted roses framing the figure. "Just What You Want" has a woman standing on a print rug, its swirls and flowers stand-ins for conventional domesticity.

Some of the works are more chiaroscuro, with the bright lights and deep shadows characteristic of photography. They're reminders that these monoprints began their artistic life as photographs, in a collaboration with Ann Simmons-Myers, head of the photography program at Pima College. Working with Doogan, Simmons-Myers photographed real-life women (and two men), and these photographs served as inspiration for the subsequent monoprints. Quite often, Doogan herself is the model, either nude or dressed, Cindy Sherman-style, as various female archetypes.

These pictured women are marginally clad in odd bits of symbolic clothing, such as bridal veil, pink slip or apron, denoting bride, sexpot, domestic servant, housewife and so forth. But the garments hardly hide their female physicality. That apron barely covers the woman's genitals in "Just What You Want" (another apron, upside down, hides her face), and the bride's breasts gleam through the translucent white of her gauzy dress in "Veiled." Doogan here seems to be alluding to the destructive old idea that females are the fleshly gender, trapped in their bodies, while men (such as priests) can aspire to more ethereal, intellectual pursuits. Women may take on other roles, even conventional ones like wife or server, but their underlying, overwhelming sexuality and physicality can't be hidden. Their biology is their destiny.

A series of three "Self-Examination" works tackles a separate issue: that women themselves, influenced by rigid images of youthful beauty, come down hard on their own aging bodies. In each of these, a fully nude woman inspects her own flesh. These women have given birth, toiled, responded to gravity, and their bodies record life events great and small, in stretch marks and in folds of flesh. And Doogan makes them beautiful. This trio of lovely nudes, skillfully rendered, draws on the conventions of classical figure painting, of luminous bodies rendered in ambiguous space. But they do not stand in classical poses, waiting to be admired. Instead, they are absorbed in their private moments, oblivious of any gaze, male or otherwise.

In "Self-Examination III," the woman bends down, puts both hands on her thigh and looks at it carefully, searching for cellulite, perhaps. In "II" she curves her body around to the back and picks up a foot. In "Self-Examination I" the motive is medical: The woman cups her own breast and peers at it, anxiously looking for a malignancy. Dark and light like photos, these pictures cast the bodies in glistening gray and white, but the figures are surrounded by passages of blue-green, of dark ochre.

Doogan is a serious artist whose work is too often considered difficult. It's gratifying to know that planning is underway for a large one-person exhibition of her art, a co-production of the Etherton Gallery and the Tucson Museum of Art, complete with scholarly catalog. But Doogan is witty as well. The apron painting has a visual pun--the tray of jugs the woman is carrying is a stand-in for her hidden breasts. And the male pictures are funny, at the same time that they point up the absurdities of conventional porno poses for women.

In "The Slip," a bearded guy wears a shimmery pink slip. He's seated provocatively, legs apart, and the silky fabric spills onto the floor around him, revealing his genitals. In "Wrap Up," a nude man both tubby and bald has been bound up in leather belts. Both of them look ridiculous, of course, even grotesque. But then so would any human treated thusly.