JUST LAST WEEK the Pope spoke ex cathedra (literally, from the chair) to the faithful around the world, using the power of his seat to reiterate the Church's strict position on abortion.
Coincidentally, a few days before the Pope's big moment, a painting with the title "Ex Cathedra" went up on the Etherton Gallery walls. But there are no pope's or bishop's chairs, no miters or croziers, no trappings of male churchly authority in this oil by Bailey Doogan. Instead of a powerful man it portrays a stark woman. She's naked and unashamed, and the seams and folds of her middle-aged body have been lovingly rendered. Like the authoritative pope, she's seated, but she's in mid-air, without any chair at all.
"The woman is floating in space," explains the painter. "She's not really anywhere."
If there's dissonance in the painting style--the figure is rendered with Old Masters' precision, the background is an ambiguous modernist space--it's all part of Doogan's intention to chart woman's uneasy place in the culture. A longtime painting professor at the UA, Doogan often usurps the sacred images and words of her girlhood Catholicism. In this painting, though the woman has yet to find a place to be, at least she's laid claim to the seat of the all-male churchly hierarchy. Her head is thrown back in a scream, perhaps of rage, perhaps of terror, but there's no doubt she's daring to speak for herself.
"Growing up Catholic, I realized the power of symbols and images and how they were used to manipulate people," Doogan says. "The same is true in advertising. Both use people's fears and insecurities as a method of control."
Like her other paintings of recent years, "Ex Cathedra" reflects Doogan's feminist preoccupations with the culture's contempt for the body, especially for the female body that has had long experience of life. Her meticulous renderings of older female flesh
have not exactly made Doogan a fortune, though she shows in such respected venues as the Alternative Museum in New York City. "I think they're beautiful," Doogan says, but some viewers, long accustomed to the art convention of painting only the young, find Doogan's older women grotesque.
"In the history of art, the nude is not an individual person," Doogan says. "I became interested in being non-universal, very specific, in depicting bodies of a particular shape, the body marked by time and experience. For many people that's disturbing."
Doogan works long hours teaching at the university--she says some days she's out of the house from morning until late at night--but on this day she's carved out an hour to talk about her work, which is part of a new three-person show at Etherton. (The other artists are Holly Roberts, a New Mexican who paints on photographs, and Randy Spalding, a Tucsonan who's fashioned small painted sculptures.) A tidy figure in black, with a single long braid down her back, Doogan sits companionably on a bench just in front of the seated woman of "Ex Cathedra."
The painter, now in her 50s, grew up poor in a small town just west of Philadelphia. Her family didn't have the money to send her to the suburban academy most of her elementary schoolmates went to, so she made the long trek via public transportation to the free Catholic high school in the city.
"I went to an inner city high school with poor kids, but I found out later that was one of the best school systems on the East Coast," she says. The classical education she got there still has an impact on her art. Her Latin was good enough in high school that she was able to read Virgil's Aeneid in the original, and Latin phrases and puns still abound in her works.
Doogan got a scholarship to Philadelphia's Moore College of Art, where she majored in illustration.
"At Moore you really learned to draw and paint, which is true of art schools in Philadelphia in general." Abstract Expressionism reigned when she was in school and she was required to try her hand at the style in class, but her own paintings were figurative from the start.
"I love paint, color, composition and surface," she says. "But for me, the idea has always been the primary thing in painting. My content hasn't changed. My work has always been about people, about the dynamic between interior and exterior, between the emotional and the physical body. My work has always been narrative, and it always had to do with language."
After graduation from art school, Doogan worked first as an illustrator, then as a graphic designer. She had a lot of success during her six years in advertising in New York City--"I designed the Morton salt package"--but she wearied of the work after a time. A growing political consciousness took her off to Harlem to teach and got her clubbed by police when she stormed the Pentagon during a war protest. Eventually, longing for the wide open spaces of the West, she landed the faculty position at the UA. Later on, she picked up a master's at UCLA.
Today, she counts her years on Madison Avenue, along with Catholicism, as a major influence on her art. Women, she believes, inhabit a "culture of self-loathing, fed by advertising. Women are valued for what they look like. Every ad, every thing you see or read tells you that you're supposed to be young and beautiful. My work is the antithesis of that."
If "Ex Cathedra" is an angry challenge to the church's male authorities, two other pieces in the show, "The Lift" and "The Pie in the Sky," confront our narrow definitions of female beauty. Both show a face that's been bruised and slashed.
"They're based on drawings I did of a friend who had a facelift. It was pretty brutal. These pieces are not a condemnation of women who have facelifts. I'm just asking why we do it. What's the reason?" she asks.
Then Doogan answers her own question.
"These are rituals of scarification."
The exhibition of works by Bailey Doogan, Holly Roberts and Randy Spalding continues through May 27 at Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave. Hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, with extended hours until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, and from 7 to 10 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of the month. For more information call 624-7370.
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