Many of us are under the misapprehension that a gallery show represents an endpoint for an artist: a bow around a completed thought that now exists in the past or a place of arrival after which the artist must move on to their next definitive body of work. This idea functions like a dam on the river of an artist’s practice, creating an artificial stop that doesn’t need to be there. If I took one thing away from Anya Roberts-Toney’s exhibition at Nationale, it’s the pleasure of seeing an artist in process.
The title of the show, “If She Floats,” is a reference to the swim tests given to women suspected of being witches through the end of the 18th century. If a woman floated, she was proclaimed a witch and burned alive. If she sank, she was absolved, though many women drowned during the test. Or as modern women understand this predicament: fucked if you do, fucked if you don’t.
Nearly all of Roberts-Toney’s large-scale oil paintings feature water—in the form of Disneyfied fountains, amniotic pools, and hedonistic baths—as a through line to represent the tension and complexity of femininity. Only one of her canvases lacks a female figure, but even there the empty, ebullient swimming hole waits for her.
Roberts-Toney’s palette is strange and singular. Some canvases are thick with apricots and teals—redolent of 1950s Miami Beach—while others mix acid celandine with deep aubergine into a surprising and satisfying marriage. Taken as a whole, it all feels a bit subversive, actually: the swirl of girlish pastels leading the eye into eddies of inky blackness. The receptive versus the resistant, the soft flirting with the hard—like a woman in a frilly dress with combat boots.
With an MFA in Visual Studies, it’s clear that Roberts-Toney is thinking a lot about how women have been represented over time—as objects of desire, pleasure, and disregard—as well as how viewers have been trained to find delight in that objectification. I was lucky to view the show with the artist present, and she told me that she aims to “slow the availability of the female figure,” so as to interrupt the viewer’s consumption of the women in her compositions. One of the ways she does this is by hopping between detail and abstraction. Some figures have finely rendered features to draw in your gaze while others offer nothing more than the vague suggestion of a female form. She also uses surreality to great effect, confounding the viewer’s attention with spirits, embryos, and two-headed, four-breasted creatures.
In considering the representation of women throughout history, Roberts-Toney frequently references seminal (read: male) painters in her work. In her painting titled The Birth of Venus, she appropriates the zaftig pink figure lying in a half shell from a work by Odilon Redon of the same name. In Roberts-Toney’s version, the birth refers to an infant the woman is holding, shifting the subject of the work and confronting our ability to sexualize a new mother.
The bathers in many of her canvases are reminiscent of Cezanne’s, and their body positions, with their hands clasped behind their heads, are a nod to Matisse. Similarly, the crouched bather in the background of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe makes an appearance in the background of New Monuments, one of the two paintings from Roberts-Toney’s 2020 solo show that still hangs in the back room of the gallery. This tells me that she has been deconstructing and reconstructing the canon as part of her practice.
I asked what drew her to witches for this show; Roberts-Toney explained that the water element had been present in her earlier works but that the witches started scratching at her awareness more recently, for reasons she couldn’t completely explain. When artists talk about subjects and themes this way, it excites me terribly. It’s my belief that great art is borne of obsession, and the more that artists follow the things that keep them awake or won’t stop tapping them on the shoulder—even if they don’t understand why—the more their work becomes theirs. I see this happening in Roberts-Toney’s practice, and it will be interesting to watch where it takes her.
A series of smaller, closer portraits of women’s faces hangs in the second gallery. There’s an urgency to these works on paper that isn’t present in the larger canvases, which is a beautiful reflection of how they came to be. Every evening when Roberts-Toney is finishing up in her studio, she uses whatever oils are left on her palette—which would otherwise dry up overnight—to paint them. The color stories are quite different from the larger canvases, because the artist is mixing together oils she might not under other circumstances, but they’re equally arresting. They are some of my favorite pieces in the show.
It’s exciting, as a viewer, to see the results of the varied ways an artist works, to be able to feel the looseness and immediacy that comes with speed as opposed to the more considered quality that time affords. By showing both of these to us, Roberts-Toney, like the women in her compositions, asks us to contemplate more than what first meets our eye.
“If She Floats” is on view at Nationale through November 28th. The gallery is located at 15 SE 22nd Avenue and is open Mondays & Thursdays-Saturdays from 11am-6pm. Sundays it is open from 12pm-5pm.