Art review: Stephen O’Donnell, shifting history’s gaze

The Portland painter's historical revisions at Froelick Gallery upend the view of gender in Western art. Also at Froelick: Michael Schultheis's explosions of paint.

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Wait. Isn’t that Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe lolling on the lawn at Froelick Gallery? Sort of, yes. And absolutely, no.

Something seriously, beautifully playful’s going on in Re:Pose: Subverting the Gendered Gaze in the Historical Nude, Portland artist Stephen O’Donnell’s latest show at Froelick. The show’s 14 acrylic paintings are comfortingly familiar and yet eagerly willing to throw your expectations for a great big loop. Modestly sized and exquisitely turned, they feel domestic, like things you’d like to live with – obsessively detailed, in tiny brushstrokes that create an almost impossibly smooth and richly colored sheen. Time bends in these paintings, which seem at once throwbacks to the halcyon days of European art history and daring subversions of that tradition, luxuriantly recreating its skin and stuffing it with a thoroughly 21st century view of life and culture as fluid things.

Stephen O’Donnell, “After ‘Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ by Manet,” acrylic on panel, 30 x 40 inches, 2021.

Take that not-Manet. You know the original: luncheon al fresco in a meadow, a couple of gents in suits and ties hunkered down in the grass, amiably chatting. A scatter of doffed clothing and an overturned picnic basket in the foreground. In the background, a woman in nothing but a sheer clinging slip, reaching down to grab something out of the water. And dominating the painting with a mysteriously challenging staredown of anyone who chances to be standing in front of the canvas, a forthright and stark-naked woman, chin cupped in her hand, a small smile playing on her lips, exposed and daring, vulnerable and strong. Gendered gaze, indeed.

In O’Donnell’s version, the scene flipflops. In place of the two gentlemen, two fully clothed women. In the pond, a much more modestly draped woman stooping down. And in place of the imperturbably nude woman, a robust nude man, in the same pose, with hairy forearms and a close-shaved head. One further gender flipflop: The face of the woman on the right is O’Donnell’s own.

“I worried about doing something that was that iconic,” O’Donnell confesses in a videotaped interview with Portland writer Lidia Yuknavitch. And indeed, this is the most immediately recognizable painting in the exhibit, with the possible exceptions of two small reimaginings of the heads of David’s Death of Marat (the one in the bathtub) and Botticelli’s famously sea-swept Venus – both, again, with O’Donnell’s own face. Others – adapted from Caravaggio, Velázquez, Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi, Paris Bodone, Ingres, Titian, the 20th century painters Balthus and Tamara de Lempicka – are familiar but less immediately apparent in O’Donnell’s historic transformations.

Left: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, “Academic Study of a Male Torso,” 1801, oil on canvas, 38.3 x 31.7 inches, National Museum in Warsaw. Right: Stephen O’Donnell’s reinterpretation, acrylic on panel, 24 x 20 inches, 2020.

Culturally, there’s more going on in these paintings than simply inverting the sexualizing male gaze of so much European historic art. O’Donnell is shifting ideas in general about what gender means, breaking down the traditionally rigid views of “male” and “female” and expressing the contemporary idea of the fluidity of gender, in which a person’s gender identity can flow and overlap. The paintings suggest a new kind of self-identity and domesticity, in which what once might have been hidden or considered shocking is just the way things are.

What he’s doing in this show – extracting fresh meaning from old artworks by altering them enough to make something new; defying arbitrary borders and rigidity of thought – is similar to what the painter Kehinde Wiley often does: reimagining Black experience by reimagining European historical art, as in his very 21st century and very Black-cultural transformation of Thomas Gainsborough’s famous 1770 painting The Blue Boy. Wiley reinvents old paintings in a thoroughly contemporary visual style. O’Donnell subverts the old by carefully mimicking it. “When I was a little kid it was all about history,” he tells Yuknavich in her video interview. “And history brought me to art.” He’s concerned, he adds, with the “gender gaze and how we’re conditioned to look. … I think we have to fight that long history … in order to see it another way.”

Titian, “Venus of Urbino,” 1538, oil on canvas, 46.9 x 65 inches, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

In his conversation with Yuknavich, O’Donnell talks about the show’s two female nudes that are based on historical male nudes – “trying to locate the classical male nude and placing a woman in there and seeing what that would be.” He wanted, he told Yuknavich, to “express the strength and power of a female body … a real body.” Also, he stresses, we’re conditioned in historical art to seeing white bodies. Two of his models for this series are, respectively, a Black woman and a biracial man of Vietnamese heritage. Theirs are very much real bodies, rendered with sensitivity and skill.

Stephen O’Donnell, “After the Venus of Urbino” by Titian,” acrylic on panel, 24 x 36 inches, 2021.

O’Donnell’s cultural subversions can go subtly beyond the big reveal of his gender switches. In his version of Titian’s Venus of Urbino it pays to look beyond the reclining nude to the two women in the background. In Titian’s original from the 1530s, in which the nude is a bride-to-be, the two other figures are paying her no heed. They are maids, one on her knees, searching for something in a trunk on the floor; the other rolling up a sleeve as if to help. In O’Donnell’s version the two women are very much aware of the reclining nude man. Like Titian’s maids, they face away from him. But their necks are swiveled in his direction, and they are taking in his Edenic glory with – what? – shock? disapproval? envy? desire?

As carefully “historical” stylistically as his paintings can seem, chance plays a major role in their outcome. “A lot of my choices are subconscious,” he tells Yuknavich. “There’s only so much I can plan out. … I never know how an audience is going to react to these paintings.”

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The male model for O’Donnell’s reimagining of de Lempika’s La Chemise Rose – the same model who replaces that steady-eyed picnicking nude woman in his revision of Manet’s luncheon scene – has similarities to de Lempicka’s svelte model for La Chemise Rose, and it’s not so much the nipple as the upturned eyes: As O’Donnell tells Yuknavich, “He has big dreamy eyes, and so … they were useful.” De Lempika’s original was itself a daring, subversive painting, a frankly eroticized and quizzically assertive woman, painted by a woman artist, in angular Art Deco mode.

Left: Tamara de Lempicka, “La Chemise Rose,” c. 1927, oil on panel, 16.2 x 12.75 inches, private collection. Right: Stephen O’Donnell’s reinterpretation, acrylic on panel, 20 x 16 inches, 2020.

You get the clear sense in this exhibit that O’Donnell has deep respect for the paintings and painters he’s reinventing. If his own paintings are an act of subversion, they are also, so it seems, an act of love. What he’s looking for, he told Yuknavich, is “the beauty of real people. … It’s very much like the original. But you switch out the bodies and it becomes something else.”

Only in a culture in which politics impinges on private matters of sexuality and gender identity, dictating what is acceptable and what is not – indeed, what can be outcast and criminalized – could these paintings be considered political. We live, of course, in such a culture, and so they are. But their politics would be far less potent if the paintings weren’t also so highly accomplished as works of art. As a painter, O’Donnell has deep and deeply grounded skill, and he employs it in a form of meticulous realism that seems somehow slightly beyond the borders of reality. These are not inert paintings. They contain drama. Something’s always happening. And part of their dramatic effect lies in their supposed antiquity – in their audacious and unlikely ability to breathe life into a cadaver. The Western art tradition, dead? Not when it can shift like this.

***

Michael Schultheis, “Bouquets for Dürer,” acrylic on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, 2021.

ALSO BEING FEATURED AT FROELICK (the two shows continue through Nov. 27) is Dürer Moments in Breathing, an expansive selection of acrylic paintings by Seattle artist Michael Schultheis, and it makes for both an unexpected and bracing double feature with O’Donnell’s show. The two exhibits provide exhilarating evidence of the extraordinary possibilities of paint, and they do so by aiming in almost opposite directions. O’Donnell’s historically attuned paintings are closely controlled expressions of figurative tradition. Schultheis’s vivid abstracts explode with movement and color, like protozoans swimming in a petri dish, or celestial objects soaring through space. These aren’t splatter paintings – they’re worked and shaped – but they are joyful expressions of a universe beyond what we ordinarily think of as the recognizably physical.

In fact, you could read his paintings as expressions of the ordinarily invisible building blocks of the physical world. They are steeped in mathematics (look closely and you might see some math problems scrawled lightly on some of the paintings, as if on a chalkboard). And Schultheis’s paintings have ridges: flat in sections, robustly caked and slathered in others, like topographical maps. They suggest the artist’s sheer pleasure in the plastic possibilities of paint, and the pleasure is catching.

About the author
Senior Editor

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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