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Artist Sarah Stolar Dismantles the Patriarchy

"More", oil on canvas, 60" x 48", 2018

Artist Sarah Stolar's large-scale paintings are currently on show in a group exhibition at the Elizabeth Jones Art Center for Social and Environmental Justice, in Portland, Oregon. The title of the exhibition is Power Positions: A Dismantling of Phallacies, and as the pun in the title suggests, each of the artists presents work that questions patriarchal power structures by concentrating on women and female expression. In the words of the exhibition prospectus, they "explore themes of misogyny, intersectional feminism, body politics, sex and sexuality, power/empowerment, and systems of oppression."

Stolar contributes eleven paintings that nearly all share common themes and method of making. "More", from 2018, is a good example of this style: a woman staring directly at the viewer, her pose and gesture indicating confidence, possession of her own body, even defiance (for example, the gesture of the right hand could be self-pleasure, or it could be a version of the male "junk-grab" that means "fuck you"), the figure of the woman isolated against a flat colour, background emptied of objects, and the subject painted larger than life size so that she seems to tower over you.

Exhibition view

In other paintings, we see a woman holding a mirror up to a breast (this is a portrait of  artist Balitronica of the radical performance art group La Pocha Nostra). Her semi-nudity is not at all an erotic invitation but a private moment where the concentration of the picture space again forces the viewer to concentrate on the gesture, on what is happening in the painting, on what may be happening in the mind of the sitter, rather than on their own assumptions as (male) viewers. In "Sex Goddess", Stolar uses that same focus and intensity of representation in a portrait of the disabled performance artist Jessica Blinkhorn. The title of the painting is presented without irony, the bare breasts and the stiletto heels claiming the right of this body to the universal expression of self in eros.

"Sex Goddess", oil on canvas, 72" x 72", 2021

Technically, the way Stolar positions the figure on the canvas and the handling of the paint brings to mind old magazine covers, ones in which the image is more hyper-real than strictly representational, almost lurid in the combination of acid-toned colours and direct lighting. The women in pulp magazine covers were often grotesquely sexualized, either as victims or as over-aggressive threats. In Stolar's interpretation, her work presents women as figures of utmost strength, freed from male attention and approval, freed into themselves.

Power Positions: A Dismantling of Phallacies continues at the Elizabeth Jones Art Center for Social and Environmental Justice in Portland, Oregon, through March 18, 2022.

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