Of Goddesses and Sheroes: Ana Benaroya’s Contemporary Mythological Paintings
According to Homer, the sirens described in the Odyssey by the goddess Circe are winged monster women who were—surprise!—absolutely up to no good. Their Attic raison d ́etre: to lure Odysseus’ sailors to their rocky deaths by hypnotizing them with seductive siren song. Since the founding of the Western canon, sirens have symbolized temptation, desire, and, additionally, risk to male life and limb. In the hands of painter Ana Benaroya these same figures get a twenty-first century non-binary makeover. The result: a painterly universe of ample-haunched, buxom goddesses and sheroes that draws high and low inspiration from sources as varied as Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Reginald Marsh, Tom of Finland and Michelangelo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
A fashioner of larger than life figures, Benaroya paints and draws powerful and muscular women with flowing hair, enormous breasts and rock-hard nipples that substantially buck standard male depictions of women—be it in Greek and Roman myth, Janson’s art history, Marvel Comics, Mad Ave copy, you name it…. Depicted as giantesses, Benaroya’s Amazons sport the sort of bulging pecs and biceps usually reserved for serialized characters like the Hulk, or, alternately, popular camp depictions of male desire (think Jared French and Paul Cadmus). Even in today’s climate of putative inclusiveness, her brazenly buff ladies prove inexplicably jarring. Picture an alternate Mount Olympus peopled exclusively by free-loving Lisa Lyons look-alikes and you’re halfway to conceptualizing the surprise attendant to encountering Benaroya’s blatantly sexualized, color-saturated, subversive femmes féroces. (For those not sufficiently well versed in 1980s visual transgressions: Lisa Lyons was the first World Women’s Bodybuilding Champion and a Robert Mapplethorpe muse from 1980 until the photographer’s death in 1989.)
Trained as an illustrator before receiving an MFA from Yale in 2019, Benaroya is transparent about her obsession with her characters’ early inspiration: the preening, well-oiled masculine figure. What started as childhood cribbing of imagery drawn from superhero comics, sports cards and action figures turned, in time, into a fully realized pictorial worldview that reckoned with both the personal and the political: rapidly modernizing attitudes toward gender fluidity and Benaroya’s own sexuality. “I was a huge tomboy and always thought boys clothing felt right, and preferred action figures to Barbies and dolls,” she told one interviewer. “I was fixated on learning how to draw each and every muscle, to the point where I completely neglected drawing the female figure.” Until, of course, she didn’t. After this complete about face, Benaroya came to own the mysteries of the female Apollonian body like few of her elders or contemporaries.
Benaroya’s paintings and drawings dismantle the power dynamics of gender stereotypes, while also offering what can easily be described as a joyful apotheosis of lesbian sexuality. Her most recent figures disport across eight individual canvases, one diptych and three drawings while refusing ready- made categories of normative desire. They kiss, embrace, float, flex and frolic on an Aegean that is less conventionally mythological than celebratory and fantastical. At times, her characters appear “all too human,” to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase for “free spirits”; at others, God-like or super- human. Take the painting God Only Knows (2022): it features a flame-haired, magenta-colored character lying face up on a sea viscous enough to bead upwards. In a second otherworldly canvas titled Shower of Godness (2022) an emerald-colored Venus stares gleefully into a vanity mirror: she combs her hair with a shooting star and evidently finds herself, well, Venus-like.
Benaroya’s mastery of comics and caricature is evident such paintings. Elsewhere it’s possible to draw a straight line between her canvases and the ingenious and sardonic play of a canon-insurgent like Robert Colescott. Like the Black figures Colescott inserted into classical paintings—Édouard Manet’s Olympia for one—Benaroya’s female characters appear insurrectionary yet are also moved by what one might term an alternative music; a Spotify playlist, if you will, that animates each painting and binds them together loosely as a series. “For all my solo exhibitions, I like having a theme that I work with, even though I’m depicting characters that reappear throughout all my shows,” Benaroya has said. “I also pull painting titles from songs a lot,” she told this writer. “When I listen to a song I like, I feel and channel those emotions.”
For her latest exhibition “Beneath a Paper Moon,” Benaroya has made the sirens of Homer’s Odyssey her putative protagonists and Ella Fitzgerald’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon” her title song. Fitzgerald’s warble vocalizes a good deal of the riotous energy and exuberant mystery embedded in Benaroya’s paintings of powerful women: “Yes, it’s only a canvas sky/Hanging over a muslin tree/But it wouldn’t be make-believe/If you believed in me.” The rapturous visuals for a new mythology are born.
Ana Benaroya (b. 1986, New York) lives and works in Jersey City, New Jersey. She received her MFA in painting from Yale School of Art in 2019 and a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2008. Recent solo and two-person shows include ‘The Muse’s Gaze: Ana Benaroya & Yinka Shonibare CBE’, Morgan Presents, New York; ‘The Passenger’, Carl Kostyál, London (2021); ‘The Softest Place on Earth’, Ross+Kramer Gallery, New York, (2020); ‘Teach Me Tonight’, Richard Heller Gallery, Los Angeles (2020); ‘Beach Bodies’, Ross + Kramer Gallery, East Hampton, NY (2019); ‘Two First Names: Ana Benaroya and Anna Park’, Over the Influence, Los Angeles (2019); NSFW – Postmasters Gallery, New York (2018); ‘Standing Before Evil’, Masur Museum of Art, Monroe, LA; ‘My Foolish Heart’ Rabbithole Projects, Brooklyn, NY.
Benaroya’s work has been shown in numerous group exhibitions, most recently in ‘Stockholm Sessions’, Carl Kostyál, Stockholm (2021); ‘Resting Point of Accommodation’, Almine Rech, Brussels (2021); ‘Allegory of Painting’, WOAW Gallery, Hong Kong (2021); ‘How About Them Apples?’, Ross + Kramer Gallery, New York; ‘1988′, Anthony Gallery, Chicago (2020); ‘American Woman’, Allouche- Benias Gallery, Athens, amongst others. Her work is included in the public collections of The Beth DeWoody Collection, The Herb & Lenore Schorr Collection, The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection, The Hall Art Foundation, The Alex Katz Foundation, and Zuzeum Art Center, Latvia.
This is Ana’s second solo exhibition with Carl Kostyál and her first in Stockholm.
Photo by Carl Henrik Tillberg ©️ the artist. Courtesy of Carl Kostyál, London | Stockholm