Click on photos to enlarge.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Kathy Drago

Sofía, 2018, Kathy Drago
Almost from the time cavemen first put pigment to stone walls, one of the most consistent content areas in painting has been the human figure. It's hard to say which gender predominated going back that far, but not difficult to contend that since then images of the female figure have far outstripped those of men by (I'm guessing here) a factor of at least two to one. Given the fact that most paintings which survive today were painted by men and that men are stimulated by what they see, rather than what the feel, the reason for this lopsided emphasis on women down through the ages almost certainly has to do with the male sensual/sexual attraction inherent (and vital) in human relations. Strangely though, when women began to paint figures and portraits shortly after the Renaissance, they did not paint the opposite sex to any great extent but rather other women. Yet the one consistency painters of both genders shared in painting women (whether nude or clothed) was that they were invariably young women inasmuch as beauty and youth have long been equated.
Kathy Drago in her studio located in Houston's museum district.
Kathy Drago is a contemporary female painter living in Texas. Photos of her would suggest she's "middle-aged" beyond which I'm not willing to conjecture. And, like her historic counterparts, she paints women almost exclusively (she does a few nearly non-representational abstracts too). There, however, any vestige of traditional female renderings grinds to a screeching halt. Kathy Drago paints only elderly women, or as she puts it, women from "late life." She defines this period in a woman's life as between 75 and 100 years of age; and finds it very satisfying to paint a face of a completely lived life. As we view each old woman, she intends for us to think about her inner life, her story, who she used to be, and who she is now.
Kathy Drago bucks the tendency of contemporary artists to paint HUGE works. These are on panels approximately life-size.
Kathy Drago finds the physical part of painting aging to be the most compelling with its topography of eyelid drapes, droopy jowls, neck flab, and the asymmetry of the wrinkled face. Kathy's interest in painting elderly women began as she was reading Women in Late Life by Martha Holstein, a college professor who teaches gender and geriatric studies. She wrote that when you get old, unless you have some sort of debilitating, painful disease, you’re usually happy. Most elders say they’re the happiest they have ever been. Although some of Kathy Drago's women look none too happy, I would heartily agree. I'm nearing her chosen age group and I've never been happier.
Esther, Kathy Drago
A retired school principal, Kathy had long been painting abstracts (below). When she retired in 2012, she ordered a number of small, square, 10-inch wood panels upon which to practice. One of her first was Miss B, an old friend who had also been a school principal. That turned out to be the first of a long series. After having painted the first few, she came to realize why she was doing them. Her mother had died recently, leaving her the last of her childhood family alive. She asked herself: “How do I get old?” She was also thinking about women politically, as with the #MeToo movement. It’s like women become invisible when they’re no longer sexually attractive.
The artist insists it’s hard to paint a young woman. "There’s nothing you can do with the face. With the elderly, there’s so much going on—a whole lifetime on a face." Kathy notes that with these "old gals", there’s nothing symmetrical anymore. Their faces are like landscapes. Some of her portraits derive from photos found in obituary columns. In other cases, women have stop by her studio asking to be painted. The urge to be immortalized grows with advancing age. Other images are those of her mother's friends. They're not faithful portraits. One of her subjects in seeing her painted self complained, "Why did you give me so many wrinkles?" Kathy reminded her that she had left out many more. The woman was 93. When photographing women to paint, Kathy urges them to tell their story. Then while they’re talking, she takes a photo-burst. She notes that people make the best expressions when they’re talking. Later, when she paints, Kathy tries to build a character. She tries to visually discover what’s in her heart. What does she want? How does her voice sound? When finished, she gives them all names.
I Am So Upset, Kathy Drago. After several hours posing the model's patience was wearing thin. It shows.
Kathy Drago has a background in improvisational theater. It shows in her work, in the spontaneity and fearless exploration she exhibits. Like jazz, improvisational theater actually has an essential structure underlying the performance--something immediate and wonderful right away. This structure gives coherence and allows artistic choices to gain clarity by building upon each other. Her theatrical background speaks as to how she paints her abstracts: big, bold, somewhat figurative abstracts; cartoonish and flirty drawings that become paintings with masses of color and fearless brush work--figurative beginnings improvised to abstraction. Kathy explains that it’s a process of answering questions and improvising solutions, acknowledging the original figure by observing the lines and shapes and then playing with the motion and rhythm and how the shapes fit together, pushing and pulling on each other, all the time wrestling with how to address the drama and the calm. When people look at her paintings, the eye is urged to follow the lines, colors and shapes and be curious as they discover figurative and non-objective elements and surprises. Likewise in her female faces, Kathy hopes viewers will enjoy the expressive lines, notice the movement and texture of the brush strokes, and be thrilled with the colors. It's an effort to entertain as well as seeing spontaneity through a new lens.
I Tell You What..., Kathy Drago
In summing up her work, Kathy Drago makes the point that very old people, the majority of whom are women, make us uncomfortable: "They unnerve us; not only because their bodies are frail and slow, but because they remind us that, if we are lucky, we will be just like them someday. This fear makes us wary to engage and see them as they really are; we'd rather dismiss the inevitable and convince ourselves that our own aging will be different. It’s easier to ignore them and make them invisible. Yet they deserve to be painted. These women are living the old, old life and figuring it out. They are our guides. Almost all of them are looking directly at us and nudging us, the 'not yet old,' to see what’s next, and face up to the coming attraction."

Well, This Is a Deal, Kathy Drago


No comments:

Post a Comment