Joan of Arc. Wonder Woman. Michelle Obama. What do these three people have in common? These are women who have been champions of feminine strength in a man-powered world. But what if there were only women in this world; how would we define power, or women for that matter? Artist Jen Ray explores these questions in her exhibition Virago coming to SOCO Gallery February 20.
Jen Ray was born in Raleigh, NC and now lives and works in New York City. Ray creates paintings, works on paper, and performances that explore gender in society through portrayals of strong women in apocalyptic settings. Virago builds on her established universe, where the title could refer to a heroic woman or one who has shunned cultural norms.
Ray’s new exhibition consists of multimedia paintings, works on paper, and video. She depicts rounded figures with long legs in stunningly stylish heels inhabiting a blank page. The bodies are hidden under a large sheet stippled to appear like glitter or sequins. The sheets may look similar with monochrome or stripes, but each figure is characterized by their shoes. They wear thigh-high stilettos, platform Nikes, or boots, and each with a spike on the heel. They stand near each other, sit together, face apart, but it is not clear whether they are interacting or merely coexisting. Hooded and meandering, these figures are not in hiding, they’re in-fashion.
Despite their mysterious appearance, the artist is certain that every one of these individuals is a woman. This is always a choice she makes in her work.
“I really have only ever been interested in drawing women. I’m just interested in how women think, how they behave…I think a lot of times women wear masks in society so they fit in with what people think women are all about.”
While it is clear that the women of Virago are masked by cloth, her other work takes off the mask of civility and reveals what is underneath. Her 2015 exhibition “Deep Cuts” displayed large-scale illustrations with women amidst fire and chaos. It is as if society has been torn down and women have risen up to thrive in anarchy. In Untitled (2013), women are gathered around what looks like a fiery maypole. Adorned with capes and wild hair, the women run with their spoils, stand atop the fallen, or add more fire to the flames. Tense and tumultuous, Ray’s work reads like a history painting from a dark alternate reality.
Performance is integral in Ray’s work. Her uproarious multimedia paintings are often premiered with a show of the same energy. Music, to Ray, is the medium of counterculture. It pushes the boundaries of sound, instrumentation, and fashion until they break. The women in Ray’s performances bring this same fearlessness to the gallery. Dressed like glam rock goddesses, performers sing and scream to the audience as if they are the sovereign of Ray’s new world. A projection of past performances will be on display opening night.
Ray creates society and tears it down, like a “wrecked stage set.” Virago is a shift in aesthetic from her previous drawing work. Rather than depicting the “stage,” her new exhibition at SOCO has torn down the set and cleared it away, leaving only hooded figures in heels to perform as female. Through the cover we can sense her power, which is not defined by her looks, but her presence. These viragos, gifted with a blank canvas, are left to create a world of their own desire.