Is there a source of inspiration more endlessly fascinating, yet also fraught, than the human body? Art has turned to corporeal forms for as long as it has existed, depicting the pain and the beauty of our earthly cages. Yet seeing the crane of a neck, the arch of a back, the gaze of an eye can send us reeling anew, trying to understand the image before us as we try to understand ourselves.
In the artist Cristina BanBan’s dazzling new show at Skarstedt gallery, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the female form is in full, commanding force, tapping into the long tradition of the painted nude. The 15 oil paintings in “Cristina BanBan: Mujeres” (on view through December 17) evoke a seizing of power, a recapturing of attention. The women are bold. They are strong (those hands!). Their Rubenesque bodies, projected onto canvases that can stretch more than seven feet tall, are shapely, fleshy, voluptuous. Their presence is visceral, immediate yet intimate, and, yes, sensual. But they are also at a remove, not so much beckoning the viewer as daring them to dwell. Who are you to stare? Who are you not to?
“The subject of my work has always been the female form,” BanBan, 35, told me in her airy Bushwick studio ahead of the opening. The paintings in “Mujeres,” though, seem particularly focused: The exhibition’s title means “women” in Spanish (she was born in Barcelona and is now based in Brooklyn), and all but one of the paintings have the title Mujeres or Mujer. This nomenclature is a nod toward Willem de Kooning, her artistic exemplar; his abstract-heavy Woman portraits are a clear inspiration. Both series layer body parts to surreal effect, using lines, proportion, and color as means of distortion. For BanBan, a hand from one figure will often jut out of the breast or hip of another within the frame, like in Mujeres I, a riveting piece in Skarstedt’s first-floor space. But where de Kooning imbued his paintings of women with an almost aggressive intensity, BanBan projects something different, something softer but more potent. Perhaps it’s because BanBan’s portraits inherently offer something de Kooning’s cannot: The painterly perspective of a woman.
Aside from her clear references to de Kooning, BanBan’s paintings in “Mujeres” evoke the strong figures of Paula Rego, sweeping colors of Cecily Brown and Helen Frankenthaler, and the contused portraits of Picasso and Francis Bacon (with whom she shares a birthday). But she maintains the larger influence on her work is not art history, but the human experience—her human experience—gleaned in conversations with friends, on a night out, while listening to music, by thinking about the world.
In this way, her paintings, she says, are like journals, chronicling her observations of herself and of others, a way to record life as it happens. If, like Sontag said, a journal “is a vehicle for [a] sense of selfhood,” then BanBan’s portraits are a way of turning that personal selfhood universal. For through depicting the body, we more clearly see the self, and if we can see it, we hopefully get that much closer to recognizing it, accepting it, and maybe even loving it.
“Cristina BanBan: Mujeres” is open now through December 17 at 20 East 79th Street.