On June 20, the Women’s Studies Research Center (WSRC) opened an exhibition of works by Waltham-based artist and activist Suzanne Hodes. Titled “Family Matters: Three Generations of Women,” the collection explored the lives of Hodes, her mother and her grandmother while expressing themes such as family, time and both physical and emotional distance.
Hodes, a New York City native, attended both Radcliffe College and Brandeis University, where she studied with Arthur Polonsky and Department of Fine Arts founder Mitchell Siporin. Additionally, she attended Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, studied in Salzburg, Austria with Oskar Kokoschka, and received an MFA from Columbia University where she studied with Meyer Schapiro. She has since had a long exhibition career and notable commitment to activism.
Co-founding the peace group Artists for Survival in 1982, Hodes helped utilize the power of art in working toward a nuclear weapons freeze. In addition to the works in “Family Matters,” the WSRC features a supplementary exhibition of artwork and archival material from her time with this organization.
Hodes’ exhibition, consisting of paintings, drawings and prints, uses portraits as its primary art form. Traditionally, portraiture focuses on a person or multiple persons as its clear and defined subject. While most people are accustomed to the historical role of portraiture in art as honorific and very clear representations of subjects, the medium has diversified heavily in the past one hundred years. This has created a level of freedom in expression that is present in “Family Matters.”
In several of Hodes’ pieces, the portrait itself creates a powerful experience of connection and familial closeness. In portraits of Hodes’ mother, her grandmother and other relatives, this permeates through the work and captures aspects of the intimacy between the subject and the artist. One piece that demonstrates the power of this closeness is “Mother in Her Orange Robe,” 1989. An oil-on-canvas work, it depicts Hodes’ mother in the private setting of her own home, wearing clothing that one would only be seen in by a relative. The vibrant warmth of the robe’s color, contrasted against the cool blue room, heightens the warmth of the woman herself who balances carefully with a wizened and arthritic hand, but presents herself sturdily to the artist and the viewer. With a look of peace and trust on her face, she expresses a deep connection that is both recognizable and moving.
In contrast, some portraits explore elements of separation—between subject and viewer, between background and foreground and in other dimensions—often heightened by the theme of aging. These particular works convey the inherent separation that aging forges between a person’s or family’s past and present. Yet the exhibit presents a common theme of connecting to the past and the legacy and lingering permanence of one’s predecessors.
This past Monday, the artist returned to the WSRC to participate in a panel discussion on “Expressive Portraiture.” Examining both Hodes’ works and the works of other artists, the panelists discussed methods and themes in portraiture as well as the art form’s place in contemporary society.
The discussion opened with professor emerita Dr. Pam Allara’s remarks on the changing role of portraiture and its rebirth as a once “old and dismissed” genre, characterizing Hodes as “part of a new tradition.” She later focused on the dichotomy that exists between intimacy and otherness within portraiture, and how “Family Matters” contains such intimacy that “daughter, mother, and grandmother begin to merge,” while at times also presenting an otherness that alluded to Hodes’ mentor Kokoschka, citing his haunting “Portrait of Adolf Loos.” Dr. Holloway also focused on the idea of blurred identity, arguing that “all art is a self-portrait”; to paint someone else is to paint one’s own alter ego. Her talk included the theme of portraiture as effacement; the family or couple portrait pre-1900, in its formal and reserved nature, stripped subjects of their unique personalities. The contemporary self-portrait allows the artist to distort and even erase the self, often as a statement of activism.
Hodes’ talk focused substantially on her experiences and influences as an artist as well as their connections to “Family Matters.” Of this exhibition, she gave insight into the “gestalt” idea of the relationship between subject and space and how it influenced her technique of characterizing a portrait subject through use of obscured background images. This is visible especially in “Three Generations” and in “Grandmother’s World”. She, like Dr. Holloway, also focused on the alter ego, which she described through insight into the encroaching and possessive shadow in her drawing “Metamorphosis.”
The WSRC’s Kniznick Gallery, housing this exhibition, is one of the only galleries in the Northeast that houses the work of female artists exclusively. Founded in 2002 as a partner with the Feminist Art Project, a national initiative housed at Rutgers University, it aims to promote dialogue on important issues and address the ever-changing challenges relating to women and gender.
The exhibition will continue through Sept. 25 with an additional event, “Artist’s Slide Talk: Art & Activism” on Wednesday, Sept. 18 at 1 p.m.