When a sculptor leaves the studio and descends into the basement, her process can be invigorated. For the figurative sculptor Judith Shea (American, b. 1948), a tour of the storage facility of the National Academy Museum in preparation for an exhibition led the artist to confront portraits of female academicians dating from 1846 to 1994 and to create new sculpture inspired by the historic works. Shea has worked in bronze, wood and presently polystyrene across her four decade career.
There is often a feminist undercurrent in her pieces: female figures gaze straight ahead and hold assured postures. Determination and stridency are components the artist carves into her subjects. Yet organizing an exhibition was a departure for her. By studying paintings on storage racks, consulting with an in-house curator, and making selections of objects, Shea was spurred to make new work in a continuum with those she chose. They are a departure because the individuals are identifiable and members of the National Academy: Louise Bourgeois (American, b. France 1911 – 2010), and Elizabeth Catlett (American, 1915 – 2012). A life-size sculpture called “Still Standing” may be Shea’s self-portrait and her personal response to works on view.
Shea, who has been a member of the Academy since 1995, selected twenty-six painted portraits to appear in the exhibition “Her Own Style: An Artist’s Eye,” which was on view in New York and closed on January 13. For admission into the Academy, members were formerly required to donate a self-portrait to the collection. According to Shea, there was great significance in these portraits “where the artist was taking this requirement as an opportunity to be remembered in history,” perhaps because men ruled the membership ranks. Shea stressed that there were “so many fewer women to begin with and they were not very well known.” Included are works by the nineteenth century artists Cecilia Beaux and Ferdinand Thomas Lee Boyle. Early twentieth century selections are by Mary Shepard Green Blumenschein, Gladys Rockmore Davis, Gertrude Horsford Fiske and Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low. Contemporary artists included in the show are Emma Amos, Susanna Coffey, Jane Freilicher and Alice Neel.
“Women brought something different to portraiture,” Shea said on a recent visit to the Museum. “Do they present themselves as women or as artists? What is your best shot at being taken seriously?,” she questioned. In the life-size sculptures of Bourgeois, Catlett and Shea, torsos are carved from dense polystyrene and sealed with casein. A wood bottom and top stabilizes the work and the heads are carved in air-dry clay. Shea’s figures are dressed in neutral tones with an industrial felt costume draped over each form. In a demonstration of the resolve and tenacity it takes to be a woman artist, the figures each have one fist clenched. And, in a nod to her subject matter, each of the three is a figurative artist.
Shea trolled through the Academy’s history to assemble a group of images of women who depict identity, challenge artistic style, and critique the tradition of portrait painting. Will this project continue to influence Shea’s studio output? “I’m stuck on that question right now,” she said. “I have so many ideas. To do a whole body of work on women artists… it exists in photographs, but it’s different in sculpture.”