A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer
In the last gallery of the Columbus Museum of Art’s stellar exhibition A Dangerous Woman, visitors are prompted to answer the question, “Why do you think Honoré Sharrer was a dangerous woman?”
It’s a fantastic question, and one that made me consider not just the singularly dangerous woman whose work is on view, but also the wider world of outspoken women; women who were warned, women who persisted, women who marched, and yes, “nasty” women.
I didn’t complete the exercise, but, if I had, my answer would have been the same for all of the above, “Because they said or did things that men in power didn’t want to hear or see.” I won’t claim that’s the right answer for every dangerous, outspoken or “nasty” woman, but history (recent and otherwise) suggests it’s certainly the right answer much of the time.
In this context, the Columbus Museum of Art couldn’t have timed this exhibition any better if they’d tried. Women are front, center, and (for some at least) dangerous. Other museums have noted this as well. The Wexner Center for the Arts has designated 2017 “a calendar year of exhibition programming in which every artist featured in the galleries is a woman.” Similarly, the Brooklyn Museum has committed to A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum. MOMA hosts the must-see Making Space: Women Artists and Postwar Abstraction, and the Met Breuer has staged much-deserved retrospectives by Marisa Merz and Lygia Pape.
These exhibitions, and others like them, serve two functions. They add variety and perspective to our cultural conversations, and they remind us that the history of art, like all history, is being constantly reexamined, revised and rewritten.
To the second point, Honoré Sharrer provides a great example. While she enjoyed early success working in the representational style she never abandoned, the combination of politics and abstraction saw to it that she never received the wider recognition she rightly deserved. With this exhibition, that should change.
A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer brings together over forty paintings to showcase an artistic career that was focused and intense. The exhibition follows Sharrer’s path from purveyor of politically-charged realism to something more personal, but no less compelling. Along the way, her unwavering commitment to meticulous representation serves as the thread that ties the whole collection together. There can be no doubt that Sharrer was a voracious fan of painting. Her works contain paintings within paintings, and borrow stylistically and thematically from the Northern Renaissance to Surrealism to Pop.
Further, her works are so infused with sly and subtle painting references, that once you start noticing them, they pop up everywhere. Look in the upper right corner of Workers and Paintings, and you’ll find a New England church steeple that could have come straight out of a Grant Wood painting. And that gravity-defying knife in the lower lefthand corner of Nursery Rhyme? Browse through images of classic still life paintings and note how many knives you see balanced precariously over the edge of a table. It’s a thing. So are the pitchers, vessels, shellfish, fruit and flies. Sharrer was a painter’s painter in every way imaginable, skilled both in the vocabulary of painting and in execution.
Surrealism and Magic Realism are often used to describe Sharrer’s work. I suppose I can see that on the surface, but I’m not sure I buy it completely. Those terms suggest something subconscious, something dreamlike and hidden. Sharrer strikes me as too deliberate and careful for that. Allegorical? Sure. Speaking in a language I’m not completely familiar with? Absolutely. But the riddle she offers is the viewer’s to solve. I’m pretty sure Sharrer knows exactly what it all means.
The end result, and what we see when Sharrer is at her best, is something closer to poetry. Sharrer mines our rich traditions of myth, religion, folklore and symbolism, and manipulates the pieces in a way that eschews straightforward narrative in favor of something more nebulous and elusive. In her paintings, fragments of our collective consciousness are taken apart, laid bare, and then reconstructed to invent something novel. Sharrer is creating relationships and connections that simply didn’t exist before. That’s the magic.
It’s visual magic, and it goes a long way toward explaining how a painting like Meat can simultaneously be an allegory about suffering and sacrifice, an homage to the paintings of Francis Bacon, a memento mori (reminding us of our own mortality), and a deconstructed Dutch still life. It is all of those things, and yet none of them. It’s made from them, but bigger than them. Sharrer is upending our world. She’s re-ordering it, remaking it and ultimately releasing us from it. And if that’s not dangerous to some, I’m not sure what is.
A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer is on view at the Columbus Museum of Art through May 21. Additionally, the museum will be hosting a Dangerous Women Panel and Reception on Thursday, May 18 from 5:30 to 8 p.m.