New York

Elvira Bach

Charles Cowles Gallery

Elvira Bach’s painterliness seems perfect for her iconography, which is summarized in her assertion, “Women aren’t like snakes, they are snakes.” She blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy, creating a mythologically effective female figure. She shows woman as lover and as mother. A triumphant young female figure often raises her infant over her head, as in All You Need Is Love, 1986. Alone or in the hierarchy of relationships, women are presented as powerful figures.

Whether male or female, the figures are naked, suggesting their emancipation, which includes sexual “naturalness.” They are often in an indefinite but “earthy” setting. A snake sometimes erotically encompasses a figure. Although the vitality of the painted strokes makes the figures seem inherently vital, many stand rigidly as the snake surrounds them. It is the archaic hieratic pose of an initiate, suggesting Bach’s allegorical purpose. She wants to render the eternal feminine as a force of erotic nature. It is just this erotic naturalness that might pose problems for some feminists, who see the issue of woman as a social one. Indeed, they think the conception of woman as an erotic force deliberately obscures the social issue, and is in fact a male attitude to woman. But Bach’s unabashed celebration of female eroticism can be understood as feminist because it conceives the female body not as a sex object but as a subjective source of self-esteem, especially because it is tied to the recognition of woman’s power to give birth. In Bach, this becomes symbolic of female creativity in general. Bach correlates female independence, erotic naturalness, and creativity.

For all her richness of content, Bach’s coloristic means—her smoldering reds, browns, and blacks—seem like too much of a cliché of “passionate” treatment. Similarly, her painterliness often seems conventionally vitalistic. It is as though she must anchor herself in an established visual language to make her supposedly unusual point. Nonetheless, that language is too predictable in effect. Perhaps this is true of all visual language in this “neo”-istic period we are going through, but Bach might have benefited from an attempt to innovate within her chosen expressionistic mode. New effects might have generated a subtler statement of purpose. But Bach seems too obsessed with the ideological force of her figures to bother to search them out. Indeed, for all their overly familiar esthetic manner, the argument they propose still seems pertinent.

Donald Kuspit