New York

Juanita McNeely, Is It Real? Yes It Is, 1969, nine panels, oil on linen, overall 12 × 12'.

Juanita McNeely, Is It Real? Yes It Is, 1969, nine panels, oil on linen, overall 12 × 12'.

Juanita McNeely

James Fuentes

The wailing wreckage of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, 1937, the necrotic wrist stump in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Self-Portrait as a Soldier, 1915, and the hellscapes of Otto Dix’s series “Der Krieg” (The War), 1924, all echo in Juanita McNeely’s pained visions. For her exhibition at James Fuentes, presented in collaboration with Mitchell Algus Gallery, the eighty-four-year-old artist showed two epic multipanel paintings from previous decades of her career, rendered in a sui generis expressionist style. The shell-shocked tricks of European modernism find new life in these complex works, depicting the horror of pre–Roe v. Wade America and the sadism of patriarchal medicine, as well as the particulars of two traumatic ordeals.

The first: McNeely, who was already a cancer survivor, learned that she had a new tumor and that she was pregnant soon after she arrived in New York in 1967. At the dawn of feminism’s second wave, as women’s organized rage began to dissolve the sludge of sexual shame, she had to fight to obtain a lifesaving abortion. The furious Is It Real? Yes It Is, 1969, which hung in the gallery’s smaller room, takes this nightmare as its subject. It’s an alternately dark and sickly lit reproach, dense with macabre detail. The center canvas shows a woman in a hospital bed, her legs in gynecological stirrups. A torqued perspective gives us a view of her crotch—a vortex of slashing brushstrokes—as well as the forceps that, with prurience and revulsion, approach it through the slit in a blue curtain. Donald Duck watches from the shadows.

McNeely’s execution looks speedy, but she captures the torpor of drugged desolation as well as terror’s adrenaline flush in the other panels. One features vultures picking at what might be a shrouded corpse, laid to rest on a sluglike phallus; another shows a foreshortened, spread-legged nude holding a bouquet of ghoulish masks on sticks. Elsewhere, faces obscured by surgical masks stare at us through a tangle of medical equipment, as though we are the patient.

When it was made, Is It Real? was radical—virtually unprecedented—for its depiction of abortion, and it is still profoundly confrontational in its demand that we, too, experience the dissociative split produced by objectification and near death. We see what McNeely saw when she was splayed on the operating table, and we are there with her when she hovers nearby, out of body, cursing archetypal misogyny with hallucinatory anguish. The shattered narrative forms an unfolded anti-altarpiece.

So does the larger, harrowing Triskaidekaptych, 1986. This massive work, of thirteen panels hung close to the floor in a horizontal line, spanned two walls of the otherwise empty main gallery. Painted over the course of a year after a fall that resulted in a debilitating spinal-cord injury, the dynamic sequence of alarming jump cuts shows bodies—or rather, fantastic variations on the same one—in peril and agony. Rendered in electric pastel hues, a lusciously menacing interior landscape is the backdrop for this dynamic victim. Contorted, she tumbles through space or crouches, flayed. Her monstrous form appears upside down and dismembered; it hangs from a single foot, disemboweled. Here, McNeely abandons Max Beckmann’s gloomy figuration for Max Ernst’s apocalyptic Surrealism—charred spires rise from poisoned waters; a pink horse desperately balances on them like stilts.

But the artist works in the tradition of another twentieth-century avant-garde, too. She came up in the feminist art movement of the late 1960s and the ’70s and has explored—without the attention she deserves—the carnal, mammalian, menstruating, sick, and disabled body in uncommonly imaginative personal political terms. Bless this show, designed to leave us wanting more, for offering viewers the chance to see these landmark works. I hope McNeely gets a retrospective in New York soon.