New York

Shona McAndrew, Priyanka, Vidushi, and Ananya, 2020–21, acrylic on canvas, 44 × 60".

Shona McAndrew, Priyanka, Vidushi, and Ananya, 2020–21, acrylic on canvas, 44 × 60".

Shona McAndrew

Shona McAndrew’s solo exhibition “Haven” featured nine acrylic paintings and seven watercolor studies: all portraits of women who are personally known to the artist. The word haven says everything about these pictures, as McAndrew’s sitters seem at ease with themselves and one another. Each canvas is a safe space, and the models appear comfortable in their intimate surroundings: Docile pets, beds, cozy chairs, and muted palettes set the tone. McAndrew reworks eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European “conversation pieces,” paintings made by men that often showed women engaged in the stereotypically gendered pastime of idle gossip or chitchat. Her insider take on the genre is purposeful and reflective; the viewer is granted entrée to the amity between women in shared domestic settings. This (consensual) access stems from the artist’s solicitude for her subjects, who were invited to ask friends to join them for the sittings. In McAndrew’s words, “It’s this long line of women responding to women responding to men looking at women.”

Each work was created out of trust, with the result that the pictures feel less voyeuristic and more tender, dignified. McAndrew’s subjects are clad in garments that one typically wears at home when lounging in casual dishabille: underwear, camisoles, T-shirts. Priyanka, Vidushi, and Ananya, 2020–21, shows three friends hanging out on a green couch; each body type is different from the next in size, shape, and color. Hands touch; one woman rests her head on another’s shoulder; tattoos that would normally be covered up by clothing are visible. One of the women reads Lisa Sterle’s 2019 guide The Modern Witch Tarot Deck (the cover illustration features the author’s illustration for the Ten of Swords, which shows a female being impaled by blades while gazing into her cell phone). Through these layers of attention, McAndrew gives us a peek at a low-key coven, making us privy to that rare realm where vulnerability and self-assurance are equally significant.

A sense of calm pervades these scenes—a reality both radical and unremarkable. Vikki, Kelsey, and Erica, 2020–21, features the titular trio mid-reverie. Seemingly nothing is happening in the well-lit boudoir they occupy, and that is the point—we are transfixed by this serene moment of people simply existing together. Unlike the conversation pieces of yore, meant to provoke discussion while depicting idle forms of it, McAndrew’s works lull us into quietude via renderings of the knowing silence that grows out of familiarity. In Moira and Shona, 2021, the artist portrays herself. In this tableau, she is wearing a gray garment while reclining on a blue-and-white-striped couch; her eyes are closed and she leans her head on her arm. An older woman, Moira, is perched above McAndrew and rests her hands on the artist’s head and left shoulder. As in all of the pictures here, guards are down; we’re not certain whether or not the two women are related, but their intergenerational rapport is undeniably loving.

In the past decade or so, Tess Holliday’s #EffYourBeautyStandards movement has brought body positivity to the vanity fair of social media. The ethos of this campaign is implicit in McAndrew’s work. Her new paintings mark a subtle transition from the defiance of her first solo show at CHART in 2019. In this outing, she emphasized the nuances of kinship and the care we offer to one another and ourselves. When girls and women grow up being criticized for their appearance, they tend to spend their adult years unlearning what they have been taught on this point. Damage control ensues. Every interview with the artist details her struggle to overcome body shaming and the internalization of disapproval from family and peers. With the scrutiny of the scrutinized, McAndrew turns her healing process outward, conveying a profound sense of how to lend form to compassion through art, and of what it means to be truly seen.