By Jenny Ashley
“Less than 3% of the artists in the Modern Art section of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.” —Guerilla Girls
Throughout the long history of art, fashion, and popular culture, most representations of women depict the female form as an object of desire—whether the subject is an eroticized odalisque in a nineteenth-century painting or a hyper-sexualized model, actress, or singer on a twenty-first-century magazine or album cover. Fortunately, a few superheroes of the art world—writers, performers, illustrators, painters—have used the very platform of art to expose the sexism and inequality often found lurking beneath its gilded surface.
Lena Rushing is one such artist who uses her commanding talents to remind us that although women must never be objectified, their beauty and innate power should be continually celebrated. “Women are complicated, complex, and underestimated; when I paint a woman, I want her expression to reflect that,” the 38-year-old artist explained in a recent interview in San Luis Obispo, California, a college town halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rushing, who was named “Best Local Artist” by the county’s arts & entertainment weekly in 2013, explained, “I’m not painting pin-ups. I don’t want the woman’s expression to say, ‘Don’t you think I’m pretty?’ or ‘Do you want to have sex with me?’ or ‘Am I worthy of your affection?’” Rushing, who paints daily and produces enough work for at least two solo shows a year, further clarified, “That doesn’t mean that I don’t paint anyone who is beautiful; I do. Women are beautiful, and there’s no shame in appreciating it. But I paint them as mischievous, determined, strong women—as real women, not sex toys.”
Sleep to Dream by Lena Rushing
We by Lena Rushing
Eve Satisfied by Lena Rushing
Here, in My Head by Lena Rushing
Complicating and challenging the prevailing views of female identity has become a consistent theme in Lena Rushing’s work. For her 2012 exhibit, “Strong Women in Strange Company,” the artist featured striking, surreal portraits of women paired comfortably with exotic predators. One painting in the exhibit, “We,” depicts two nearly identical women marching forward and flashing killer stares, suggesting the duality found in female identity. The woman in the forefront of the work holds a death-banded eel at her side, a menacing predator that seems to embolden her on some unknown, and perhaps vengeful, journey. In another work, “Don’t Feed the Animals,” two women dressed in black casually feed human hearts to ravenous black panthers. Both women look as sleek, cool, and catlike as the powerful creatures they’re feeding.
As one would expect, Rushing’s stereotype-shattering work is not without its controversy. In 2013, when the artist revealed her Eve series for a group show called “Biting the Apple,” she overheard one gallery patron comment, “This woman must be really angry.” But those who know Rushing as a person—a woman whose public persona is witty, personable, and energetic—would laugh at the suggestion that she’s as cross as some of the women she paints. Is Rushing inventive? Yes. Imaginative? You bet. But angry? No way!
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Granted, in paintings like “Eve Satisfied,” Rushing imbues “the first female” with an almost palpable aura of menacing power, apple cores strewn carelessly around her towering throne. And in “Now For the Tree,” the artist depicts Eve as a femme fatale in spike-heeled boots and a miniskirt. Chainsaw in hand, the mother of us all displays an insatiable desire to destroy. Although Rushing paints Eve as someone able to derail all of humanity with the single bite of an apple—or the single swipe of a chainsaw—the message is clear: Like all women, Eve is a force to be reckoned with…so don’t piss her off!
Nimbus by Lena Rushing
Vultures by Lena Rushing
Saint Peppermint by Lena Rushing
Now For The Tree by Lena Rushing
One of Lena Rushing’s most personal and symbolic pieces, “Sleep to Dream,” features a bruised woman sleeping atop the sharp tusks of narwhales and surrounded by a vast, lonely ocean. “It’s part of a group of paintings that explore dichotomy. She is vulnerable but unfazed by danger. The beasts could slay her on a whim, or keep her afloat,” the artist said. “Her muted alter ego is hovering above her,” Rushing continued. “I like that it takes viewers time to notice her, just like in real life. You meet someone, and after some time with them other aspects of their personality are exposed.”
Rushing calls her most recent work her “Peppermint series.” Debuted this month at a show titled “Uncanny,” the images are fascinating in their subtlety. Each contemplative woman in Rushing’s Peppermint series is adorned with a similar red-and-white headdress. The fanciful swirls that cover the fabric, like intricately woven ribbons reminiscent of peppermint candy, “serve as symbols of what goes on in our minds—an organized chaos. The ideas weave in and out of one another, growing to exaggerated proportions,” Rushing said. “I like the total creative freedom I get when I make these swirls. I can just run with it, and it feels good.”
Rushing created her Peppermint series to remind viewers that a woman’s strength and mystery resides in her interiority—in the inner-workings of her mind. To ensure the works send the message that the interior lives of women are indeed sacred, the artist has given them titles like “Nimbus” and “Saint Peppermint.” In “Nimbus,” another term for the halo surrounding the head of an enlightened being, a serene young woman with a coif of red-and-white swirls looks skyward. Hopeful and expectant, she’s surrounded by a background of calm topaz of abstracted hues. In “Saint Peppermint,” an acrylic-on-canvas piece, the model is composed, confident, and contemplative; this painting’s brilliant aquamarine background is faceted as if it were a precious gem. Rather than giving the subject a traditional halo, Rushing adorned her head with a flowing ribbon of golden birds whose tails morph into scrolls as if trailing an announcement from above. Again, it’s clear that this woman is strong and has a mind overflowing with beautiful possibilities.
For spring 2014, Lena Rushing, who in addition to painting enjoys curating and joining group shows throughout the United States, is organizing a group exhibit called “Powerful Women” to celebrate feminists who made sacrifices and contributed to changing the rights and perceptions of women. “Unfortunately sexism and misogyny are alive and well. It’s even more clear to me now that I have a daughter and I’m older than it was in my youth.” For this reason, Lena Rushing does whatever she can to improve the lives of women, using her art as the catalyst for change.
A wife and a mother of two school-aged children, the artist acknowledged, “People—both men and women—often greet the term feminist or feminism with a look of distaste, as if it’s the term used for a cult of angry, fist pumping, man-haters.” But obviously, if we look back at the term’s actual definition, a feminist is simply someone, female or male, who advocates or supports the rights and equality of women. “Why would anyone turn their nose up at that?” Rushing asked. “Why does it make people uncomfortable?”
In 2012, in recognition of her efforts to depict women as strong and worthy of respect, San Luis Obispo County’s Sexual Assault and Recovery Program (SARP) chose Lena Rushing to be a featured guest for their annual benefit, “Evening with an Artist.” Rushing, who is known for her generosity in donating work for the auction portion of the event, believes her paintings may speak to those “who are either seeking strength or sharing their strength” at the SARP center. To further that effort, Rushing also participates in an annual group show called “Babes with Brushes” that benefits a local women’s shelter.
Neal Breton, who co-owns a gallery called Fiasco just north of San Luis Obispo with lowbrow artist Jeff Claassen, is one of Lena Rushing’s staunchest supporters. “To be honest, my love affair with Lena’s work started at first sight,” Breton explained. “Everything one should love about paintings is in them—mystery, depth, richness of color, beauty.” Breton, who convinced Rushing to be Fiasco’s first guest artist when the gallery opened in 2013, said, “I feel like it’s a secret, personal victory when I coerce her into doing one of my shows.”
As the creator of the Savages Collective, a group of emerging artists that includes Rushing and twenty-five others, Breton believes, “The next ten years of her [Rushing’s] career are the most important.” And because he believes that it’s just a matter of time before her work garners the attention of coveted galleries like Roq La Rue in Seattle or La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles, Breton insists that it’s time for Rushing to make submissions to larger galleries.
However, Lena Rushing is less concerned with commercial success than she is with productive self-expression that inspires positive change. Encouraged by people like Neal Breton, she is increasingly interested in submitting her work to larger galleries in bigger cities—but Rushing isn’t rushing. “I’m not in a hurry or looking for fame or fortune,” the artist said. “The most important thing is that I get to paint what I want, when I want.”
Because Lena Rushing has been so prolific over the past few years, and because she has grown more accomplished with every group show and solo exhibition in which she has participated, it’s clear that the artist is becoming a master of her own form. Like all of the powerful women she paints, Lena Rushing is changing misperceptions one painting at a time—and she is definitely someone to watch.
About the artist
View Lena Rushing’s work and learn more about the artist by visiting her website.
Discover more about Neal Breton, Fiasco Gallery, and the Savages Collective here.
For details about Lena Rushing’s current solo show, “Uncanny,” running through the end of March 2014 at The ARTery in Atascadero, California, visit this site.
Lena Rushing is premiering a new work at the “Savages: Emerging California Artists” group exhibition at Studios on The Park in Paso Robles, California. This exhibit will feature work from Central Coast artists like Rushing, as well as artists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. For more on the show, which opens on March 1, 2014, look here and here.
About the author
Jenny Ashley is a regular contributor to the Post. She has a Master’s in English and a Minor in Studio Art.