Carmen McCormack wants to challenge your preconceptions.
McCormack, a painter who is graduating today from Oregon State University with a bachelor of fine arts degree, decided to reinterpret classic works by 18th century French masters for her capstone project.
The works she chose — all by male artists — are highly eroticized representations of Greek myths involving rape, such as Francois Boucher’s “Leda and the Swan.” Boucher’s 1741 painting shows Zeus, transformed into a swan, seducing the mortal woman Leda while her handmaiden looks on.
“I wanted to reinterpret that as a feminist, as a woman and as a contemporary painter,” McCormack said.
“In the original (the women) were smiling, which is interesting for a male painter because it reinterprets the story of sexual violence — it’s not a happy thing.”
McCormack’s version — a 5-by-7-foot canvas currently hanging in the Fairbanks Gallery on campus — is essentially the same composition, but with some subtle differences. These women, for instance, are not smiling, and Leda has her arm outstretched in front of her as though to ward off the Greek god’s advances. The background is dark and chaotic, as though a storm were brewing, and drips of paint have been allowed to run down the canvas like drops of blood.
“I wanted to give the impression of something being wrong,” McCormack said. “I wanted to give the impression of an unsettled, violent universe.”
Smaller paintings in the series rework eroticized 18th century representations of other Greek myths, including the stories of Zeus and Callisto, Pan and Syrinx, and Persephone and Hades.
To McCormack, these Renaissance paintings are beautiful — but they’re also troubling in the way they romanticize and even excuse acts of sexual violence against women. And because they’ve been accepted into the canon of Western art, these images have been internalized by many generations of men and women.
“Somehow Greek myths escaped the church’s censorship of art, so that’s where all the eroticism of art went,” she said.
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“I think we need to think critically about what we believe to be great art. I want these paintings to be confrontational, and I want people to think about what our cultural history is derived from.”
She took a similar approach with her thesis project. Titled “Reappropriation,” it’s a series of oil paintings based on pornographic images of lesbian sex that were originally produced for a male audience.
“By its nature it’s something that shouldn’t include men, and it’s been appropriated,” McCormack said.
“It’s in a sense trying to return these images to the feminist gaze. I think it’s a powerful fact that I’m a gay woman, and if I steal back these images, that’s reappropriation.”
She starts by making black-and-white printouts of pornographic images, losing some of the visual information of the originals along the way. Using the printouts as a point of reference, she then re-creates the scene using a limited color palette and bold, expressive brushstrokes. The result is erotic and even romantic rather than pornographic.
“The pornographic material that’s being produced for men is not really indicative of the gay female relationship,” she said.
“I feel like the reappropriation mainly is a reflection of my lived experience,” she added. “I’m getting some of those feelings out, those frustrations, in paint.”
The project seems to be resonating in the regional art scene. One of McCormack’s “Reappropriation” paintings will be going up at Portland’s Blackfish Gallery next month.
Eventually McCormack wants to pursue a master of fine arts degree, but she’s not in any great hurry.
Ultimately, though, her career plan is simple: “I want to be a painter,” she said.