Beautiful Monsters

“I was thinking about the idea of how to build a more monstrous monster,” says Cindy Phenix, a Quebec-born artist who now lives in Chicago. In her most recent paintings she has concentrated on ways to picture these meta-figures performing acts of ambiguous purpose and meaning. About Birds, Blue and Strangers, 2019, shows a pair of women either caring for or conflicting with one another. The figure on the left wears blue pants, turquoise eye shadow and a slash of rouge across her cheek that looks more like blood than blush. She is either feeding her fleshy partner on her right, whose mouth opens like a voracious bird, or cramming a fist down her throat. The hungry woman has massive, splayed hands with repainted fingernails, and her tidy breasts peek discreetly from her top. Altogether her mien and her companion’s manner are inexplicable and that confusion suits Phenix: “She could be nurturing the other character, or she could be pulling her mouth to make her smile more. Something gentle and vulnerable might be happening between them.”

Cindy Phenix, About Birds, Blue and Strangers, 2019, oil and acrylic paint, textile and pastel on linen, 48 x 36 inches. Photo: Jean-Michael Seminaro. All images courtesy the artist.

A similar situation occurs in To Confirm with Their Gestures, 2019, in which another pair of monster women act out an inconclusive ritual. One is all peachy; the other is all toothy. “The cork character is taking the other character by the neck and choking her,” Phenix says. “You wonder if they are fighting in a friendly way and that ambiguity is increased because they are in a garden and she has a bouquet of flowers in her hand.” The garden is the equivalent to the birds that flutter in the air above the couple in About Birds; they represent the lyric side of Phenix’s monster menagerie. It is important to understand that the artist views these often fragmented female monsters as figures of power. She recognizes the same poetic power in the collages of Hannah Hoch. What they have in common is a sense that the incomplete, damaged body infers a story that viewers are obliged to complete on their own. One of the most appealing things about her paintings and drawings is that they look to be in the process of piecing themselves together, as if they are still finding their form. “The monster is put together with fragmented information,” she says. “I see it as a very positive metaphor.”

The paintings often include hand-stitched textiles, part of what Phenix describes as the “material research” she conducts while making her work. “I like it when someone is attracted to a painting because of its colour and texture and when they look more closely at the details, they realize something strange is happening and that recognition creates an interesting tension.”

Left: To Confirm with Their Gestures, 2019, textile hand-stitched on canvas, 48 x 36 inches. Photo: Hyun Jung Jun.

Right: This Banal Event Transformed into a Metaphor, 2018, oil paint and pastel on canvas, 48 x 60 inches.

Phenix is committed to making work (while she regards herself as primarily a painter, she also makes drawings, sculpture and installations) that has built into its surface a recognizable tension. She will combine materials that she regards as masculine, like twoby- fours and plywood, with objects and practices associated with the feminine, like trinkets and ceramics. The tension in the material locates its equivalence in the social and political tension that Phenix encounters in the world. In 2018 she painted This Banal Event Transformed into a Metaphor. While it names a single painting, it also stands in for her aesthetic methodology; on the surface her paintings show us insignificant events that get turned into another and richer kind of meaning. ❚

Volume 38, Number 3: Painting

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #151, published September 2019.

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