My paintings of fighting women: the origin story

My latest series of paintings and drawings portray women fighting and grappling with each other in poses inspired by wrestling. For a long time, I have described this series as characterized by anger and the passion of violent, animalistic rage. But that's not entirely true.

These works are about a wide spectrum of emotions and psychological states. They're my humble attempt to render some of the most powerful aspects of the human experience in corporeal form, with the female form serving as a vehicle for this expression.

The postures themselves are only the surface level, and simply set the stage for a broader range of possible interpretations. These vignettes of wrestling - tangled limbs and intertwined body parts - can reveal not just the passion of anger, but the passion of something else, something more ambiguous. To one viewer these scenes may appear less like expressions of fury, and more like the raw contemplation of our deepest fears. To another, more like erotic desire or pleasure than anger. Like sharp, crushing grief or despair. Maybe multiple emotions and internal experiences, all at once. All-consuming love and overwhelming joy, mixed and stirred up with the darkest hour of the soul, inseparably. The uncontainable everything. Perhaps, if I can only paint well enough, transcendence.

During my adolescence and early twenties, I struggled with bouts of depression and its common companion, anxiety. In my first year or two out of art school, I also experienced terrifying panic attacks. Every emotion was intensified. Every negative thought or feeling felt magnified. This, even when my fight-or-flight response wasn't short-circuiting.

During this time, I was living in Austin and found myself attending a concert I didn't really want to be at, in a small, dark and packed venue. Standing in the back, the music and bass pulsing through my body, a wave of powerful dark emotion crashed over me out of nowhere. It began as deep, clawing, claustrophobic despair. But it was more than just a feeling - the experience was inherently physical. Standing still and silent, I had a deeply sad, violent urge to crash my body into the nearest brick wall - like something inside was trying to crawl out of my skin. In that moment, an image flashed into my mind. A sea of flesh and limbs, dozens of figures grappling and intertwining in a vicious struggle. Instantly, I recognized this experience as inspiration, and I saw the image as a painting. Even though I was at no real risk of acting on it, what began as an absurd and destructive impulse became creative.

Detail,  Flush , 24"x24" oil on canvas, 2017.

Detail, Flush, 24"x24" oil on canvas, 2017.

After this curious experience, I became fascinated with the idea of using the human figure to physicalize these abstract, complex, often contradictory emotional and psychological states. After all, that was what my mind had done - rendered this emotion into an image, taking me out of my dark moment and giving me a project.

Some have asked me why I only paint women. I specifically use the female form in these scenes because I'm personally most interested in how women process and display these complicated, messy human emotions and experiences. And too often in entertainment media (and throughout art history!) women have been treated rather one-dimensionally, with only certain emotions and experiences deemed feminine or acceptable to share with audiences. This normalizes the idea that women and men are more different than we are alike, and ultimately dehumanizes us both.

Therefore, it's important to me that the physical expression of these universally human experiences, and the richness of our inner lives, comes packaged in female form.

As for nudity, there are few images more universal than the human figure presented in its most authentic, natural form. In art, clothing is often a distraction; it immediately conveys a time period, a place, a culture, imparting something specific - something that in this body of work, would not serve my purpose. Stripping away these elements evokes a more visceral response to the work. Though it makes my images a little harder to distribute on social media, the work just wouldn't be the same if my models weren't nude.

On a secondary and perhaps more obvious level, these painting and drawings are also about the relationships women have to each other.

Too often, women view other women as competition - always sizing one another up, and sometimes tearing each other down. I, like probably all women, have been guilty of this too. I want people to look at the altercations in my paintings and wonder, why are they fighting each other? What motivates this? And who stands to benefit from our division?

Although inspiration struck me nearly a decade ago, only in the past two years has this concept really begun to take shape as its own series. Immediately, I made half-steps here and there. In 2010, I painted Bakery Brawl, and in 2011 I made a delightfully confusing small painting of two women wrestling that I didn't intend to show or sell, titled after a lyric from a Neko Case song: "I'm an animal, you're an animal too." Little did I know the path this intended one-off would eventually take me down.

"You're an animal." 18"x24" oil on canvas, 2011.

"You're an animal." 18"x24" oil on canvas, 2011.

But I wasn't quite ready to take it further. In the ensuing years, I focused on honing my love for hyperrealism (inspired by seeing Chuck Close's "Mark" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) with large, blown up oil portraits. As much as I enjoyed these for the sake of painting them, I knew I was growing bored.

Finally, a familiar, restless urge brought me back to my earlier fascination, and this craving to paint the strange scenes in my head became an entire series.

Some ideas need time to marinate. And two years and several paintings and drawings in, the work is still evolving and being refined. I've only just begun, and I'm grateful to have a rich, deep well of inspiration (and lovely, brave, open-minded models) for the path ahead.