It may seem paradoxical, but the term “man cave” helped inspire Shona McAndrew’s hyper-feminine portraits and sculptures of women. The artist first thought about its colloquial meaning — a private sanctuary for men — and then stewed over the nickname’s more sinister connotations: animalistic, barbaric, brutal.
“Men have these places where they’ve self-assigned their own privacy,” said McAndrew, who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design. “…But what does that space look like for a woman?”
It was the desire to render this private space (a room of one’s own, if you will) that birthed the idea for “Muse,” her show at Chart Gallery in TriBeCa, curated by ALL ARTS host Maria Brito.
Outfitting the showroom in cool and sizzling pinks, the exhibition features mostly nude, plus-sized women reveling in their own privacy. The models are shown shaving their legs, reclining in bed, removing a bra, standing in the glow of an open refrigerator. They are women from the artist’s life — her personal muses molded out of papier-mâché and acrylic on canvas. Here, McAndrew creates a safe enclave for them, rescuing their flesh from a public that alienates or scorns its abundance.
“I wanted it to be moments where no one else was supposed to be there,” McAndrew said. “It’s so interesting to me — women when they’re alone. And then what it means to be alone for a woman.”
The nine paintings and five sculptures are based on photographs she asked women to send her, a deliberate subversion of the flippant “send nudes” meme that, at least in online culture, typically ends with a man’s gratification. But McAndrew treats these nudes with care, transforming them into exuberant paintings set in decadent rooms with flowered walls and plush textiles. She has, in short, created traditionally feminine spaces for women who might have been told they don’t belong in them.
“They’re a bit fantastical…” The French-born artist said of their environments. “I’m protective of them in some ways, so I’m creating this perfect world where they are most important to themselves.”
In “Daniela,” the largest of creations at 4.3 ft. by 7 ft., a woman lays horizontally across a bed adorned with pink pillows, a pile of clothes and a sandwich. Her bare backside faces the viewer, and her profile reveals downturned eyes — a twist on Ingres’s “La Grande Odalisque” (1814). In McAndrew’s re-envisioning, the muse appears peaceful, not seductive or performative, while the viewer is left with the impression that they’re witnessing a hard-won moment of solitude. That feeling repeats in “Cheyenne,” who prepares a bath in a position that recalls Jean-Léon Gérôme’s “The Stork in the Harem Bathhouse” (1889), and “Alina,” who lounges on a polka-dot armchair with her legs akimbo.
“I like the idea of these women not realizing that they are just as beautiful or worthy of art history as the women painted in the reference pictures,” McAndrew explained.
Empowering plus-sized women in this way felt especially significant to the artist. She knew from her own experiences that, in discussions about beauty and space, larger women are often excluded or embraced only superficially. Broaching these topics can be especially thorny in online communities, as well, where body positivity is promoted alongside ads for FaceTune and AI-assisted filters.
“I’ve been told that a lot: You’re beautiful — on the inside,” McAndrew said. “…But in saying that, you’re still saying that there is a type of beauty and ‘you’re not it, but don’t worry because that’s not what matters.’ And that’s not how I think it should be.”
McAndrew said she remembers feeling “completely uncomfortable” at the sight of a plus-sized woman whose body resembled her own. “That’s what lack of representation does,” she said. “You’re not ready for something. And when it happens, you’re just unsure of what it means or how to process it.”
She hopes to rectify that for her audience. “I want people to think, damn, if it’s worthy of being painted, it must be special, and then I must be special.”
It’s a clear, rich message: not only do plus-sized women belong in feminine spaces, but they can also own and define them.
“Muse” is running until Nov. 2 at CHART. Visit the website here.
Top Image: Shona McAndrew, Daniela, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and CHART.