“I don’t like art about art!”

A woman at a gallery opening once respond to the Valpincon Bather [After Ingres] photograph by  proclaiming, “I don’t like art about art.” My recoil, barely disguised by years of engrained Midwestern politeness, quickly shifted to pensiveness.

As the lady toddled on to an adjacent piece in the show, I stood perplexed by this concept I’d never before considered. I tried on her idea like a new pair of pants in a fitting room. Right leg: the Muse series is heavily influenced by and based upon significant works from art history. Left leg: …. Conceptually, I couldn’t try the idea on any further. It just didn’t fit. I realized that all along, the art historical works have merely been a starting point – a familiar face from which to re-interpret and re-invent.

When Niki and I initially conceived the Muse project, we dove into our respective art history books and tabbed pages. We reconvened to discuss our sources of inspiration, and much to our surprise and delight, we discovered that at least half of the works we’d marked were identical. We quickly recognized a common thread. Most of the works were well known/fairly recognizable to the mass populace.

It wasn’t until we had shown the first few photographs that we (or at least I) realized the significance of this one element. As people began to interact with the work, we started to see a trend. Initially, there would be a moment of connection/recognition. A drawing closer would then reveal a liminal moment where most women would continue to engage their curiosity with the work, whereas straight men would commonly withdraw and move away. We learned from a generous few, most of whom who would fall into two camps: Those who would express their appreciation for a beautiful figure but immediately follow it with a proclamation of their solid heterosexuality. And the second camp being those who would express confusion for their captivation of a male figure in a distinct and identifiably feminine pose.

Despite the various responses to our works in the Muse series (including those by ladies of a slightly hunched and peculiarly opinionated sort) we are grateful. They have helped us to further understand the significance of the the art historical inspirations. The original works, widely recognized for their beauty, serve as an invitation by their familiarity. We not only hope that people subsequently engage with the works and the layers contained within, but that viewers’ observations and responses may foster conversations around pre-conceived notions of beauty and gender.

Your turn: