We went to see the D. J. Hall retrospective at the Palm Springs Museum. Hall is a Southern California artist with a home in Palm Desert. She does large-scale paintings of women seated in or near swimming pools. Her women are described as smug, self-satisfied and privileged, and her work is seen as a commentary on wealth, aging and beauty. One review described her paintings as "where trophy wives go to die."
Early in her career Hall painted older women, showing all their wrinkles and veins. The skin had blue/purple/grey tones, as if they were already dead. In the 1980s she painted women with "hysterical smiles." They wear big shoulder pads, mirrored sunglasses and outsized jackets. They look a little stretched, like women who spend way too much time at the gym.
Now that Hall is 57, she's somewhat kinder towards her subjects. The light is softer and her treatment gentler. But critics still gleefully emphasize the edginess, saying that "all is not right" in these worlds. Judging by the comments in the museum's guestbook, viewers like to buy into this idea. They want to project their own fears and insecurities onto Hall's women.
There's a killer irony that she's become a successful artist by painting critiques of the wealthy -- that only the wealthy can afford to buy. I guess people like to show that they can be self-aware and self-deprecating in their choice of art.
The retrospective explains the roots of Hall's ambivalence towards her subject. She had a troubled childhood, growing up with a mother who had severe mental illness. The only time she felt safe was playing in the pool at her grandmother's house in Palm Desert. So the work is about trying to return to a happy time that never really existed. She's angry at her mother because her parents' divorce and her mother's mental illness were taboo, not acknowledged in the family. She transfers that anger onto the rich, creating scenes where we're supposed to look for the flaws. We're supposed to assume that these women aren't as happy as they would like us to believe.
Hall often puts herself in her paintings, usually with her back to the viewer. Although she unflinchingly shows the sagging necks of her models, she paints herself with a firm butt and taut skin. Yet she thinks that these later works are "a visual diary of my journey towards maturity and self-acceptance."
I love her technique and use of color. I could look at this painting for hours. It's one of the few that conveys hope and optimism.
I had a problem with the commentary -- especially what the critics like to think she's saying about women and aging. This is a topic that's close to my heart. It stares back at me every time I look in the mirror, every time I hear a woman being ridiculed for having Botox or plastic surgery. Reviewers like to mention how the women in Hall's paintings show the effects of time "despite their best efforts to the contrary."
As a woman who's showing the effects of time, comments like that make me want to shout back, "What exactly is it I'm supposed to do, then?" But I know the answer. I'm supposed to look good, but not look like I'm trying. It's just supposed to naturally happen -- y'know, the whole "aging gracefully" thing. God forbid I should let on that I care; that would indicate that I'm vain and pathetically trying to hold onto my youth. No, I'm supposed to go along with the deception and play the game. La-de-da, no worries here, nothing a little moisturizer can't fix. If we all look good to each other, we all feel better.
There's such a narrow range of acceptability. If we let ourselves go, that's depressing. If we try too hard, that's desperate. As Mary McNamara, Television Critic for the Los Angeles Times, said, “If women look old, we criticize, and if they try to fix it, we criticize more snidely.”
I'm glad I went to see that art. It gave me a lot to think about. I admire her for turning her pain into something marketable.
Now I'm going to go swim in my pool.