me as a d.j. hall painting

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.

Rachel Pace and Esther Corley faved this
  • Jocelyn_ 7y

    I adore you, ya know that?
  • Eugene Chan 7y

    This is a beautiful painting and she captured you very well. I love it.
  • Joe Crawford PRO 7y

    Much like I don't want to be a teenager or either gender, I don't want to be a woman who lives in the United States. In observing the required processes, it seems too difficult.
  • susan myrland PRO 7y

    @Joce - you do? even though I'm bad-tempered?

    @Eugene - it's just photoshop on a picture of me at the Barbeque Inn -- but thanks :-) I'm thinking of doing some paintings of my own on this topic. I'd like to paint middle-aged women who are physically imperfect, but look happy. Maybe they've had plastic surgery, maybe they haven't. There's so much junk out there about women and aging, so many conflicting messages and negative stereotypes, it's pissing me off.

    @Joe - yep, I agree.
  • Eugene Chan 7y

    @smyrland - ah, misread it. I was just going to say that it felt very photoshopped.

    okay, I take back what I said then.

    You captured you very well.
  • Jocelyn_ 7y

    You ARE?
  • susan myrland PRO 7y

    every now and then. once in awhile. just a teensy bit.
  • Jocelyn_ 7y

    Wow. I just heard your dead mother groooan!!
  • susan myrland PRO 7y

    hey, where do you think I learned it from?
  • leahpeah PRO 7y

    this is fascinating. thanks for the write up and all the links.
    ps. i'm going to love you whether you get plastic surgery or not.
  • Rachelskirts PRO 7y

    Love this picture. Love these words. Love that art. Going to bed much happier than I was just ten minutes ago. Thanks for that. :)
  • susan myrland PRO 7y

    thank you everyone! I've enjoyed your comments.

    Leah -- not to worry, I don't think I'll be getting any surgery anytime soon. After seeing what Doug went through plus my own past experiences, I know I'm not that motivated. It's not something to be undertaken lightly.

    Mind you I'm all for the minor procedures. If my wallet could stand it I'd be getting lasered, exfoliated, peeled and pampered on a regular basis. I'd even experiment with some wrinkle-filling, scar-smoothing shots here and there. But there's the whole $$$ thing -- and right now my days are spent in a t-shirt and shorts, cleaning out the garage. I don't need a face as smooth as a baby's butt for that.
  • Rachel Pace PRO 7y

    Another great documentary from my friend Susan! Your photo lacks a "vice" - cigarette or martini! or margaurita. Otherwise, you have done a splended job of poking fun at the future!
    Louisville has a magazine called "Today's Woman" and there is always a full-page ad "The QuckLift is Here!" I always open it up and leave it folded back to that page - if anyone asks - I tell them to put it on my Christmas list - again! tehe -
  • susan myrland PRO 7y

    Ah Rachel, you caught me! I'm hiding the cigarette and martini outside the frame ;-)

    Isn't it funny how our attitudes change as we get older? As I read on a blog the other day, "it’s a lot easier to be critical of any beauty treatment when you’re still young enough to doubt that you’ll ever need it. Once reality quells that notion, anything goes."
  • susan myrland PRO 7y

    btw, here's an excellent analysis from my friend Victoria:

    If one places Hall's work alongside the canon of portraitists/still life painters from Vermeer to Sargent who painted rich women/patrons, one doesn't automatically jump to the conclusion that this is all a snide commentary on rich women trying to combat aging. The critics may want to say that though, and using Hall's work is a cheap and easy shot for them.

    I don't find Hall indicting or pitying her subjects. Clearly she's fascinated by these strong women and likes how they look. I do too. They show powerful, attractive women. Modern middle-age women of that artist/patron class. Hall is a wonderful painter -- I'd love to see these canvases close up in person. They don't "scare" me -- that reviewers find them uncomfortable is all about the reviewer.

    Is it just me, or do you think these reviewers are overstating things to get attention? I'm picking up more anger based in class angst ... if these women were NOT in Palm Springs, would reviewers feel as free to let snarky comments fly? What if these paintings showed the same women around a conference room table? Or at the checkout line at at Whole Foods or Home Depot or Ikea?
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Taken on June 6, 2008
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