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Colin Dabkowski previews Storyboard: The Sexual Politics of Jackie Felix in Gusto.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Read Colin Dabkowski's preview of Storyboard: The Sexual Politics of Jackie Felix in February 10's Gusto.

Felix exhibit features a provocative take on life

By Colin Dabkowski

Jackie Felix came late to painting.

Though she was born with the artistic impulse, life and circumstance pushed her toward more traditional pursuits. But through her teaching career and the growth of her family, the creative urge remained in Felix’s mind, constantly asserting itself like a ringing in the ears.

By the time Felix picked up a brush in her late 40s and set to working in earnest, she was ready to go. In an artistic career that spanned a little over three decades, Felix took no prisoners, made no excuses and went about making up for lost time with a fierce and methodical commitment to her art.

The result is a strong and confident body of work that serves as a fascinating document of Felix’s concentrated artistic evolution. By the time she died, on her 80th birthday in 2009, Felix had produced a sprawling collection of paintings that explored her hard-edged and often humorous take on sexual politics and on the very constraints of space and social circumstance that shaped her own life.

Today, the Burchfield Penney Art Center opens “Storyboard: The Sexual Politics of Jackie Felix,” a retrospective of the artist’s provocative work from across her career. Concurrently, an exhibition of works on paper by Felix runs in Allentown’s Indigo Art (74 Allen St.) through Feb. 26.

The Burchfield Penney’s exhibition features some 60 works, arranged roughly chronologically by curator Nancy Weekly. Felix’s work often includes figures, both male and female, in vaguely rendered surroundings that suggest confinement. Her paintings, which combine film and comic book conventions with hard-edged, expressionistic figures, call to mind a range of not entirely comfortable associations.

“Jackie Felix was a feisty artist determined to tackle subjects that so many others avoided,” writes Weekly in her essay in the exhibition catalog. “In every exhibition and studio event, she delivered intensely dramatic work, critiquing the callous, violent and passionless sexuality that permeates so much American culture. Felix energized colleagues and friends with her zealous, sometimes ironic, attack on ways that women are stereotyped as two-dimensional, subordinate, meaningless pawns.”

According to her husband, Al Felix, the artist was often loath to describe the intent of her paintings in too much detail (even to him), inviting and provoking viewers to bring their own imaginations to bear on her canvases. A frightening proposition for some, given their sometimes unsettling content.

“What she felt very strongly is that she wanted her paintings to engage the viewer,” Al Felix said. “In other words, they weren’t something to look at but they were something to engage the viewer and force the person to think and come up with ideas.”

The Burchfield Penney show includes pieces like “Barbie Pyramid,” in which Felix juxtaposes a Barbie doll with the Venus of Willendorf, the world’s oldest known sculpture. As in much of her work, a feminist critique is implied, but just what the critique says is up to the viewer. The same goes for her “Reel Love Series” from the late 1980s, in which all manner of sexual questions are raised but never resolved.

And that, as Al Felix suggested, is just as the artist intended. “There’s a Jewish saying which I think covers it very nicely: It isn’t the answers you get, it’s the questions you ask.”