In a 1585 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, her head is ringed by her tightly formed, bejeweled hair, then a crown, followed by an immense white collar spreading to an obscene circumference. The queen's regalia pours down in broad waves of black and gold, making her head appear tiny, a floating, pristine moon at the top of a mountainous form. She isn't diminished, however. She's been depicted with alien composure, eyes and mouth relaxed but determined.
This painting, called the Ermine Portrait for the small white stoat clinging to the queen's arm, was the first thing that came to mind on seeing Anne Siems' "Weaving." Each painting in the solo exhibition appears to use the same composition that Nicholas Hilliard uses in the Ermine Portrait and others like it, only abstracted, so that where Queen Elizabeth's regalia overflows to dwarf her face, Siems instead gives us flowing lines and billowing hieroglyphs. In Cosmic Medusa, a girl's head, neat as a doll's, is surrounded by white "snakes" on a gray background. The "snakes" are formed by minute, precisely placed white lines like the fronds on a fern. Generally the "snakes" curve out from the placid face in languid waves. Some, however, form tight circles, which lend emphasis – heaviness – to the implied body. The circles echo the shape of the head, which is the real star of the painting, a blushing young woman with a coquettish mole near her rosy mouth. The girl is pretty but distant, isolated like Elizabeth, entirely without need.
Each of Siems' women (and they are all women) contains the same placidity and knowing confidence. Weaver Drawing is simpler than Cosmic Medusa. It is acrylic and graphite on white paper, making it appear more reserved and clean than the whirlwind Medusa. Like Cosmic Medusa, a floating head is accompanied by circles and winding tubular forms suggesting a nebulous body, though their colors here are limited to a gentle pink and the graphite's light gray. The young woman's face is gaunt. The head is turned so a single ear is exposed. A flowing outline makes the hint of hair. One blue eye opens wider than the other. She peers off to our left, as though she's caught someone at something devious and is more angry than hurt. Weaver Drawing is worlds and centuries away from the Ermine Portrait, but the force in the girl's presence is a familiar one.
I like that I can refer to a woman's disembodied head without being macabre. It occurs to me that many of the most famous beheadings have featured women as their victims: Anne Boleyn, Marie Antoinette, and even the previously mentioned Medusa. Some of the pieces in "Weaving" are somber, but none are grotesque. It is a collection of perfectly illustrated faces, a gallery for the spirits of departed women, beautiful and empowered. Each is young, each is self-contained (I also can't ignore the similarity to the Ghost of Christmas Past in The Muppet Christmas Carol). They replicate the poise of classical painting, but they have some folk art in them as well, a distinctive oddness I've seen in the eyes of American colonial portraits, awkward planters and lawyers' daughters captured by ill-trained artists, skin slightly over-white, postures stiff. However, Siems' postures, if you can call them that, could never be described as "stiff," even if her faces do manage the enigmatic air of old worlds. These bodies, instead, should be called liquid; they should be called air.
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