The Austin Chronicle

"Whitney Turetzky: Feminine Grandeur" at the Elisabet Ney

In the way she transforms antique photographs of anonymous women, Turetzky elevates their subjects' status to something holy and sacred

Reviewed by Marisa Charpentier, November 2, 2018, Arts

"Whitney Turetzky: Feminine Grandeur," the latest exhibit at the Elisabet Ney Museum, could not have found a better setting. Nestled in Hyde Park, the museum of the German sculptor is a place where women's work takes center stage. Ney's brilliantly detailed sculptures of prominent Texans and European notables line the rooms of the castlelike structure, built in the late 1800s. Austin-based artist Whitney Turetzky's work highlights figures from the past, too, but with a modern twist.

Turetzky takes old black-and-white photographs of women, blows them up, and overlays them with pops of color and accessories like cloth and vintage ephemera. The result is a collection of eye-catching portraits of regal, wise, and everyday women. Each woman is adorned with a golden halo much like those found in religious iconography, elevating their status to something holy and sacred.

What's most striking about the collection is that the women are mostly anonymous. The photos aren't of women who have done something historic; these portraits pay tribute to the splendor of everyday women who likely flew under the radar. For Turetzky, feminine grandeur comes in all shapes and sizes. Some portraits express grandeur quite literally: One portrait titled All Dressed Up and No Place to Go features a woman seemingly from the 1920s in full makeup, clutching pearl necklaces. Another, titled We March at Dawn, centers on a woman in a military uniform, bedecked in shoulder tassels and badges of rank. Two pieces feature stoic Native American women overlaid with shades of hot pink and bright green.

An arrangement of 42 framed black-and-white antique photographs decorates one wall of the exhibit. They consist of anonymous women and girls, likely from the Fifties and Sixties, riding bikes, running through sprinklers, chatting with one another outside a house, and doing other quotidian activities. Here, too, each woman is crowned with a halo. In any photo where a male is present, only the woman is crowned. It's clear the artist took great care to add these perfectly circular additions: The halos in these photographs are painstakingly stitched above each woman's head with bright threads.

It's doubtful these women ever imagined they'd be hanging on the walls of an art exhibit in 2018. That's what makes Turetzky's work so intriguing. In one image, which unlike most is dated ("Sep 54"), a woman dressed in what appears to be a waitress uniform sits in a metal chair outside of a building. We don't know her story, but we can imagine it: She's overworked, underpaid, and worn down by expectations of domesticity. Her legs are crossed at the ankles, and her head is turned toward the camera. On the surface, she looks stern, maybe even annoyed (the patriarchy and what have you). But look longer. There's a power in her, a strength in her eyes. She is grand.

“Whitney Turetzky: Feminine Grandeur”

Elisabet Ney Museum, 304 E. 44th
Through Nov. 25

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