Politics, art and marriage
In “Redress,” Leslie Batty’s politically charged new exhibition at the Fresno Art Museum, there are no self-portraits. But you do get to meet the artist’s husband. A work titled “Man Descending Staircase” prominently features a nearly life-size Dustin Batty. He is depicted as a tall, handsome, elegantly dressed figure wearing a vintage dark suit at the top of a luxurious looking staircase. He’s as chiseled and dapper as a character in “Mad Men.”
The painting — which the artist affectionately refers to as “The Dustin” — was first inspired by a photograph that she snapped of him in a Madrid apartment building they were staying at while on a European vacation. She loved the composition and the light.
It’s a crucial painting in the show, one that serves as a foundational piece for the rest of “Redress,” whose mixed-media works hit hard on themes of immigration, race, sexuality, American inclusion and the treatment of marginalized populations. (It is also an art-history allusion to Marcel Duchamp’s famed “Nude Descending a Staircase,” and she uses other allusions to other famous works of art in the exhibition). But to the casual observer, it might be hard to figure out why the painting is important. Nothing overtly partisan jumps out at you, at least at first glance. How in the world is this a political statement?
Some background is in order.
We have two characters in this story so far, and they’re married to each other. (From here on out we’ll simply refer to them as Leslie and Dustin.) Let’s add two more: Donald Trump and the Statue of Liberty.
Leslie loves talking about the latter. And she can barely bring herself to mention the name of the former.
To set the scene for “Redress,” think back to last fall. The presidential election campaign was in full swing.
“I never thought that we could have the current president,” she says. “As it started seeming like a real possibility, as the election got closer, my husband and I started having these discussions that kept getting more and more intense. We couldn’t see eye to eye. It’s almost like we were speaking a different language. I found myself for the first time in my marriage, and maybe even my whole life, taking an overtly political stand.”
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She and Dustin have been married since 1993. They don’t always agree when it comes to politics. (“We’re not complete opposites, but a little different,” she says.) His views tend to be more conservative than hers. As the campaign heated up about such issues as immigration, their conversations became a little more fired up, too.
For much of her life, Leslie has avoided talking about politics. She’s always had a strong feminist bent, which has shown up in persuasive ways in her art, but for the most part she has stuck to the adage that artists should only speak from their own experiences.
“I never thought it would be appropriate to speak about issues of race or sexuality that wasn’t part of my own identity,” she says. “But with the election I started realizing more and more that my world consists of people whose identities are in the margins. I’m addressing not only the treatment of illegal immigrants but also the resurgence of intense racism against naturalized immigrants who are legal citizens of the U.S. I really felt this sense of obligation to use my artistic voice in support of diverse peoples in the shadows who don’t really have one that can be heard in the current political situation. I really want everyone to recognize that we are all Americans, women and men alike, we all have the same national identity made up of diverse origins, and even though we might disagree, it’s actually very American to have the freedom to do that.”
As election fever began to rise, the Statue of Liberty makes her entrance in this story.
Leslie and her husband ended up having some intense discussions about immigration. She was concerned that candidate Trump’s positions would mean going back to a time of intense racial conflict as well as draconian deportations if he were elected. She referenced Emma Lazarus’ poem on the statue about the “huddled masses yearning to be free.” But, he protested, that poem wasn’t even part of the original gift of the statue from France. It was added later. (Yes, their discussion turned out to be eerily prescient.)
That’s when Leslie decided to paint “Redress: A Tribute to Emma Lazarus,” which greets viewers as they enter the gallery. We’ll talk about it in a moment.
But first, how does this relate to “Man Descending a Staircase,” and why is the work so important in the exhibition?
Look closely at the multiple layers of collage elements. You can see old newspaper clippings, which are there for a reason. Leslie started collecting articles about the military, immigration and international news by continent. And she ended up collaging them into the paintings, including the one of her husband. Throughout the election and afterward, in fact, she’d work on it off and on as she put together the rest of the exhibition. She found the experience therapeutic for her.
“In fact, it was the very last thing I put paint on,” she says of the work. “It was a wonderful way to be able to work out my frustrations and my feelings.”
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Leslie is standing in front of the Lazarus painting now, and now that she’s explained the backstory of her foray into politics and her discussions with Dustin over immigration, it takes on a deeper meaning.
She’s reimagined the Statue of Liberty as a dressmaker’s form. Instead of the size number stenciled on the neck, it reads “USA.” The form models an elegant white strapless gown.
Again, it’s the collage elements that add depth and meaning to the piece. Look closely and you can see the Lazarus poem written in her own hand as one of the background elements. Another is a fragment of a photograph of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island.
(Interestingly enough, the Battys named their daughter Ellis.)
As a trained seamstress, sewing is a big part of her life, and Leslie has worked actual vintage tissue-paper pattern pieces into all of the works in the show. As it happens, part of the pattern she uses in the Lazarus painting includes the manufacturer’s instructions in seven different languages. (“I love the idea of the Statue of Liberty as a mother,” she says. “Her children are from everywhere. Maybe that’s why she isn’t pregnant here — because she adopts.”)
As for the title: “Redress” means to right a wrong, to correct an imbalance. And, politically speaking, Leslie finds herself invigorated by capturing not only the deconstructed aesthetics of the Statue of Liberty but the personification of her that has entered the national consciousness.
“Whether or not the poem was the original intent of the gift from France,” she says, “it doesn’t matter because it represents a value that we hold as Americans.”
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Aside from the two works we’ve already discussed at length, there is much more to discover in Leslie’s show, which was gracefully curated by the museum’s Kristina Hornback. One of the highlights is a series of five mixed-media works inspired by the sibyls, or Greek prophetesses, featured by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These are portraits of strong immigrant women and those from marginalized identities in Leslie’s life, all of them dear friends and empowered women in their own right, each one wearing an article of clothing they felt connected them to their root culture. Each one, like Michelangelo’s sibyls, holds a book.
“I wanted to portray my friends as strong and wise, and very female,” she says.
Her Korean friend Sunyoung, for example, modeled her traditional wedding gown. Leslie included a sewing pattern, as you’d expect along with newspaper articles and relevant photocopied bits from her son’s high school history textbook.
Be on the lookout, too, for scraps of the Declaration of Independence that Leslie found tacked up in the garage when she moved into her house.
On an adjacent wall in the gallery, you find another highlight: a large work painted in homage to Picasso’s “Les Demoiselle d’Avignon,” a Cubist rendering of five non-beautiful women. Picasso himself was referencing other artists, namely works by Cezanne and Matisse, and deliberately depicted what he knew people would consider ugly and confrontational women.
It’s a chance for Leslie to tackle the issue of gender identity, another hot-button topic.
“People were really offended by Picasso’s painting. and I thought: What are people offended by today? What are people thinking, ‘This is ugly, this is not right’? And I thought of so many friends whose identity in terms of gender is really treated as ugly and inappropriate.”
The five people in the painting, all locals, include two bearded men wearing dresses. (You’ll recognize Joel Abels, artistic director of StageWorks Fresno, modeling the gown he wore in the drama “Casa Valentina.”) Several of them are friends of Leslie’s children, a generation in which gender identity seems far more fluid than in the past, with large numbers of young people identifying as bisexual.
While completely accepting, Leslie includes a subtle reminder to this younger generation in the work as well: One of the women is wearing rose-colored glasses. “You also need to be true to yourself,” she says. “Don’t follow a bandwagon or trend. Think about the fact that you are very young. You don’t need to make your forever statement right now.”
Dustin was framing the work in his Clovis driveway when a neighbor came over to look.
Leslie recalls the moment:
“That’s weird,’ the neighbor said. ‘Is that a man wearing a dress?”
“Yes, it is,” Dustin said.
The neighbor turned around and walked away. And then he came back. He said, “I’m just a regular American.”
Leslie replied: “These are regular Americans, too, and that’s why I’m painting them. It’s very American to be free and express yourself. “
And he said, “Hmmm, never thought about it that way.”
Later, the neighbor volunteered his fifth wheel trailer and drove all her works to the museum.
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Leslie wants to make several things very clear: She loves her husband very much. She ended up feeling empowered by her political disagreements with him. And while she disagrees with him on some issues, they agree on foundational values.
“My husband is in no way a racist,” she says. “Neither is he a misogynist, though he was raised with a strong, ingrained patriarchal upbringing that creates a lens through which he cannot seem to see the same prejudices that I see from my perspective. He is a good person with a good heart, loyal, protective, and very supportive of my art — in fact he builds all my frames with the utmost precision. We challenge each other in healthy ways (for the most part) and have gained much insight from these constructive discussions in which we disagree on issues such as immigration laws, the women’s march, environmental laws, attitudes emanating from the recent presidential campaign and platform, and the ensuing and growing tension between the people in our country. I believe that this political tension is happening in homes between couples, friends, and family all across the country.”
She’s learned something important from her work on the exhibition, namely that she has her own political voice, and she’s discovering a way to make it heard.
“The fact that we can really challenge each other on these ideas, it’s really making me think about these issues and refine my arguments,” she says.
She has walked away with something else, too. Learn your strengths and use them.
“All my life, when I’ve drawn a picture or painted, it always seems to be more compelling than when I’ve tried to only talk my way through. So I decided to make my arguments in pictures.”
“Redress: New Artwork by Leslie Batty,” through Aug. 27, Fresno Art Museum, 2233 N. 1st St. $10 non-members.
‘Art in the Afternoon’
2:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17, at the museum. Leslie Batty will talk about her exhibition and artistic process.
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