By Ramona Martinez
The paintings in “Solace,” shown this month on Studio IX’s virtual gallery, are large. Most of them are three-by-four feet, and would doubtless be particularly compelling in person. But it is a testament to Grace Ho’s voice as an artist that, even on a computer screen, her work leaves a big impression.
In striking black and white, Venus-like figures are closely cropped in minimalist compositions. There is a keen sense of design here, and an almost intuitive understanding of the power of efficiency. To be able to depict a figure with just a few marks brings to mind artists like Matisse and Picasso—and “Solace” is in conversation with those masters.
“Less is more, if you can swing it,” says Studio IX Gallery Curator Greg Antrim Kelly, “and Grace certainly can.”
That approach is due to her other line of work: Ho is a digital designer at WillowTree, a mobile app and web development company in Charlottesville. She began painting a few years ago because she wanted to find “something outside of work.” Ho describes her past art experience as “drawing here and there,” though on her website she has posted a devastatingly effortless portrait of Jimi Hendrix that would make Egon Schiele take a second look.
The show consists of 16 pieces: nine large paintings and a series of smaller, stream-of-consciousness drawings. The drawings were inspired in part by an Ecuadorian artist based in Brooklyn named Juan Miguel Marin, who creates large, black-and-white vortices with a Sharpie, based on what’s going on around him at live events. Ho aims to emulate that free-spirited approach in these smaller pieces. She cites Marin as one of her biggest influences, but the strongest works in her show were clearly developed independent of his style.
“Solace,” a theme chosen pre-coronavirus, is about the beauty of being alone with one’s self and present in the physical body. The figures in her paintings are bodies of mothers and middle-aged women, close-ups of how curves look while the back is arched or while lying down. There are rolls of fat and saggy bellies, but they are elegant and sensual. Although the aesthetic is very modern, the figures themselves are more classical. You can feel their weight, plump and soft.
“Everybody’s trying to be so perfect, using visual tools to tune their body,” says Ho. “That’s why I wanted to paint some of the ‘imperfections’ that are beautiful and human.”
Offline and alone, the women in these paintings are not performing. And if you know anything about the history of figurative art, this is significant. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes, “To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men.”
Art for centuries has reflected this; in fact, the whole genre of the reclining nude basically came about so kings could have pictures of their mistresses to show off. Even as a woman artist, avoiding this patriarchal tradition takes real effort. Ho has managed to banish the male gaze from this figurative series. It feels like we are looking in on a private moment, but not voyeuristically.
Another notable element of this series is the sense of space. In “Rest” and “Rise,” the figures look mountainous, and the composition almost becomes a landscape. Here the figures are echoing their natural source. The choice to use black and white also affects the perception of depth. In “Curve,” a remarkable work composed of only five white marks, the mainly black composition creates a void that gives us a sense of infinite space. In the future, Ho is interested in exploring painting that uses pigments found in nature. Thematically this makes sense, as her work is already tapped into something very organic.
Two other paintings are worth mentioning separately: “Figure,” on a black canvas with white paint, is more experimental than the other work, and it is Ho’s favorite piece in the show. We can make out a head, a waist, and a woman’s bottom, but the rendering is much looser. There is movement in this piece that pushes your eyes around the composition, and it is absorbing, even though there isn’t technically much paint on the canvas at all.
“Solace” ends on a personal note with “Ru,” a charcoal drawing of a mother and child on acrylic. Ho made it while she was feeling homesick, and thinking of her childhood in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She says she thinks of her mother a lot when she paints. “Ru” is reminiscent of the genre paintings, or scenes of domestic life, that women artists turned to instead of figurative work (from which they were barred for centuries). There is something beautifully poetic about a figurative show ending with a return to this tradition. “Solace” returns us, in many ways, to our roots.