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Julie Oakes
Quercia Stories
Renaissance, Sensuality and Feminism


  Beauty, obsession, passion. All these describe the work of artist Julie Oakes. An artist who sees herself constantly in a state of flux, Oakes has moved from the traditionally based format, which has informed her works for the past years, toward a new format of text and image.
            Quercia Stories intentionally references the techniques and concerns of Renaissance art. Over the past three years Oakes has drawn from the Metropolitan Museum collection in New York City as a ground for her writing. She derives from the collection, yet moves away from mimicking a style, and brings the works into a contemporary framework. The materials used are the traditional media of past generations. Specific references are made to techniques of the Renaissance period: parchment paper with sepia, indigo or black pencil, canvasses prepared with rabbit-skin glue, Bologna gesso, and natural pigments. In the paintings, meticulous renderings from Renaissance works are overlaid with strange and romantic imagery, at once obfuscating and revealing. In the drawings, excerpts from Quercia Stories, appear lightly on the page. They are difficult to read and follow. The writing is overlaid on the Met drawings with yet another layer of drawings obscuring the cursive writing. Within the universal symbols of love and eroticism the artist develops a personal, visual vocabulary.
            The influence of the Renaissance features prominently in the work of Julie Oakes. It was a time of great change in European society. Artists were no longer strictly confined to religious painting. A return to classical subject matter and exploration of myths and stories presented a challenge to the artist's imagination. Not bound by fact, imagination became more important than historical reportage, and figures could move freely in space.
            Oakes's choice of the artist's name Titian, or Tiziano in Italian, is compelling. As Oakes has stated, she could have chosen Michael Angelo, or any other Renaissance artist, however Titian embodies the kind of work which people easily recognize and often associate with an artist of a particular stature: the definitive artist’s name. Although in the stories, Tiziano is a musician, rather than a painter, the parallel can be drawn between Titian’s work and the works of Oakes. For example, in Titian's masterpiece, Bacchus and Ariadne, the fable of Ariadne is portrayed, deserted in the Naxes by Theseus, who is “startled from her melancholy” by the advent of the young, handsome Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, and his crew. Like Quercia Stories, presented to Oakes’s North American audience, which tells the sensuous stories of the contemporary characters, Justine, Tiziano, Angelo, The Dane, My Editor and the other  ‘lovers,’ one can appreciate the stories and the visuals without knowing the exact references. William Gaunt, in his book Painting and Graphic Art, describes the painting: “The contrasting movements of Ariadne and the young Bacchus leaping from his chariot impart a tremendous buoyancy and lightness of feeling... while the general plan of form and color is so bold, the subject gives Titian freedom to introduce a multitude of beautiful details: a splendid landscape distance, animals in beautiful coats, a sly faun in whose hair the artist has minutely painted a white flower.” Similarly, exotic and fantastical creatures such as monkeys, lizards, rattlesnakes, dead bunnies and gargoyles appear in surprising and odd places throughout the works of Oakes, referencing historical and geographically exotic places. There is a Bacchanalian sensibility in some of the works included in this collection of drawings, paintings and stories.
            The Renaissance was a period in which the discourses of representation, sexuality and morality were beginning to meet in representations of the female nude. One intriguing female Renaissance artist emerged during this time (1559), Sofonisba Anguissola, a gentlewoman who was encouraged by her father to pursue her studies in art and who was a contemporary of Titian, Michelangelo and da Vinci. Anguissola's profane portraits were highly regarded, however Anguissola's age and sex prevented her from engaging in an aesthetic dialogue which revolves around the Napoleonic concepts of the metaphoric relationship between paint and beauty, the earthly and the sublime, the material and the celestial. Other female artists, appearing slightly later, such as Elisabetta Sirani (Portia Wounding her Thigh, 1664), and Artemesia Gentileschi (Judith Decapitating Holofernes, 1618, and one of the works that Oakes has used as a reference for her painting Coons), drew more freely on the classics and mythology. (Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art & Society) The Napoleonic influence on sixteenth century painting further instilled ideals of form and classical concerns. “In his Theologia Platonica, Marsilio Ficino had argued that physical beauty excites the soul to the contemplation of spiritual or divine beauty. As painting began to record a more sensuous ideal of beauty, writers like Agnolo Firenzuola, author of the of the most complete Renaissance treatise on beauty, published in 1584, described the preferred attributes of female beauty. The description of the noblewoman with fair skin, curling hair, dark eyes and perfectly curved brows, and rounded flesh recalls a number of paintings of the period, including many by Titian.”(Whitney Chadwick, Women, Art & Society)
            In these works, Oakes searches for the 21st century perfect form: male and female, the images projected are idealized. With the addition of images of woman's lingerie, the traditional, conservative view of female sexuality, where the female is on display and adorned for the pleasure of the male, is illustrated most evidently in the series of drawings. Here, a leg is measured, exposed and presented before a fully dressed male; a mask hides an identity, real or imagined, and is removed. The difference is in the confidence of the women, for both Justine, the 21st century confessor of Quercia Stories, and Julie Oakes, who tells Justine’s story are women acting as  full and participating partners in the process, both in sex and art making. Unlike female artists working in the Renaissance period, Oakes is free to explore her own sensuality with confidence and a lack of embarrassment.
            The bed is an image clearly charged with sexual, political and sociological symbolism. Quercia Stories are tales of beddings. On first reading, the overall images are layered, yet they are also often broken down into fragments, reconstituted, and scaled toward the intimate. Erotic references from historical works, Victorian illustration, East Indian Tantric paintings, or Japanese erotica offer titillation, with contemporary images such as the provocative stiletto, lacy underwear, lipstick or the feathery fronds of an artist’s brush balancing the collection with a less specific representation of sensuality. The freedom of literary expression, the strong, graphic presentation and the artist's confidence in handling her materials works well with the duplicity of the imagery: romance and threat, life and death, love and its absence.
At once feminine and masculine, hard-edged and soft, Quercia Stories, as a whole, text and visuals, captures the enigma that is the often tenuous and volatile relationship between human beings.

Susan Brandoli

Vernon Public Art Gallery