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GAlleries | Cate McQuaid

Porn stars are powerful in this artist’s eyes

Caitlin Cherry’s “Chaos Compressorhead Leviathan”
Caitlin Cherry’s “Chaos Compressorhead Leviathan”(Courtesy of Caitlin Cherry; Reilly Gallery, Smith Center for the Arts)

PROVIDENCE — We nurse certain notions about power and painting, reluctant to scrutinize them. Along comes painter Caitlin Cherry to yank the pacifier from our mouths.

For her show “Dirtypower” at Providence College Galleries, Cherry bases her paintings on photo shoots of black porn stars and exotic dancers. She heroicizes women stereotypically easy to pigeonhole, objectify, or dismiss. She calls them “leviathans,” connoting powerful, mythic beasts — and objects of our dark projections. An artist’s talk is set for Feb. 27 at 6 p.m.

Cherry and her contemporaries, such as Celia Hempton and Laura Owens, grapple with paintings as screens, abandoning the old trope of paintings as windows. Screens are more insular; we more often find ourselves in their thrall.

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Many of Cherry’s works jut off the wall at angles, positioned on mounts for liquid crystal display monitors. The brushwork mimics damaged LCD technology: High-pitched color fractures and feathers everywhere, washing over the women, who sometimes wear clothes emblazoned with names of Ivy League colleges.

Cherry brings together many electrically charged threads in these paintings: Sex, race, and class, all in dizzying colors and patterns dancing over paintings that bring to mind seductive large-screen TVs. There’s no resting place, and that lack of quiet seems an apt reflection of the pace and tensions of society. Out of the clamor rise her subjects.

These kaleidoscopic vamps are commanding; they own their brash sexuality. They bring juice and defiance to ideas that have in the past pushed them down. But like the best heroes, they are complicated.

In “Chaos Compressorhead Leviathan,” a woman on all fours stares directly at us with exaggeratedly round, yellow-filled eyes. Is she penetrating us with her own gaze, or channeling the dizzying LCD world in which she lives?

Despite a history of being the object of society’s projections, the women Cherry paints are in command of their own bodies, their own decisions. They may titillate, but they also confuse and provoke. They are not easy to understand. That’s as it should be.

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CAITLIN CHERRY’S DIRTYPOWER

At Reilly Gallery, Smith Center for the Arts, Providence College, 63 Eaton St., Providence, through March 2. 401-865-2400,  pcgalleries.providence.edu/exhibition/portraits-by-caitlin-cherry


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.