Angela Dufresne is an unabashed painter. Undaunted by the aesthetic ebbs and flows of her medium she instead has immersed herself in its rich and varied history. In “covering” moments of visual culture, like a band covering a classic tune, the artist seeks to renew and recontextualize painting for a contemporary culture drowning in its own visual excess. Over the last decade Dufresne has perfected ways of translating the visual vocabulary of film editing into the pictorial space of a painting while laying out a helluva ribald narrative.
One of the showstoppers of her new exhibition “Making a Scene” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art is an enormous oil on canvas titled “Ticket Line.” Dufresne’s passions for cinema, for bodies, for dense, chaotic compositions are on full display here.
The scene depicts the busy sidewalk surrounding an illuminated theatrical box office. A motley crowd of looky loos — adult couples, frisky teens, children, a nursing mother, a stubborn poodle — gape at the partially nude ticket seller. The clownish figures are distinct and expressive, yet Dufresne renders them tightly together with just enough transparency to suggest simultaneous movement in their ghostly gestures.
Technicolor brushstrokes swirl between and beneath the figures, adding to the time-lapse effect of scenic motion. One can easily imagine the street noise accompanying this dynamic intersection of blended bodies in urban, pop cultural space. As in many of her works, the time period is purposefully imprecise. In the background we recognize recent movie posters alongside repertory classics like “The Exorcist” or “Gloria,” a clue to her artistic muse, the veteran actor Gena Rowlands.
At least one third of the 30 paintings on display feature the brassy, blond Rowlands, who is best known for the groundbreaking independent films she starred in with her husband/collaborator, John Cassavetes. For Dufresne, she is a maternal figure, whose on-screen characters embodied the dilemma of freedom and entrapment experienced by so many women of the 1960s through the 80s. She’s also a heroine of emotional depth and complexity, an endlessly interesting subject, perhaps too, the artist’s projected alter ego.
Rowlands figures prominently in large cinematic “covers,” paintings of reimagined film stills like “The Lonely are the Brave,” “Gloria” and “Love Streams.” Dufresne freely edits the motion-picture frame with vigorous underpainting that doesn’t always fit the scene, adds individualistic narrative touches like her dog or a lurking satyr in the background.
Several intimate canvases are studied close ups of Rowland’s face at different stages in her career. In larger ensemble scenes like “The School of Gena Rowlands.” Dufresne choreographs a space where cinema and the pictorial merge into the philosophical. Rowlands appears as a projected character on a portable screen. She is an object of study led by a transgender doppelganger of the actor. A curious animated throng fills out the scene around a blazing fire. Everyone’s letting it all hang out.
In the remaining exhibition Dufresne takes on centuries of European and American painting by “covering” the work of well-known painters of landscape, history, and allegory. In her “invasion from the present” the artist must have had a blast bringing a tidal wave into a hushed Corot landscape or gender bending a Courbet with dog portrait. She brings these works into a conversation with the 21st century opening up new subversive new narratives. In works like “The Real Allegory of My Artistic and Moral Life” she directs us, through her irreverent queer feminist lens, to a non-binary, nonhierarchical universe, where desire is unbound. Bodies, sexuality and gender are fluid (literally) and worthy of empathy and storytelling.
With roots in Olathe, Kansas, and a graduate of Kansas City Art Institute, Dufresne engaged the local in another spectacular oil painting,” No Longer the Hazardous Forest,” in which she explores generations of lived experience around the site of Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial. Dating back to its origins commemorating World War I to its illicit history as a popular gay cruising site, the work exemplifies Dufresne’s cinematic approach. In what she refers to as “contemporary superimpositions” she layers images from different periods, storylines and visual perspectives into the frame. It gives the visual effect of social, geographical, historical, even mythological space dissolved together into a swirling present.
“Making a Scene” accomplishes its goal with raunchy panache. Whether riffing on a Stevie Nicks tune, a Tiepolo painting or a Rowlands film, Dufresne finds empathy in the grotesque and honesty in the burlesque. She doesn’t let us forget that her actors are more animal than angel. Her paintings and videos celebrate a multitude of contradictions among the embodied desires of emotional/sexual beings.
“Angela Dufresne: Making a Scene” continues at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 4420 Warwick Blvd., through Jan. 6. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Closed Monday. For more information, 816.753.5784 or www.kemperart.org.