Maren Conrad

"Nancy Reagan" by Maren Conrad is a glamorous portrait that recalls the former first lady's career as an actress.

'Politically Vulnerable' paintings well-done but problematic

Published: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 25TICKET
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 7:21 am

Maren Conrad's "Politically Vulnerable" is a body of work that focuses on the wives, girlfriends and mistresses of California's governors. Originally to be installed at Vanguard, a new lounge across the street from the Capitol, the paintings have become a bone of contention for feminists of different eras.

Here's the background: A local lobbyist, Donne Brownsey, a woman, sent an email to Vanguard protesting the subject matter of the paintings, which include former first ladies Maria Shriver and Nancy Reagan; Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Brown's former girlfriend; and Piper Laurie, who revealed in a tell-all book that she lost her virginity at the age of 18 to Ronald Reagan (long before he became a governor or president).

In response, the proprietor of Vanguard, who had commissioned the works and hung them in anticipation of the bar's grand opening, took the paintings down and decided not to show them.

Since then there has been much coverage and debate on the issue, with Conrad, who describes herself as a feminist, defending her works as "telling the stories of courageous women, who were willing to talk openly about their sexual relations with California governors."

Some of the women, she said in an interview at her studio in the Downtown Plaza, were known in their own right and not just as adjuncts to powerful men.

Virginia Knight, wife of Gov. Goodwin Knight, for example, was honored for her long dedication to issues of veterans rights. Shriver was a renowned journalist before her marriage to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Laurie became a highly respected film actress. Ronstadt was a pop superstar long before she met Brown.

Others are included seemingly only by virtue of their titillating tabloid pasts. Take Brigitte Nielsen, who revealed she had an affair with Schwarzenegger during the filming of 1985's "Red Sonja" (he was dating Shriver at the time). Presenting her with Shriver – who spearheaded the California Museum of History, Women and the Arts – equates the two. It's a little like putting Hilary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky on a par.

That said, Conrad is vociferous in defense of her selection of women to celebrate.

"These women were open and vulnerable about their lives," she said.

"Many times women are expected to take their sexuality off the table," she continued. "Why can't we be women, be sexual and not try to hide that?"

Clearly she speaks for a younger generation of liberated women who think nothing of cramming their feet into stiletto heels. Feminists of an earlier generation would be appalled to see women celebrated because of their physical beauty and the reflected glory of their relationships with men.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about these works.

Certainly, I am not for censorship but I also respect the right of Vanguard's owner to decide what can and cannot be shown in his establishment. I am not a particular fan of feminist critics who portray "the male gaze" as a pernicious objectification of women. But I do see why women of my generation might be upset by Conrad's work.

I am also torn by warring feelings about the aesthetic value of the work. For what they are, they are well done. How they fit into the art historical dialogue, on the other hand, is problematic. Unlike Andy Warhol's depictions of Marilyn and Liz, they lack an edge, an ironic overlay that critiques popular culture.

Rather, they are admiring homages, with shiny surfaces inlaid with gold, silver and copper leaf, elements in the past associated with depictions of saints and the Holy Virgin. Perhaps there is some irony in this, but it doesn't seem that Conrad's intentions are satiric.

These are pretty pictures of good-looking women in glamour-girl poses that are frivolous, eye-catching and just a bit gaudy. They come off as portraits of fantasy women – not real women, like Anne Gust Brown, who is conspicuously missing.

You will have a chance to make up your own mind on Thursday, when the works will be on view at Conrad's studio.

In any case, Conrad has landed on her feet. A local female attorney has purchased all of the works and has vowed to keep them together as a group. And Conrad has already gotten more than her 15 minutes of fame.


Where: Studio S, 545 Downtown Plaza, Sacramento

When: 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday

Information: (203) 500-8679.

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