Images That Tinker With Traditional Notions of Femininity

WHEN Virginia Halstead sits down with her box of colorful pastels and paper, what she is bound to let loose is an evocative image of a woman. But what catches our eye will have little to do with features of conventional feminine beauty - a powdered white face, perfect almond-shaped eyes, an hour-glass figure.

In Halstead's world, women break the beauty rules. They may, for example, wear their face powdered in leaf-green, or hide it behind a two-toned mask of blue and black. Often, we find them gazing at us through odd-shaped eyes, carrying refrigerator-shaped bodies supported by tiny clawlike feet. Far from existing as pristine delicate flowers, her playful women move and inhabit much of their surroundings.

On a basic level, the artist is tinkering with notions of femininity. And it may be this that immediately unfastens us, pushing us to gaze at the female differently, transporting us beyond a built-in response of admiring women as ornaments.

Yet beyond this initial whimsy, her vivid, gestural women also lead us into a piquant terrain, often swirling in paradox.

Some of them, for instance, appear at once large and vulnerable, self-contained and uncertain, humorous and haunting. All of them seem to be disclosing a tiny, private moment - stirring with an urgent something. Yet even when we cannot touch a specific plea, what we are inescapably left with is immense emotional weight.

In "Wife, Career or Mother?" a woman in lavender with a tuft of sun-bleached hair holds a mask over her face and a tiny red heart to her chest. We seem to have caught her in the midst of a question, a decision - struggling, perhaps, with the perennial: "What is my true love?"

This state of uncertainty is also echoed in her indefinite form: She is unclosed and unfastened, as one arm blends outward into the backdrop of an aquamarine sea, and the other is playfully attached to her chest with buttons and bow ties.

In a recent telephone interview, this Los Angeles artist was asked what has most influenced the emergence of her rousing women. Her response? Corporate America.

It is an answer that pushes her to unearth a recent past: After graduating from art school with a split degree in illustration and advertising, she entered an ad agency to work as an art director.

But it was a position that was never intended to be long-lived. Always in the back of her mind, she says, was a long-term plan to one day break from the 9-to-5 world and rebuild a career as a studio artist.

Halstead speaks openly about the advertising business, specifically about its lessons of "success" - how she was taught to bend and modify her ideas to the specific needs of clients, and how she was encouraged to ignore her emotions.

This cool temperature of the corporate world eventually catapulted her back to her sketchbook, she says. At home, after hours, she found a space to vent what she felt was being submerged in daylight: Her own true voice.

After six years at the agency, she made the leap into a solitary career as a studio artist.

In "Her Fruit is Too Ripe," a woman with leaf-green lips and violet eyes stares at us from the underground, holding a basket full of strawberries. Her summer dress is soaked in strawberry red.

The artist says this piece came out of her sympathy for older women who have had children and are trying to get back into the workplace.

She felt her own life resonated with their uncertain predicament. "Here I am, leaving a glamorous job and going into the unknown. Who do I think I am? I'm gonna be an artist. What if I fail? What if nobody wants me anymore? What if I become too ripe, my fruit becomes unwanted, unsellable?"

Much to the artist's astonishment, the fruit she is turning over to the public these days - her full-blown expressions of private emotions - is wanted, and is selling. What she is further surprised by, is that men are responding to her work, as well as women. Such universal appeal is an affirmation, she concludes, to what can happen when you take the risk and stick to "your own sheet music."

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