SPARC cofounder Christina Schlesinger’s homecoming exhibit delves into female masculinity

By Kelby Vera

Pieces like Schlesinger’s “Tomboy Treasures” take an intimate look into the world of lesbian tomboys

What we wear is full of emotional connections, conveying intricacies of identity, imbued with memories and filled with the traces of our bodies. In the exhibit “Tomboys,” currently on view at SPARC’s Durón Gallery, visual artist Christina Schlesinger utilizes the intimacy of garments and energizing, organic portraits to explore female masculinity, lesbian identity, youth and sex.

‘Tomboys” is something of a homecoming, returning the artist to the Venice-based nonprofit community art hub that she, filmmaker Donna Deitch, and muralist and activist Judy Baca founded in 1976 as a center for the preservation of Los Angeles murals and other forms of public art. Schlesinger’s connection to SPARC made it the ideal setting for “Tomboys,” a show rich in personal history and self-mythology.

In one series of paintings that Schlesinger refers to as “the evolution of the tomboy,” the artist paints herself as a vibrant young person, during a time when she felt confident and unashamed. The portraits and scenes are painted upon old clothes emblematic of her tomboy stage. In “Tomboy Portrait on Yellow Flannel,” for instance, bold checked fabric is stretched out to frame Schlesinger’s gamine face, depicting herself with wide eyes and cropped locks. Frayed edges of the fabric blend into a painted background, reminding of the nostalgia one might feel for an old favorite shirt. A similar portrait shows the subject clad in cool sunglasses and a Batman hat — all with hints of masculine attitude.

The series also seeks to add to the canon of lesbian art, which Schlesinger describes as often “invisible” compared to its queer contemporaries, by re-appropriating the stereotype of lesbian tomboys as something empowering.

“I wanted to get away from that idea of shame, and I wanted the work to radiate the confidence of a woman while appropriating the privilege and entitlement of men,” she said.

A young girl radiates a self-assured spirit in “Tomboy and the Starry Night” as the subject places her hands in her pockets while staring forward with a slight smirk. Two silhouettes float above her in the sparkling sky like guardians, a reference to 20th-century lesbian artist Romaine Brookes, an inspiration of Schlesinger’s.

Her “Self-Portrait” as Romaine Brooks, whose name she took on during her time as a Guerrilla Girl activist artist, blends the two artists together as one, depicting an androgynous figure wielding a paintbrush with an actual plaid vest splayed across the top to shield the dual portrait. Provocative figures wearing sex toys fill up the piece’s negative space, adding a touch of the erotic.

Throughout the exhibit, depictions of nudes and dildos are unapologetically playful; shirts and pants get tugged aside to reveal soft hips, breasts and tufts of pubic hair while faces stay out of view. In one of these rose-tinted paintings, the subject crosses their arms and juts a hip to the side while wearing a strap-on dildo. Another figure confidently grabs her phallus through a pair of boxers while letting her breasts bare. Everything, from tiny details to the curves of a female torso, comes from what Schlesinger describes as the “lesbian gaze.”

“It was just a very positive way of presenting the lesbian body, in a wonderful, very assertive and positive and womanly but also independent way,” she explains.

The gallery transitions into a tight corner of the space for the “Lesbian Sex” series. Thin pink cotton gets stretched out to depict female desire over unvarnished images of tangled bodies and penetration. The intimacy of the fabric takes on a different edge in the series, which was drawn and etched onto zine plates, printed onto cloth and then attached to torn clothing. The ripped T-shirts remind one of the heat of sex, the urgency to strip off and make contact.

Around the corner, nestled inside a barred cell (a remnant of SPARC’s architectural past as a jailhouse), the painting “Slow Dance” depicts a blue masculine silhouette and pink feminine outline — a nod to the butch/femme dynamic of years past. Beside it, images of L.A.’s lesbian bars from decades ago loop through a slideshow. The photos, which were taken during Schlesinger’s time in the CalArts Feminist Studio Workshop, are made more poignant by the fact that all of the bars depicted have since shuttered, now only existing in the realm of memory.

Though most of her work in this exhibit was created more than 25 years ago, Schlesinger’s been thrilled to see how it speaks to contemporary conversations on gender norms and LGBTQ identity.

“Even though I did this in the early ’90s, it seems very of the moment,” she says. “I think when work comes from an honest place, it lasts. If it comes from a true place, it’s always going to be true.”

“Tomboys” remains on view from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays at SPARC, 685 Venice Blvd., Venice. Visit sparcinla.org for more info.

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