In February 1974, the American feminist artist Juanita McNeely contributed to “The Female View of Erotica”, an article published in an issue of New York Magazine. Invited to comment on her visceral figurative practice, McNeely stated: “I’m dealing with woman and her problems, and with sexuality, a human concern… [women] have been torn apart, wanting and needing and having strong sensual, sexual feelings and having to deny them… Women tend to hide their sexuality, to wear a mask, play a role… I think if you lined up all my work, you’d have my life.”
After studying in St. Louis and Illinois, then living in Chicago, McNeely had moved to New York City in 1967. She set up her studio in the East Village, where she made the imposing and carnally exuberant four-panel oil painting Woman’s Psyche (1968), presented at Independent 20th Century by James Fuentes gallery. Rendered with a fervent energy, the painting derives its primal vitality from its brutal depiction of life, sexuality, birth and menstruation. As the artist Sharyn Finnegan has marveled: “no one paints the body like she does or with more imagination–gravity- and anatomy-defying, yet whole and completely believable with every muscle articulated.”
McNeely’s naked figures bend and crouch, resting on their haunches. Crimson blood gushes from their vaginas, pooling at their feet. They are surrounded by birds and animals, with some of these creatures aggressively baring their teeth, entangled with and biting at the vulnerable flesh. In the right-hand panel, the wild engorged figure giving birth to a blue-hued baby clenches two overbearing phallic-like forms. The formative influence of German Expressionism on McNeely is evident in the clashing intensity of her color palette and the use of intuitive, gestural brushwork, evocative of her favorite Max Beckmann, but also of Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
In a recent interview with the critic Hall W. Rockefeller, McNeely recalled: “I had lots of bleeding women on the [gallery] walls. I used to paint that a lot, because it was what I knew and what was real to me… That’s how you give birth. That’s how you die. That’s how you live.”
McNeely’s practice has been irrevocably shaped by her own bodily circumstances. In the harrowing nine-panel painting Is It Real? Yes, It Is (1969), she portrayed the terror of trying to access an abortion, then illegal, after doctors discovered a tumor during her pregnancy, and the fight to save her life in the face of patriarchal regulations. Her pioneering and unbridled confrontation of taboo imagery merits comparison with that of Frida Kahlo and Paula Rego. In 1980, McNeely’s friend and peer, the artist Joan Semmel, asserted: “Fear, anguish, madness, death, pain and thwarted maternalism are inextricably bound up in her content. Despite her locus in Expressionism, there is no tradition for McNeely’s forthright depiction of such raw subject matter."
The erotic jouissance encountered in McNeely’s On the Edge, made in the early 1970s, with its bold depiction of genitalia and suggestion of orgasmic pleasure, can be considered in relation to her participation in the second-wave feminist movement. The mirrored reflection of the vulva in the painting recalls the vaginal self-examinations encouraged during certain consciousness-raising meetings. McNeely became involved in numerous New York cooperatives and feminist collectives at the time, including Women Artists in Revolution, the Redstockings and the Fight Censorship group. She also found mutual support from other women painters involved in the Alliance of Figurative Artists, such as Alice Neel.
Founded in 1973 by Anita Steckel, Fight Censorship counted Semmel, Judith Bernstein, Louise Bourgeois, Martha Edelheit and Hannah Wilke among its members. United by their commitment to erotic imagery and their defence of sexually explicit artworks, the group was seen as controversial within the women’s movement, later earning them the moniker of “black sheep feminists”. Through public appearances on local television and talks at art colleges and universities, they refuted claims of pornography and discussed their work in terms of sexual liberation and artistic freedom.
As Rachel Middleman wrote in Radical Eroticism: Women, Art, and Sex in the 1960s (2018): “Women had a particular role in the opening up of sexual possibilities in visual representation, since claiming the right to represent sexual subjects publicly in their work transgressed social norms and at times threatened legal ones as well.” Misogynistic discrimination was rife in the art world at the time, with women artists often censored and silenced. McNeely had her work kicked to the ground by a male dealer, and her prints for a group show at a Long Island gallery were placed in a cupboard, only viewable by request.
Early in the 1980s, McNeely suffered a spinal injury which required her to use a wheelchair, and was told by doctors that she would never be able to make large-scale works again. “There was no way I was ever going to accept that as a reality,” she later reflected. Her defiant response was to make Triskaidekaptych (1986), “a 13-panel painting that was 6 feet tall and 52 feet long that surrounded my whole studio”.
The 1990s triptych Pull Center, with its acrobatic figures and unique spatial permutations, further exemplifies McNeely’s enduring interest in the physicality and perpetual motion of the human body. Oscillating between violence and liberation, the bruised bodies are shown contorted and unfurled, legs splayed and arms stretched, against a sickly green and yellow background.
The multi-panel canvas, McNeely’s leitmotif, encloses the viewer by dominating their central and peripheral vision, but it also emphasizes her desire to chronicle the volatile truth of existence as an ongoing narrative, in all its beauty and brutality. In the artist’s own words, the driving force of her practice has been “to illuminate the act of living, the facing of death and, in between, the emotion and movement of life’s journey”.
Philomena Epps is an independent writer, art critic and researcher living in London. She has contributed to Artforum, ArtReview, Frieze and Flash Art, among other publications. This fall, she will begin a PhD at University College London, researching the work of Alina Szapocznikow and Hannah Wilke.