Artist Suzy Birstein explores women’s roles in historical art
By Cheryl Minns, Senior Columnist
The Ladies-Not-Waiting: Las Meninas and CenTauress exhibit is currently on display at the Amelia Douglas Gallery. It features ceramic sculptures, oil paintings, and collages by Vancouver artist Suzy Birstein. The exhibit explores the way females have been represented in artwork over the centuries, from ancient mythology to the women who serve royalty.
“I think it might resonate with students in terms of thinking about art history,” she said to the Other Press. “Like, how does something that’s historical make sense in a contemporary way?”
Birstein explores historical women’s roles in her Las Meninas (Spanish for “The Ladies-in-waiting”) sculptures and paintings, especially in her title piece, Ladies-Not-Waiting after Velázquez—a reimagining of Diego Velázquez’s famous 1656 Las Meninas painting.
Velázquez’s Las Meninas features Velázquez as a painter painting the portrait of the king and queen while the princess is tended to by her ladies-in-waiting. In Birstein’s oil version, she changes the painter to her own self-portrait, and the princess and ladies-in-waiting are painted images of her Las Meninas series sculptures.
Her four doll-like Las Meninas sculptures in the exhibit are three-dimensional and two-sided, with different appearances on the front and back. Birstein said they are inspired by the characters in Velázquez’s painting, as well as personal connections.
A particularly personal piece for Birstein is Harlequin Zsa Zsa, which has a Las Meninas series character on the front in a fancy dress and that same character on the back in a harlequin dress with multi-coloured diamonds, holding two young girls who represent Birstein’s twin granddaughters.
“The piece is called Harlequin Zsa Zsa because my granddaughters call me Zsa Zsa, like Zsa Zsa Gabor,” she said during her artist talk on September 24.
The Las Meninas sculptures also make an appearance in a few of Birstein’s eleven oil paintings on display.
“I decided I wanted to paint, and I thought my sculptures would be the best thing to paint. Lots of the paintings are portraits of the sculptures,” she said.
In her artist talk, Birstein explained that her Las Meninas sculpture and painting series were somewhat inspired by her trip to Barcelona, Spain, where she saw Pablo Picasso’s Las Meninas series of paintings, which feature his version of the characters in Velázquez’s Las Meninas painting.
The paintings also include portraits of her ceramic sculpture series, CenTauress.
The three CenTauress sculptures in the exhibit are female centaurs with the head, torso, and arms of a woman— stylistically similar to her Las Meninas sculptures. Birstein said the CenTauress sculptures are inspired by the mythical horse stories she heard in Greece and India during her travels, as well as the idea of someone being able to save one’s self.
“It’s like the fairy tale myth of waiting for your knight in shining armour. This is about being your own knight in shining armour,” she said, referring to the female centaurs not needing a knight with a horse to escape their situation.
“It’s about feeling empowered,” she said.
The exhibit also features three collages of abstract dancing figures made from oil and paper on canvas.
“The collages are kind of autobiographical. They are made up of images of my sculptures, images of my paintings, and images of my travels,” she said.
Birstein credits part of her inspiration to the great artists who came before her who had similar influences.
“I realized there were artists I’m really inspired by, like Picasso and Modigliani, who were drawing upon the same sources as I was from different cultures of the past,” she said. “In Amedeo Modigliani’s sculptures, you can see the Cambodian influence. I’ve been to Cambodia, and some of my works have Cambodian references.”
Most of the sculptures, paintings, and collages in the exhibit are for sale by Birstein.
Ladies-Not-Waiting: Las Meninas and CenTauress will be on display until October 26 at the Amelia Douglas Gallery on the fourth floor of the Douglas College New Westminster campus. Admission is free, and gallery hours are 10 am to 7:30 pm Monday through Friday, and 11 am to 4 pm on Saturdays (they are closed on Sundays).
Photos taken by Cheryl Minns