Portraits of power

(First published in the January 31, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibit Exchanges explores women supporting women


“Stray” by Joyce Polance

Walking around the new exhibition at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ll be instantly entranced by the paintings of Joyce Polance, whose objective is to challenge the viewers to question their own assumptions about strength, beauty and intimacy.

Known for her expressive brushwork, Polance’s work reflects elements of her own vulnerabilities such as being a woman, loneliness, obsessive thinking and sensitivity. Her willingness to expose her inner, chaotic experiences make her paintings personal and inspirational as they reflect real emotions of genuine human connections.

The Chicago-based expressionist received her Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in 1988 and isa six-time grantee of the CAAP Grant from the Department of Cultural Affairs. She’s had her work featured in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, American Art Collector and more, making her a prominent figure painter and contemporary artist today.

WMOCA’s exhibit Exchanges showcases her large-scale oil paintings depicting subjects in various states of emergence from patterns that have negatively impacted their lives—often an implicit history of failed support from family, so the subjects turn to peer relationships for help.

The paintings only feature women, giving the entire exhibit a strong sense of femininity and womanhood. And all the depicted women are nude. According to Polance in her Artist’s Statement, “I paint the women naked to depict their willingness to be vulnerable while simultaneously embracing their sexuality and bodies. The women take ownership of both their femininity and their power.”

You’ll feel this power and the sentiments of the women as they cradle, hold on to, whisper to and comfort one another while they experience a range of emotions such as jealousy, sadness, anger and tenderness.

It’s striking. Not only do the size of these paintings—several as large as 5-feet wide—enthrall viewers, it’s also the expressions of the subjects and the emotions they elicit that make them remarkable. Polance paints the women in front of simple backgrounds, making them the main focus so viewers can focus on the subject’s raw emotions.

Polance’s brushwork is distinct as the paint is applied thickly using bold technique, juxtaposed to the soft, plump skin of the women she forms. According to Polance, “Both the large scale figures and the thick, layered application of paint are meant to create an arresting visual presence that echoes the internal strength of the figures.”

The painting “Guard” shows three figures: The woman in the foreground hugs herself, appearing exposed and vulnerable; another woman weeps as she’s embraced from behind by a third woman; together it depicts how in personal moments, women are there to and support each other.

The paintings invite the viewer into personal struggles,transformations and healing. The subject’s eyes truly captivate you: Some eyes are squeezed shut, some glance away and others look directly at the viewer.

In “Stray,” three women huddle together leaning on and grasping each other. One woman looks straight at you, inviting you into this story. A second woman’s eyes are closed with her forehead pressed against another’s face, as if seeking a moment of peace.

Other pieces, like “Dispatch” and “Blanket” display the women whispering to one another in a depiction of trust.

It’s an emotional exhibition that will stick in your mind long after leaving the museum.

Joyce Polance: Exchanges is on view at the Wausau Museum of Contemporary Art thru March 30. Museum hours: Tues.-Sat. noon-5 pm. 715-571-6551, Wmoca.org.