Beauty and The Brain

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I wonder if you, like me, sometimes stroll through museums’ vast collections, and – all of a sudden – one of the artworks stops you in your tracks for a whole set of reasons. There is more life and energy in the image. And, whether the artwork is 100 or 200 years old, there is a sensation that time disappears, and the artist communicates with you here and now, in real time and a real place.

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Installation Shot of Katherine Sherwood’s The Interior of the Yelling Clinic, Walter Maciel Gallery. (Dana Davis / Walter Maciel Gallery)

That is exactly what I experienced a few days ago, when I went to see the exhibition of paintings by Katherine Sherwood at Walter Maciel Gallery in Culver City. So, there I was, surrounded by glorious, nude images of reclining Venus, Odalisque, and Olympia.

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Katherine Sherwood, “Blind Venus (for G),” 2018. (Dana Davis / Walter Maciel Gallery)

Of course, if you like Old Master paintings, it was impossible not to recognize the references. These naked beauties are inspired by great masterpieces by the likes of Titian, Ingres, and Manet. But, something strange, even disturbing, has been added by Katherine Sherwood to all these compositions. Each of her Venuses has a very odd face.

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Left: Installation shot of Katherine Sherwood, “Maya,” 2014. Walter Maciel Gallery. (Dana Davis / Walter Maciel Gallery). Right: The artist Katherine Sherwood. Courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery.

Stop, for a second. Stare at them. You will see that their faces have been replaced with… brain scans. Yes, these are the brain scans of the artist herself. What you learn is that Sherwood, about 20 years ago, suffered a brain hemorrhage that made her unable to use her right side. And still, miraculously, she learned to use her left arm, and never stopped making art.

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Katherine Sherwood, “Olympia,” 2014. (Dana Davis / Walter Maciel Gallery)

Each of her paintings also has a detail indicating a different handicap for each beauty: a leg brace, a walking stick for the blind, a false arm… With all the above, you expect to be uncomfortable, to say the least. But, somehow, there is sense of optimism, and even humor, that emanates from these images.

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Katherine Sherwood, Back of “Peonies After Manet,” 2017. (Dana Davis / Walter Maciel Gallery)

Sherwood has been a professor of Art History and Art Practice at UC Berkeley for almost 30 years. It’s an intriguing surprise to learn that the foundation of each of her paintings is a collage of recycled reproductions of great artworks of the past, which she originally used during her lectures decades ago.

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Katherine Sherwood, “Oleanders,” 2018. (Dana Davis / Walter Maciel Gallery)

Besides the nudes, the exhibition includes a series of floral still lifes, with recognizable references to such artists as Van Gogh and Cézanne. And, once again, if you look carefully, you will spot Sherwood’s brain scans incorporated into these vibrant, full of vitality paintings.

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Left: The artist Katherine Sherwood and Walter Maciel. Courtesy of Walter Maciel Gallery. Right:  Installation shot of Katherine Sherwood, “Flowers and Fruit,” 2014. Walter Maciel Gallery. (Dana Davis / Walter Maciel Gallery)

Seeing Sherwood in photographs, sitting in a wheelchair and smiling so happily, you do get a feeling that her smile rarely goes away. Years ago, Walter Maciel was one of Sherwood’s students. Now, as the gallery owner, he pays homage to his former teacher, who is not only a wonderful artist, but an inspiring person, as well. Sherwood’s story and art reminds me of the old saying about what separates boys from men – while boys complain, men do something. She definitely belongs to the small and illustrious group of artists, such as Chuck Close and Mark di Suvero, who, in spite of their severe physical handicaps, never stopped creating impressive works of art. This is a great lesson to us all. Never lose hope. Never give up.



Kathleen Yore