Exhibition provides a comprehensive examination of Honoré Sharrer's place in American art

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Exhibition provides a comprehensive examination of Honoré Sharrer's place in American art
Honoré Sharrer, Tribute to the American Working People, 1946–51. Oil on composition board, overall with frame: 38¾ × 77¼ in. (98.43 × 196.22 cm). Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Sara Roby Foundation.

COLUMBUS, OH.- Columbus Museum of Art presents A Dangerous Woman: Subversion and Surrealism in the Art of Honoré Sharrer, the first comprehensive assessment of the artist since mid-century, on view February 10 – May 21, 2017 in the Margaret M. Walter Wing. Organized in partnership with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the exhibition provides a comprehensive examination of Sharrer’s place in American art and reveals the full scope of her significant achievements. A Dangerous Woman includes some 45 paintings, plus associated sketches, prints, photographs, and ephemera from the artist’s extensive archive.

“This exhibition shows the Columbus Museum of Art’s continued commitment to those artists whose works engage the profound social issues facing their day,” said Executive Director Nannette V. Maciejunes. “The new research and critical assessment of Honoré Sharrer, an important 20th-century American artist whose work merits wider recognition, provides an extraordinary opportunity for the Museum to tell a broader and more complete story of the American experience. The project gives voice to a woman who challenges the long over-simplified canons of art history.”

Honoré Sharrer (1920 – 2009) was a major art figure in the years surrounding World War II. She was, in many ways, a rebel, whose paintings marked covert but unflinching resistance to the oppressive political and social conventions of the Cold War era. Her gender, commitment to leftist ideals, and use of figurative surrealism put her at odds with the dominant political and artistic climate of the 1950s. Sharrer found that she was progressively marginalized—she and her husband essentially black-listed—by the suppression of political difference carried out by forces like Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Simultaneously, Abstract Expressionism, epitomized by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning, dominated the American art world. Sharrer, like other female artists, struggled to find equal billing given the masculine aesthetics of this movement.

A Dangerous Woman highlights the visual strategy Sharrer constructed in response to these dynamics. Sharrer drew from popular culture and mass media to invent a complex visual language equal parts wit, seduction, and bite, which she used to expose the exclusionary culture and politics of Cold War America. She embraced stylistic elements that were viewed at the time as feminine, and thus less serious. Her candy colors, character “types,” and playful re-appropriations from art history and nursery rhymes have led her work to be characterized as cheeky or provocative. However, Sharrer used such elements to draw the unsuspecting viewer in while cleverly deploying the power of humor to transgress rigid social boundaries and reveal the ugly underbelly of power.

“Sharrer negotiated a sophisticated and coherent artistic vision through the political and social changes that spanned the Cold War era,” explained exhibition co-curator Melissa Wolfe. “Her compositions were consistently grounded in a poetic vision, humanist empathy, and a documentary impulse she compellingly described as ‘vicious, tender, and meticulous.’ Her very individual voice—coded in the language of surrealism and Pop Art—offers a remarkably observant and penetrating vision of modern life.”

Sharrer’s use of mass culture situates her as a bridge connecting the socially-engaged art of the 1930s, through the political suppression of the 1950s, to the more ironic commentary of Pop Art. Her paintings bring Elvis Presley’s mother, writer Marcel Proust, pin-up girls, Joseph McCarthy, 18th-century French Rococo paintings, and a nude Mother Goose into a visual dialogue notable for its incisive humor and intellectual acumen.

The exhibition is curated by M. Melissa Wolfe, Curator of American Art at Saint Louis Art Museum, and Robert Cozzolino, Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Paintings at Minneapolis Institute of Art. Exhibition venues include Columbus Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Smith College Museum of Art.

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