Swimmin' With Women (And Painter Alyssa Monks) at Anaheim's Sarah Bain Gallery

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Swimmin’ with women (and painter Alyssa Monks) at the Sarah Bain Gallery

The Sarah Bain Gallery seems to be developing its own unusual little niche, showcasing art by women who paint cranky, slouchy ladies with pot bellies. (Note that this should not be interpreted as a putdown. Some of my favorite people are cranky, slouchy ladies with pot bellies.)

The gallery has a particularly strong line of photorealistic paintings of girls doing “girly” things, the kind of stuff we might expect to see in the pages of some swanky fashion magazine, but doing it in an unsettling, totally unglamorous way. Back in March, they presented Pamela Wilson’s memorable depictions of women and little girls standing around in frilly, fancy costumes, trying to look ominous and Goth and failing adorably. In April, Lee Price offered up pictures of ladies with big, colorful piles of candy and cupcakes—only the women looked oppressed by all this abundance, like the food was closing in on them. Continuing this proud tradition, the gallery now brings us the work of Alyssa Monks, who paints grimly compelling portraits of naked ladies in the shower. All of these artists offer a clinical yet loving look at the female of the species, captured without apology or Photoshop trickery in all their awkward, beautiful, wretched glory.

The eroticism of Monks’ work is obvious and undeniable, with all those droplets of water trickling down soft, pale shoulders. Monks wraps some of her women in transparent shower curtains, their hot breath fogging the plastic. In some of the pieces, Monks focuses intensely on the sensual details of their bodies, on pregnant bellies and swollen boobs, on ruddy cheeks and the wet, tangled hair hanging in their faces. It’s all a little dizzying; you can almost smell the steam.

But that eroticism has a creepy dark side. These women do not look happy. Actually, many of them look exhausted and depressed, like they’re scrubbing off the grime after a long, hard day. A few of these images are just straight-up sexy. (Wet, depicting a woman’s shoulders and chin as she bathes, is as close as this show gets to softcore porn.) But some of the women who are seemingly tangled up in shower curtains bear a distressing resemblance to bodies found at a crime scene; they make you think of poor Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Smush shows a lady pressing her fingers into the wet flesh of her face, and it’s hard to tell if she’s scrubbing up, weeping, or both.

And then, God help us, there’s Mom, peering at us through a pebbled shower door with her eyes full of raw bitterness, like we’ve just broken her heart. All of which would be disturbing enough—but Mom is also wet and naked. I don’t think I want to think about this anymore.

The paintings take us through various stages of a woman’s life, all of them dripping and nude. Here is a woman, young and supple and full of life (Wet). Here is a woman pregnant and seemingly none too thrilled about it (Vapor). Here is that woman’s freshly born child, covered in sticky glop as it raises its fat little arms and howls to the skies, knowing only its own need (Baptism). And finally, here is Mom, looking back at life and wondering if it was worth all the bother.

These women feel real, so much so that it can seem wrong to look at them, like . . . well, like you’re peeking in on them while they’re taking a shower. But while the intimacy of these scenes can be creepy, it can also be strangely touching. They either don’t know you’re there, or they don’t care. In either case, they’re without self-consciousness or affect. They are simply themselves, washing off the cares of one day, trying to get ready to face another.

Alyssa Monks’ “Liquid” at the Sarah Bain Gallery, 184 Center St. Promenade, Anaheim, (714) 758-0545; www.sarahbaingallery.com. Open Tues.-Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Through Sept. 28.

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