In a startling photo at Etherton Gallery, a veiled woman holds up a heavy tray of milk-white pitchers. Besides the lacy white napkin that covers her face, the only thing she's wearing is a dainty embroidered apron. And she's in a strange modernist space, standing in a stark pool of milky white light.
The mysterious woman appears in several other photos, too, without the tray but with plenty of milk: It drips all over her body, across her breasts, past the apron and down her legs.
To untangle these provocative pictures—from a series called, not surprisingly, Milk—it helps to know a little of the real-life history of the real-life woman in them.
Her paternal grandmother was abandoned by her husband, and supported her four sons by working for years as a waitress. She didn't retire her tray until she was 75 years old.
The woman's father was a milkman who got up before dawn for decades to deliver fresh milk to his customers. And most of her teachers, from elementary through high school, were women who wore veils, all of them nuns in the Philadelphia Catholic schools.
The woman in question is Bailey Doogan, a renowned feminist artist and UA art professor, now retired, famed for her pioneering portrayals of the real bodies of real women. She's long made lovingly detailed paintings of her own flesh, with every crease and wrinkle and flaw shimmering in a kind of sacred light.
Though the tropes in Milk come from one woman's life history, the pictures challenge all of art history. Vermeer is just one artist called to mind by the lace cap, the gleaming ceramics and the woman's humble pose. But Doogan's spilt milk is explosive: It defies and discards the idealized representation of women in art and the archetypes of woman as server and mother. And not so incidentally, in her loving depiction of embroidery and lace, she celebrates the once disdained "female" crafts. Doogan not only embraces them, she wears them.
What's distinct about this series is that Doogan did not use paint to make these images of her milk-stained body. This time she surrendered the soft edges of paint to the starkness of photography. Doogan conceived the pictures—and posed in them—but Ann Simmons-Myers photographed them.
As gallery proprietor Terry Etherton says of the two artists, using their nicknames, "It was Peggy's concept, and Sam knew how to pull it off."
Head of the photography department at Pima Community College and a well-known photographer in her own right, Simmons-Myers is a master at capturing rich, pungent color and posing her subjects in revelatory settings. She rendered Doogan's audacious ideas and painterly imagery in a clean-edged contemporary style; and her gorgeous lighting heightens Doogan's elegant limited palette. The white pitchers and lace gleam, and the peach-colored flesh and gray shadows turn sensuous.
The original photos were shot way back in the dark ages of 2004 but never exhibited. Doogan used them only as the source material for a series of small-scale monoprints; in that incarnation, the Milk women were soft-edged, almost dreamy.
Nine years later, changes in photographic technology allowed for a completely different result: The new works are huge in scale, sharply lit and densely colored. Simmons-Myers had used a Hasselblad film camera, and the old Milk negatives were scanned, digitized and printed out as archival pigment prints. The large photos—at 5-feet high and 4 1/2-feet wide they come close to life-sized—were exquisitely printed by artist Lisa Roden), Simmons-Myers' assistant.
The Milk series is just one small part of the splendid Spill exhibition. Doogan/Simmons-Myers collaborated on eight other pieces, including jarring photos of a round, bald man bound neck to toe in leather belts. Doogan gets solo credit for 12 works. She's made small color transfer prints of the Milk images, and four mixed-media versions of a single photo of her face. Doogan worked over each of these "Peggy" images with pastels, and each is differently colored and shadowed. With each picture different yet the same, the series adds up to a profound self-portrait, a look into the artist's soul.
Half the gallery is dedicated to works by the late, great Luis A. Jiménez Jr., a Chicano artist originally out of El Paso, Texas. Etherton—which opened this space 30 years ago with a Jiménez solo show—has rounded up 18 lithos and etchings and two small models of his large public art sculptures.
Jiménez's genius was to use the particulars of urban Mexican folk art—low-rider designs, fiberglass, neon signs—in high-flying works of fine art that centered on the figure. By defiantly honoring a scorned aesthetic, he turned negative stereotypes on their head.
In the 1985 litho "Fiesta Dancers," for example, he has a man and a woman prancing around a sombrero in the Mexican hat dance. That dance, often the stuff of negative cliché, is transformed here into a bold celebration of a culture. Colored in the rainbow brights of Mexican textiles, the two figures have turned monumental. But the litho in the gallery is a prelude to a large-scale work out in the world. "Fiesta Dancers" the sculpture is a giant piece of public art, Etherton says, provocatively positioned on contested terrain—the border between Tijuana and San Diego.
Jiménez's art owes a debt to the great Mexican artists Posada and sculptor Zúñiga, with whom he studied. But it is even more deeply connected to his father, a signmaker in El Paso who specialized in neon. Jiménez grew up in his father's shop, and the son's lifelong pleasure in his father's flickering light comes through in all his works.
One piece at Etherton pays specific homage to his dad. "Jiménez at Adelita's Candy Store," 1983, is a frieze-like collection of working-class men all in a row, gathered around a female nude, the Adelita of the title, a Mexican folk figure often associated with death. It's an Everyman composition, about life and work, love and death. Above this group hang blue neon letters spelling out the family name: Jiménez.
The artist's bold embrace of working-class themes also won him commissions far from his Southwest stomping grounds (Jiménez lived in Tucson for a time). The public art piece "Sodbuster" stands in Fargo, N.D., as a bracing fiberglass tribute to the farmers of the northern Plains. The litho version here shows a man grown old at his work still pushing his plow. Drawn in an extreme diagonal, the muscular oxen that haul it nearly burst out of the picture plane.
And "Steelworker" presides over Pittsburgh. In the litho at the gallery, a bare-chested black man stands heroically in the steel plant's heat and smoke. Even so, in this northern work, the molten steel flowing from a pipe burns with the hot yellows and oranges of the borderlands.