Natalie Frank: Painting with Paper

October 23, 2021 - February 13, 2022

This exhibition presents and explores Women and Animals, a new body of work that Natalie Frank (American, b. 1980) produced at Dieu Donné, Brooklyn, New York, with a Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant in 2019–20. In this series, Frank works with wet pigmented cotton and linen paper pulp to create dynamic feminist portraits that engage with contemporary conversations about gender, fantasy, power, and sensuality. Frank’s abstracted portraits of imagined female figures, each accompanied by an animal, both reference and challenge conventional portrayals of female subjects. Frank’s sensibility of femininity encompasses a calmness and beauty that tenses with wildness and grotesquerie: her imagined female subjects are often composed of vibrant, unrealistic colors; have mottled skin and arresting eyes; and bear a sense of motion and vitality. Simultaneously attractive and unnerving, these portraits undermine traditional conceptions of beauty and address issues of female identity, sexuality, and empowerment. Seen together, in a single gallery, the impact of the works multiplies, eliciting a full-body experience. Moreover, the diversity of the figures portrayed across the series inspires discussions about the complexities of gender identity and performance.

Frank’s artistic process and materials defy hand-papermaking’s associations with craft and women’s work. The making of these portraits is as spontaneous as their wild forms, bright colors, and tactile surfaces suggest, but it is also highly laborious. Frank applies paper pulp, which consists of still-wet, hand-pigmented pieces of linen, to a wet sheet of formed cotton paper pulp. She primarily uses brushes and spoons but also pours the pulp from cups. In the process, which she describes as a mix of painting and drawing, Frank finds a freedom that inspires her imagination and allows her to capture it immediately in visual form. In her own words: “I found that I could work quickly, laying in color over color… my hand becoming an extension of my imagination.” In the final works, individual pieces of the colored pulp are distinct even as they abut, intertwine, and overlap each other.

An extension of Frank’s work with fairy tales, the paper pulp paintings raise questions about the roles of narrative, storytelling, and myth in shaping societal values, assumptions, and interrelations. In drawings, books, and a ballet focused on the roles of female figures in popular fairy tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm, Frank uncovers the misogyny, brutality, and proto-feminism at the heart of these centuries-old stories. The frequent transformation of women into animals, which Frank interprets as a signifier of their power to challenge constraints of class, gender, the church, and patriarchal convention, inspired her Women and Animals series. The magic of fairy tales finds expression in her new pulp paper pieces, where women and animals appear to come alive; lips slightly open, they seem to be about to speak or breathe. Dynamic, contrasting colors recall psychedelic daydreams in magic realist worlds. Surrounded by all ten portraits, one is submerged in a dream world; the lines between fiction and reality blur, and one might wonder how the stories we pass down influence both our individual and our communal perceptions and actions.

— Elissa Watters, Curator

In my artistic practice, I elevate marginalized women by giving voice to their narratives. These women include overlooked storytellers, characters in literature who have been rendered diminutive, and figures who push at the boundaries of female sexuality and identity. When I began to explore unsanitized fairy tales, which began as women’s oral tales, I focused on the roles of women in the tales of the Brothers Grimm, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the 17th-century feminist tales of Madame d’Aulnoy. I published my drawings in a new genre—a combination of art book and illustrated manuscript. My works after the Brothers Grimm inspired the story, score, and choreography of my first ballet, for which I drew designs for costumes, sets, and animations. I bring classical drawing techniques to paper pulp painting, pairing abstraction and finely tuned rendering to enliven feminist portraiture.

— Natalie Frank


January 20, Thursday, 7 p.m. — Artist & Curator Conversation: Natalie Frank and Elissa Watters


Virtual Tour
Installation shots
Artwork in the exhibit
Art Loves Company Blog Post: From ‘Tender Buttons’ to ‘Women and Animals’
Ask the Artist!