Meghan Borah: Polite Company

Goldfinch is happy to announce our second solo show with Meghan Borah, "Polite Company." The exhibition opens on Saturday, June 5th and is on view in Gallery 1 through Saturday, July 17th.

"Polite Company"  features new paintings and works on paper, all created in 2020 and 2021, during the solitary period of quarantine. The exhibition’s title phrase, says Borah, “grew from my ongoing fascination with authentic versus performative relationships. I felt the extra weight of this in isolation, when situations that would require being ‘polite’ were eliminated from daily life.” Noting that her painting depicting figures dancing at Chicago mainstay Danny’s Bar stemmed from the artist’s personal reflections about “longing for intimate moments dancing with friends, [while at the same time] not missing the social anxieties that go along with performatively dancing next to strangers,” the Chicago-based painter says she strives to create “scenes that can be read as either/or/both, blurring the lines between intimate and awkward.” In Borah’s painted scenarios, two girls on a horse might be interpreted as a pair of lovers on a journey, yet their gazes, aimed outward towards the viewer, also suggest a self-conscious awareness that their intimacy is very much on public view.

Borah never limits herself to one medium but instead aims to create surfaces that shimmer slightly (through the addition of glass beads, for example), or have a faded quality (through her use of chalk and distemper)–sheens and textures that evoke fabrics like silk or denim. Indeed, the floral patterns and rich surface qualities of textiles have long served as an inspiration for Borah’s compositions and surface applications.

Borah cites the artist, poet and muse Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) as a painter whose work she returns to frequently. For a time, Laurencin served as the independent-minded muse of Guillaume Apollinaire and was the among the only female artists associated with the Section D’Or and Cubist group. Her paintings, with their centering of female figures engaged in activities of leisure, beautification, and nature forays, were in their time often dismissed as representing “everything that is wrong women’s art” due to their pastel palette, unapologetically decorative aesthetic, and celebration of simple, pretty things like flower bouquets,  flowing scarves, woodland idylls and the freedom of riding on horseback. (1)

But when viewed from a contemporary standpoint and today’s fresh perspectives on gender fluidity and the acknowledgement of a wide spectrum of gender expressions, Laurencin’s painted world portrays a feminine interiority that can be claimed and inhabited by those who find and see themselves in it.  This is where Meghan Borah’s femme-centric paintings connect back to and expand upon Laurencin’s female-oriented cosmos. While Borah’s “girls” tend to be feminine-presenting, their angular limbs and features, heavy platform boots, and–let’s not forget–refusal to smile on command, especially while being looked at, resonate with feminism’s insistence that our bodies belong to ourselves and no one else, and we should revel and take pleasure in them, adorn them as we wish, and share them with others if and as we choose.
(1) Heather McPherson, Introduction, in Marie Laurencin: Artist and Muse, by Douglas K.S. Hyland and Heather McPherson, Published in conjunction with the exhibition “Marie Laurencin: Artist and Muse,” March 18-May 14, 1989 by the Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama, pg. 7.



Artist’s Q&A: Meghan Borah and Gallery Director Claudine Isé


Claudine Isé: Tell us more about your use of distemper in many of your paintings. It’s an ancient medium but not as commonly used nowadays. How did you discover it, and how do you make it work for you?

Meghan Borah: I first discovered distemper when I was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. There’s a massive 9-foot Vuillard distemper in the European Art section – Foliage—Oak Tree and Fruit Seller  – that I fell in love with. I always purposely walked through that section when going to class just so I could see that painting. The surface and colors are what drew me in: dry and chalky, yet with a glowing luminosity unlike that of oil or acrylic paint. I remember not really knowing what distemper was, and didn’t really explore it until I took a class on materials with painter Jim Lutes.

I like the challenge that comes with working with distemper. Because it uses rabbit skin glue as a binder it has to be applied warm. It’s sticky, dries rather quickly, and can’t be layered like oil or acrylic; it’s really a mess to work with. You have to paint quickly because it dries very fast. I feel like a madwoman when I use it. I’m using all of these kitchen utensils such as crockpots and whisks to make the paint.  I’m mixing colors while trying to keep the hot plate warm, but not too warm. I get so absorbed in the task at hand that I’m able to think clearly.

When I’m after a more stripped-down composition in a painting I choose distemper in order to work in a material that doesn’t offer much room for layering or revision. For me, it’s like a stripped-down demo tape version of a song; raw and messy, but it often ends up with greater character than the polished, mastered version.

CI: You have a longstanding interest in textiles. Can you tell us about what types of fabric and patterns you’re drawn to, and the ways you bring textiles into your paintings?

MB: Sampling patterns or colors from textiles has always been a way for me to bring personal experiences into the paintings without being obvious. I’m usually inspired by fabric or garments that I see in the world. A particular color combination or texture draws me in, and I take a photograph or make a mental note of it. It’s difficult to classify categories that I’m drawn to because the range is quite wide.

I do look at a lot of verdure tapestries. I love the way they flatten natural elements and figures.  I also like the idea of creating a space that can function as both an environment and a backdrop for the figures, so I’m interested in the point when a painted flower or a tree becomes a decoration rather than an attempt to mimic the actual object.  My headspace while painting will flip back and forth from “design mode” to “rendering mode”. “Design mode” is when I’m really looking at textiles carefully. I’m often thinking of Milton Avery, his daughter March, Vuillard, and many others who create these magically tapestry-like figurative paintings.

CI: The painting “Cosmic Dancers (It was the last dance at Danny’s and we didn’t know it)” for me embodies so much of what the Covid-19 pandemic has taken from us, and taught us in certain ways, about people, places and things that were so normal we never thought to appreciate them in the way we do now, after more than a year of “normal” having been turned upside down. Can you tell us about the making of this painting and what it means to you — especially in the wake of the city’s loss of Danny’s Tavern?

MB: The inability of people to properly mourn the deaths of so many people and places during Covid was so difficult. This painting was a way for me to mourn the loss of one of my favorite places in the city, but I was also mourning a loss of freedom in a separate way because it was the first painting I made after giving birth to my daughter. There was this simultaneous sense of both loss and gain throughout both experiences; half of me was longing for a return to pre-pandemic, pre-parenting days, but the other half was quite content spending so much time at home escaping my ego to care for a baby.

A dance floor can be a place of intense joy and also intense social anxiety. With that painting I was trying to create a scene that could be read as either intimate or awkward, either dance floor or outer space. I’m interested in in-between states because for me that’s the magic of painting. You can depict a space that is everything at once.

CI: You’ve mentioned Marie Laurencin as a painter you look at frequently, and I’m so glad you turned me on to this under-appreciated painter because I really love the paintings of hers I’ve seen. How did you discover her and in what ways has she influenced you?

MB: I discovered Marie Laurencin through reading Laura Owens’s catalogue from her show at the Whitney in 2018. In it, Owen describes her handmade books, many of which are homages to female artists. She has one book from 2011 that is an homage to Marie Laurencin, and when I went to research Laurencin I couldn’t believe I had never seen her work before. I was already making paintings that were pretty similar to Laurencin’s, so when I discovered her it was like this instant connection deep in my soul. It was the rush of a developing crush, really.

I felt that way when I discovered Joan Brown’s work in high school, and still feel the same energy when I view her work in the studio. There are certain artists that fuel your practice in a very intimate way. I think Laurencin has influenced me to create more ambiguous spaces and depictions of relationships. Her scenarios are very dreamlike, and I’m never quite sure if her women are lovers or friends. I think I was being a lot more didactic in my paintings before I discovered Laurencin. She showed me what can happen when one is a bit less direct.
CI: Who are some other painters — from the past and/or the present — whom you look at again and again for inspiration? What do you find in their work that draws you to it?

MB: I mentioned Joan Brown. I come back to her frequently.  Her paintings are so honest and personal, and her sense of humor really comes through. Unlike Laurencin, she is very direct in her paintings, but her spaces are so wonky that I still get lost in them. I’m always fascinated with odd space. Her paintings feel so confident in their weirdness.

I’m always going back to Max Beckmann’s paintings for the way he composes bodies. So much drama! I beat up a Beckmann book so badly during my graduate studies at SAIC that the library wouldn’t take it back!  I still have the book, and reference it often.

I also mentioned Vuillard and Milton Avery for their tapestry-like treatment of the picture plane. Jacob Lawrence is another one that comes to mind. His Migration series is just brilliant.

Chantal Joffe for her dedication to the female figure and fashion-inspired imagery.

I’m consistently looking at Piero della Francesca for the way he organizes bodies in space.

Matisse is probably obvious.

I think Kyle Staver’s paintings are incredible. Her creation of light and inventiveness blow me away.

CI: I’ve noticed that the female-presenting figures in your paintings generally are not smiling. They’re not frowning either, but their facial expressions convey a certain placid calm. You’ve mentioned that facial expressions often take the longest for you to “get right” — can you talk about what you are going for when it comes to the visage of your figures?

MB: Our eyes are naturally drawn to faces. We are instinctually primed to pick them out. I am very aware of this and what upsets me most is when faces sabotage the vibrations of the entire painting. The success of the face depends upon the rest of the painting and vice versa. There is a constant shifting around until I can get the facial features, the figure, and the context to work together. The ambiguity of the expression is very important to me. There needs to be space for the viewer to enter. I enjoy hearing all of the different interpretations of what the figures are feeling. That’s when the paintings really come alive for me.

CI: Horses and girls on horseback have figured a few times in your paintings – are horses symbolic for you? There is horse and animal imagery in some of Marie Laurencin’s paintings; are there references to her work in yours?

MB: I’m thinking about so many things when I paint horses. I’m thinking about horses as mounts for important people. I’m thinking of cave paintings, war paintings, and Susan Rothenberg.  I’m thinking of Bianca Jagger riding a horse into Studio 54.  I’m thinking about “horse girls” on Instagram, I’m thinking of Pierro Della Francesca. I’m interested in what horses do to the sense of time in a painting. It’s not often that you see people using horses as modes of transportation anymore, so to put female-presenting figures in disco boots on a horse makes the scene a bit more curious.

Horses specifically became an interest in graduate school when I decided to paint Cher on a horse for my MFA show piece, but animal imagery has appeared in my paintings since I was in high school. I grew up with a lot of animals so they’re part of my identity and make it into my paintings. There are definitely references to Laurencin’s work in mine, but I’m also stealing from other artists as well. Honestly, the animal imagery is usually inspired by fashion magazines most of the time.