Beach Bodies: The Dysmorphic Abstractions of Virginia Broersma
by Grace Linden
Virginia Broersma does not remember when she first became aware of appearance. But feelings about her own body and bodies more generally, have been “locked…into [her] psyche” since she was a teenager. She explains, “My image of my own body has always been linked to what others think of me and their standards.” Broersma’s artistic practice, consequently, has been an effort to resolve these views.
Broersma is a painter in the traditional sense. Her brushwork is gestural and sweeping, and extends to the edges of the canvas. The colors are layered, bright, and multi-hued, and the impasto technique coupled with the rich tones adds texture to the canvas. All of these painterly methods put Broersma’s treatment of the body, specifically the female body, in dialogue with paintings of the past. Consider her 2014 painting Sunbather (Odalisque) [Fig. 2], part of the series Dythrambic, in which an abstracted nude figure sprawls across a beach. A rounded stomach fixes the body while the limbs – too many to count! – radiate outwards. There is a long tradition of odalisques in art’s history and such paintings show a nude, reclining figure at the center of the canvas, often flanked by an attendant. By titling her painting Sunbather (Odalisque), Broersma overtly situates her composition within this traditional art historical genre and its related discourses.
From French, odalisque translates to a "female slave" or "concubine" in a harem, particular to Ottoman Turkey. Implicit in the definition is a sense of ownership: the nude female is to be gazed upon by men, and owned within that gaze. The abstraction of the body, however, allows Broersma to subvert this relationship. While the figure is most likely female, evinced by the genitalia and curved thighs, the many flailing limbs transform the lower body into a gnarled, root-like mass, a sea creature stranded on land.
Broersma’s practice explores questions of idealized Western standards of beauty and power structures of the gaze. While her work has obvious ties to other artists—Lisa Yuskavage comes to mind, but more on her later—perhaps it is best to locate these paintings within the greater, psychological debate surrounding body image and body dysmorphia. Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD) causes a distorted view of the body and creates anxiety about one’s appearance. In part, BDD is affected by dominant images of female beauty that are circulated so constantly by the media: slim, white, and impossibly attractive. In the recent article “‘Digitized Dysmorphia’ of the female body: the re/disfiguration of the image,” Isabelle Coy-Dibley examines the way that Western beauty and sex industries have “hyper-sexualized society” through their use of the female body as a “currency.” She writes: “Rather than being naturally beautiful in a person’s own individuality, society continually prescribes a Westernized standard of beauty that unceasingly narrows, not just in waist size, but in the generic, homogenous perception of beauty it idealizes, which is often considered as white and able-bodied.” In today’s image-culture, where the photograph governs all, one competes not just against media representations but also against one’s own self as documented across social media platforms.
“[Internet] technology,” writes Coy-Dibley, “frequently emphasizes and perpetuates certain standardizations of femininity.” It also allows for one to constantly edit his or her digital avatar to promote a particular look. The ability to change one’s look for itself is not the problem, but rather that the expectations are so demanding and defined. Editing for the sake of editing is one process; editing to put forth and uphold unrealistic and narrow beauty norms only serves to further cement those norms.
It is within this framework that we can best situate Broersma’s practice. Early works from the series Knockout seem to directly take on the distortion promoted by the media. Mop-up or Wipeout (2013) appears to be a portrait, though everything figural in the painting is unrecognizable. Nevertheless, the swirling white and peach tones, encircled by a dark chestnut brown, suggest a face, though one that has been filtered excessively. That the face is present but cannot be identified as a face is characteristic of the ways in which digital tools can radically alter reality. With her dynamic and vigorous brushstrokes, Broersma has shown how easily flaws and individuating marks can be smoothed over until the person that remains dissolves into nothing.
Broersma’s practice explicitly deals with the role of the gaze: Who does the looking and what is seen? But interestingly, these paintings implicate men and women, while earlier feminist works questioned the primacy of the male gaze. In her seminal essay, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey details the relationship between the looker (man) and the looked upon (woman):
In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.
Consider again the odalisque, a woman who would have been actually owned by men. Sensuous representations of her body, such as Ingre’s famous Grande Odalisque (1814), encourage the (male) eye to linger on the female form. Men look; women are to be looked at and shaped for a male audience. Feminist art of the 1960s and 1970s challenged this binary by suggesting new ways of looking. Artists such as Judy Chicago, Hannah Wilke, and Carolee Schneeman defined a new vocabulary for considering the female body. When depicted by female artists, the nude body serves a different purpose.
There is a striking link between Broersma’s paintings and feminist photographer Cindy Sherman’s Centerfold series. Sherman typically works in series, dressing up in various costumes to construct her scenarios. For the 1981 Centerfolds, she riffed on the centerfolds found in men’s magazines, but instead of sexy, pinup girls, Sherman’s characters look more like vulnerable victims. In Untitled #93 (1981), a girl lies in bed pulling the sheet up to her shoulders, bathed in a bright nighttime light. She stares unflinchingly ahead and looks preoccupied. With the title "Centerfold" there is the implication of a certain type of representation, but Sherman deliberately upends this preconceived expectation. Similarly, by titling her 2013 series Knockout, Broersma suggests a specific narrative: the woman as a bombshell. In actuality, the series abstracts the female form making it dynamic, aggressive, and at times even frightening.
The association between the body and abstraction remains an essential element in Broersma’s paintings. Trophies is a 2015-16 series of twelve paintings that transform the female body into flora. In Myself as a Bouquet (For You), 2015 [Fig. 1], indistinct corporeal forms are grafted to floral elements suggesting a painful process of metamorphosis. Offset by green and brown leaf-life shapes, these bodily elements are being gifted to us the viewer. While flowers are a typical courtship ritual, here the female body is proffered instead-- much as women are assessed daily. At the center of the bouquet there is even a protruding pink tongue of a salivating suiter. Set against a bright and fanciful yellow backdrop, Broersma’s Myself as a Bouquet... hints at Lisa Yuskavage’s figurative paintings. Yuskavage has developed her “own genre of the female nude,” and her compositions feature cartoonish, nymph-like women, often with exaggerated breasts and thighs. Yuskavage representations are more literal, but both artists inflate and embellish their representations of women to highlight society’s disfigurement of the female body.
Trophies demonstrates a maturation in Broersma’s work which is best exemplified in Pool Party Jitters (2016) [Fig. 3]. Curved soft forms – limbs – are braided together and float against a crystal blue. Intertwining with this mass is blue and white cloth which can be easily read as a swimsuit. Like the earlier Sunbather (Odalisque), Pool Party Jitters, too, negotiates the same themes of beach body culture, body shame, and the extreme pressures placed on women. Unlike its predecessor however, the latter canvas is much more beguiling. Sunbather (Odalisque)’s recognizable lounging woman is a straightforward attack on the values Western society holds dear; Pool Party Jitters instead shows the dissolution of the self, or what happens when those values come to govern all. It is a much more damning portrait of beauty standard’s effects on women at large.
Broersma’s practice emerged directly from her own experiences with men, with the world, and with herself. As a result of this controlled engagement, her paintings present ruminations on white female beauty. Her color pallet is (mostly) limited to rosy pinks, peachy oranges, and hues of beige. There are few paintings that do use darker colors such as Hold Me Tight and Grotto, but as both of these look especially vegetal, the connections between organic forms and the human body are obscured. Indeed it could be argued that Grotto is actually just a landscape and not at all figurative. While the lack of diversity is noticeable, it is not necessarily problematic. Broersma is clear to explain that Trophies, in particular, mines her own life experiences: “I manipulate the visual representation of a person to regain agency in how I choose to present myself and the body.” The representation is narrow because she only knows her own experiences. These are, consequently, intensely intimate images.
Equally thought-provoking is this idea of the individual in art. So much of art’s history has focused on the unique genius; only recent modern studies have cast aside biography-centric approaches in favor of new methodologies. Not to spend too much time belaboring this point, but nonetheless it is interesting to consider how large a role biography plays in Broersma’s practice. Instead of denying any personal resonance with the works created, Broersma embraces (and heightens) the biographical elements. Her practice is truly a return to earlier techniques and considerations but viewed through a decidedly contemporary lens.
Like other feminist artists, Broersma asks that both men and women look, and look closely. All the looking, and the supersaturation of the present day image-culture, ensures that we remain hyper aware of what it means to be scrutinized and ogled. But Broersma also asks that we look at ourselves and that we try and see through a true mirror. (And that we root out that which causes distortion.) By using her body and life to refract these experiences, Broersma sacrifices privacy in the name of dialogue and protest. The works make clear that she will not stand idly by; she will not be gazed into submission.
 Artist’s statement as found on the artist’s website.
 Isabelle Coy-Dibley, “‘Digitized Dysmorphia’ of the female body: the re/disfiguration of the image.” Palgrave Communications, 05 June 2016. Accessed 6 October 2016. http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms201640
 Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 837
 “Lisa Yuskavage – Biography.” David Zwirner. (Accessed on 12 October 2016) http://www.davidzwirner.com/artists/lisa-yuskavage/biography/
 Artist’s statement as found on the artist’s website.