Ariel Basson Freiberg’s paintings are intense, acidic statements about female sexuality that offer the viewer temptation and denial in a single vibrant image. Freiberg’s women emerge from a saturated background in undeniably erotic poses, a mess of spread legs and arched backs, slightly blurred in mid-motion. Yet Freiberg leaves all of the key information playfully concealed with thick smears of paint: faces, genitals, anything that might expose her subjects. She embraces paint as a sensual medium—described with words like silken, smooth, thick, creamy—and uses it as a means of suggestion without indulgence.
Freiberg’s fascination with the skillful manipulation of paint goes back to a formative trip to Florence. At age 12, Freiberg was captivated by Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera.” Its mythical subject matter and sheer scale, every corner packed with over 500 types of flora and fauna, lay the foundations for the work she would later create. Botticelli’s masterful technique opened her eyes to a painter’s ability to wield their medium, bring together the softness of the brush and the clarity of pigment to move the viewer.
When she attended the High School for Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas, she began to exploring ideas of feminine identity through painting, installation, and sculpture. In her undergraduate studies at Smith College, she narrowed her focus to two-dimensional mediums. She never took a break from painting—she earned a degree in psychology and studio art, and then immediately continued her practice while receiving an MFA at Boston University
Figurative painting emerged as a subject through which Freiberg could fully explore the interaction between society and feminine identity. “I’m interested in a body that is in a state of transition, a state of being revealed and concealed at the same time,” Freiberg explains, describing the conception of her current body of work. “Of having to self-censor one’s sexuality, which is part of everyday life and part of our society.”
In spring of 2016, Freiberg made a painting of a face colliding with brush strokes that moved her. She related it with frustrations from her personal life, her own experiences in having to censor her sexuality and mold to a certain concept of femininity. She felt that she needed to address these issues more directly in her paintings. That’s when she began blocking out parts of the figures she painted with big, energetic brush strokes. These gestures are the most active parts of the painting; they lead the eye, creating a playful engagement with the body. The censorship empowers the subject, obscuring the vulnerable details from the viewer’s gaze.
Freiberg’s process begins with drawings, referencing an archive of photographs and exploring different gestures. She is influenced by artists like Lisa Yuskavage, Marilyn Minter, and Cesily Brown: women exploring ideas of sexuality through figures that are in movement. She views painting as a method of building, deconstructing, and resurrecting visual information. Though her paintings appear fresh and raw, each piece is a unique journey of adding and taking away until she strikes the right balance.
For Freiberg, color is an organic, intuitive process. Her palettes are in conversation with one another, in reference to other painters. Her current body of work favors intensity and saturation, hues associated with both vitality and toxicity. They reference the Iraqi amulets unique to the Baghdad region, where her mother was born—a way for the artist to incorporate the Iraqi part of her identity that she is newly reconnecting with.
There is an inherent sensuality in Freiberg’s manipulation of paint. She emphasizes the physical nature of it. The smears carry an almost phallic energy in the way they graze the canvas with an intimate touch. It heightens the viewers’ awareness of how their gaze touches the body on display. It draws attention to the constant self-imposed resistance we place on our desire to look, to touch.
Freiberg addresses these complex interactions with a sense of humor and play. Her colors and gestures act as a manifestation of the sexual freedom that is both discussed and censored in her work. The contradictory nature of this practice reflects the contradictions within an individual, and the way we negotiate different pieces of our identity. Its incongruity feels authentic.
“I’m interested in these relationships,” Freiberg says. “Taking the fragments of who we are and piecing them back together with the semblance of something genuine. It never truly lands in one spot. It’s always shifting, never quite still.”
Tuesday, August 22, 2017: Puloma Ghosh