Rarely exceeding twelve inches on one side, Victoria Gitman’s oil-on-board paintings are astonishingly intricate. Each composition homes in on a single object—a contemporary accessory, a sequined garment, or a postcard image of an iconic centuries-old masterpiece—whose simple overall contours give way to luxuriant detail. Every individual bead, stitch, and hair is faithfully represented. Even from inches away, her depictions of fur, pearls, and delicate chains convey uncanny illusions of tactility and depth. Peering closely enough at one 2021 picture of shimmering textile, one can even see the filaments binding each sequin to the cloth. By luring viewers almost inordinately near, the works initiate a dramatic recalibration of the way one perceives space and scale.
Gitman’s survey at François Ghebaly in Los Angeles, “Everything is Surface: Twenty Years of Painting,” began with examples from her “Beauties” series of paintings (2004-08), several of which portray photographic postcards of Old Master portraits of idealized female subjects. A Beauty, for example, is a 2004 rendition of Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat (1666). Despite the white borders and dark gray backgrounds, which call attention to the multiple layers of pictorial flatness, the delicate physicality and infinitesimal detail of Gitman’s copies convey a deeper sense of reality than any mechanical reproduction, surpassing photorealism, placing her skills at the level of the masters she emulates. The title of this series slyly conflates the comeliness of its female subjects with the splendor of the original masterpieces and Gitman’s imitations thereof. One can almost imagine the tiny painted women stifling knowing laughs at their female painter’s trompe l’oeil roguery.
In response to the familiar historical practice—evident in the canvases on those postcards—of painting flawless damsels to please an ostensibly male audience, Gitman’s recent works feature fashion objects associated with feminine desire: sequined jackets, beaded purses, and fur handbags sourced from thrift stores and the internet. With geometric patterns and austere compositions, these newer paintings are replete with references to abstract traditions, including modernism and Minimalism; yet their daintiness contravenes the expansive scale and grand gestures typical of those movements. One untitled 2013 piece depicts a clutch embellished with curly fur in a tightly cropped composition that brings the overall image close to Rothko’s White over Red (1957). Wrought from a slow, delicate buildup of refined delineations, the directional clumps of fur serve as ironic stand-ins for expressive brushstrokes. Yet to parse Gitman’s brushwork, one would need a microscope.
These exquisite surfaces arouse admiration not only for the artist’s technical prowess, but also for the patience and concentration involved in applying her skills. Working from life, with her source object set up just adjacent to her easel for careful study, Gitman spends three to four months on each painting, covering only a few square centimeters in eight hours. She reflected that there is “something quite absurd about painting every single hair of a fur purse” in a recent interview with Paul Maziar in BOMB Magazine, noting her work’s latent playful and comic qualities. Indeed, but given her abiding emphasis on gendered objects, her conceptual motivation seems to run deeper, connecting to the time-absorbing minutiae of traditional women’s tasks such as sewing or weaving. Her painstaking process could even be read as analogous to the labor of those who stitched the depicted textiles or embroidered the beadwork. The artist’s extreme attention to her subjects, and the viewer’s scrutiny of the canvases’ appearance in turn, also connects to the punctilious attention to detail that society expects of women in maintaining appearances deemed appealing.
A purse is a conspicuous yet intimate article held close to the body as a repository of essential possessions; it often contains identifying materials. In devoting weeks of effort to painting a monument to such an object, Gitman concretizes its significance as an expression of individuality, even if unattributed to a specific person: the purses and their neighbors make strong, flamboyant statements via mosaics of sequins or colorful patchworks of soft fur. Gitman’s work not only elicits appreciation for overlooked objects and their details; it also prompts consideration of the people—and their labor, desires, and inherited expectations—often hidden behind the scenes of that elusive characteristic we call Beauty.