Artistically vulnerable: Vanguard owners pull controversial art collection
Local artist Maren Conrad spent six weeks creating a collection of paintings titled “Politically Vulnerable” that depicts ten wives, girlfriends and lovers of California governors, both past and present – but you won’t see it hanging from the walls of the Vanguard bar when it opens downtown this weekend, as was originally planned.
“Art is supposed to provoke conversation,” Conrad said in response to the bar owners pulling her collection after complaints. “That’s why we as artists create. It’s so unfeminist to say these powerful, courageous women don’t get to be put on that wall, and I’m not surprised that men are cowering away from this issue.”
On June 7 while Conrad was getting her artwork settled in at what she thought would be its new home, Donne Brownsey, a lobbyist with the firm Sacramento Advocates, Inc., read a brief in the Capitol Morning Report, a daily government newsletter, on the upcoming opening of Vanguard that drew her attention. It read:
…Along with the outdoor patio, the elegant decor includes a crystal chandelier above the bar, shelves filled with vintage books, and works created by Sacramento artist Maren Conrad with the theme, “lovers, mistresses, and muses of California governors” that includes artsy portraits of former CA first ladies Maria Shriever (sic) and Nancy Reagan, along with singer Linda Ronstadt, a former girlfriend of Gov. Jerry Brown.
The description didn’t sit right with Brownsey, and she sent an email expressing her concerns to the venue’s marketing and public relations manager, Natalie Paulsen. Paulsen then forwarded the email to Conrad and Vanguard co-owner and operator Trevor Shults.
“This is no comment on the artist and her work,” Brownsey told the Sacramento Press, “I just think it was an unfortunate choice of a theme. I think it’s obvious – when you read something describing a new commercial establishment like a new club, that has a theme like mistresses, lovers and muses of California governors.”
Though on Wednesday, June 5 Shults called Conrad’s collection a “perfect fit” for Vanguard, he confirmed the following Monday, June 10 that he had decided that Conrad’s collection would no longer call the venue home.
“We decided to go a different direction with the artwork,” he said. “We’re still going with Maren, but she’s going to come up with a different theme and different pieces. It is beautiful artwork and she’s going to come up with something that will better suit the space.”
He admitted that the decision was the result of one complaint, saying, “We’re not trying to make a political statement – we just want beautiful artwork and by no means want it to be offensive to anyone.”
Callista Wengler, Marketing Director for Paragary Restaurant Group, declined to comment on Conrad’s artwork on the grounds that Vanguard is not part of Paragary Restaurant Group (Shults collaborated with Paragary Restaurant Group on their new concert venue, Assembly – Paragary also owns Hock Farm, located next door to Vanguard, and used to own Spataro Restaurant & Bar, which Hock Farm and Vanguard replaced). However, Brownsey told the Sacramento Press that Randy Paragary addressed her concerns about the collection with her directly before it was pulled.
“Randy Paragary was very responsive to my concerns,” she said, “and I was very pleased with his response.”
Conrad now finds herself with a collection of artwork based on a feminist theme that is itself the crux of a feminist debate.
“These women were all involved in politics, and they showed power through vulnerability,” she said in defense of her work. “It’s not an incorrect statement that they were lovers, mistresses and muses – because they were. But that’s not the statement I was making. Governors’ lovers, mistresses and muses is about possession, and that’s not the message I was sending.”
“Politically Vulnerable” – unpacked
The collection itself is made up of twelve portraits of ten women, all of whom are former wives, girlfriends and mistresses of California governors. Conrad spent two weeks researching online and at local libraries in search of stories about women who were both powerful and vulnerable, who would not have their voices silenced by any man, regardless of how politically powerful he may have been.
Conrad’s artist statement for the project reads:
Behind the scenes of politics, where “great men” rise to power by carefully protecting themselves from the vulnerabilities of their personal identities and histories, these ten women–wives, girlfriends, and mistresses of California governors–reveal their personal power by revealing their stories. Taken together, they represent the strength of baring one’s identity, telling one’s history, and facing one’s vulnerabilities…
Included in the collection is Governor Jerry Brown’s former flame Linda Ronstadt, who Conrad included because Ronstadt would not conform to the stereotypical first lady persona in order to accompany Brown on what many felt at that time was his journey to the White House, preferring instead to pursue her own career, becoming an icon in her own right.
Piper Laurie, also depicted, is a former actress who was 18-years-old when she met co-star Ronald Reagan on the set of “Louisa.” In her memoir, Laurie claimed she lost her virginity to Reagan, whom she said then proceeded to tell her, “There’s something wrong with you. You should have had many orgasms by now – after all this time. You’ve got to see a doctor.” Laurie went on to receive three Oscar nominations and outed the former president for his alleged ungentlemanly behavior in her autobiography "Learning to Live Out Loud: A Memoir.”
Former California first lady Virginia Knight was included for her accomplishments as both a poet and advocate for veterans. She also spearheaded the move to turn the governor’s mansion into a museum honoring California’s first ladies, researching the stories behind and collecting photographs of the women who came before her to be mounted in the front hall.
Nancy Reagan and Maria Shriver are also part of the collection – Reagan for her ability to stand out as an activist in her own right while being married to one of the most revered presidents in recent history (she received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom during her time in the White House), and Shriver for her work as an award-winning journalist and her instrumental role in creating the California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.
There’s no word yet on what a new installation might look like, and Conrad is still reeling from what she feels is a misinterpretation of her collection’s message. Prior to the fallout caused by Brownsey’s email, Conrad described her artwork’s theme as “highly feminist.”
“(These women) owned their stories.” she said. “and the fact that so many of these men wanted to keep them hidden I think is very interesting. They were like, ‘no, I will not sit down. I will not shut up…You can’t take this experience away from me and call it purely your experience.’”
The artist behind the portraits
Conrad, a single mother who credits local artists Jane Mikacich and Kim Squaglia for aiding her on her own artistic journey, wasn’t always creating collections for high profile establishments. Three and a half years ago she was teaching art at her youth camp and raising her son, now almost nine. When Mikacich asked Conrad at a book club meeting – where they had recently met – how her own art was coming along, she found she didn’t have much to say.
“I was raising him and doing the mom thing, and I realized I had gotten really far away from my own creative process.”
Soon after Conrad began painting again, Mikacich having gifted a spot in her own studio. When Mikacich asked Conrad to do a show with her, Conrad began playing with the layering process that eventually led to a signature style evident in “Politically Vulnerable.” Back then she was layering her paintings with Plexiglass, which she said added a three-dimensional component to her work that brought depth and interest to her pieces. She created nine pieces for her show with Mikacich, seven of which sold.
The process, however, was painstaking. Each of her works weighed roughly 75 pounds, and the process of cleaning the Plexiglass – using a flashlight to search for thumbprints, hairs, pieces of dust, or anything that would compromise her final product – often took up to five days. On a trip to Manhattan, she threw her back out while trying to maneuver one of those weighty pieces, and found herself in a friend’s apartment, lying on a bag of frozen peas.
When she returned to Sacramento, she didn’t paint for almost two months.
“At that point, I didn’t want to make art anymore,” she said. “It was like, I’ve gotten all the way here, but this isn’t working. I’m miserable. How is it that I made this such a chore, and such a job for myself? How can something I loved so much become so unenjoyable?”
It was her then-studio mate, Kim Squaglia, who helped Conrad fine-tune her process into something she could manage. Squaglia brought Conrad into her own artistic process, teaching her how to pour resin which, when done in layers, helped create a similar three-dimensional quality that Conrad had previously produced using Plexiglass.
“I love every single part of my process now,” she said. “I had to completely limit myself to learn how to be unlimited. Now, I won’t make paintings where I don’t like the process.”
Conrad spent weeks researching in preparation for “Politically Vulnerable”, looking for thought-provoking stories, then portraits of the women she would paint. She began first by blowing up portraits and used them to guide her through multiple applications of metal leaf, paint and resin to achieve images that are both modern and vintage. Each of her paintings is comprised of five to ten layers, and the result is something that feels both antique, yet new. Her work has an edge to it, fitting for the concept she tackled with the collection.
Brownsey feels that, regardless of Conrad’s intent, her message leaves too much room for ambiguity.
“This is no comment on the artist or her work,” she said. “I see on some levels what she was trying to communicate, but I think that in the political world, where there are still issues that are associated with gender, that her message would not have been interpreted the way she intended it to be.”
Though Conrad said she understands where the misunderstanding based off of the Capitol Morning Report came from, she feels her message has an important place in feminist dialogue.
Conrad believes we live in a society that asks women to take their sexuality off the table if they desire a position of prominence or intellectual importance. In her portraits, the women are shown from the shoulder up, alluding though not confirming nudity, to reflect that her subjects were comfortable with their sexuality – something Conrad sees as an expression of feminism. She finds it ironic that Brownsey, a fellow feminist, is behind the movement while the restaurant partners who made the decision to remove her artwork are men.
“I’m getting censored by a woman who is trying to keep these women’s stories quiet, and the men are the ones making the decisions here on whose stories get told,” she said.
As for what’s next, Conrad said that Shults offered to pay her the remainder of what she was owed for the collection – which would then be auctioned off – but Conrad opted to retain possession of her work rather than receive full compensation for her time.
Last week, before she received the news that her collection would be pulled, Conrad already saw her work as partly an act of defiance.
“Society has wanted to tell women not to do a million things, forever – I think because they are scared of the power we have when we act. I don’t want to sleep with a governor, but I hope that my story at the end of my life is worthy of putting on that wall,” she said.
Now, the stories of the women she painted have become an integral part of her own story as an artist. She hopes to show her collection, along with the full version of her artist statement and a thirteenth piece that will be a self-portrait, on her own terms.
(shot and edited by Timeless Studios at Exhibit S Art Gallery at the Downtown Plaza)
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