Fête Galante: Chicago Reader

An art party of women artists opens at Heaven Gallery.
By S. Nicole Lane 

Gwendolyn Zabicki began thinking up the exhibition “Fête Galante” while in Paris in 2016 after seeing Antoine Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Cythera at the Louvre. The paintings in that part of the museum are “joyful and beautiful and the first group of paintings in the museum that felt really modern to me,” says Zabicki. After visiting the museum, she began to read up on the artist Watteau and the fête galante. In Pilgrimage to Cythera, figures dressed in lavish clothing are celebrating love, as many cupids fly around the sky, and others are seen flirting with one another in the grass. A statue of Venus, the goddess of sexual love, is seen in the right hand corner with the presence of little cupids urging couples to play together in the hazy landscape.

A fête galante is a depiction of a courtship party painting most properly in the French Academy during the 1700s. There are various types of scenes—either in natural grassy hills or in masquerades in a large hall—that comprise the painting style. Watteau’s painting style would ultimately go out of fashion—one of his paintings was even used for target practice. The public saw his work as flippant and meaningless.

Zabicki dealt with her own contentions from galleries. “I think that the idea of the fête galante felt too frivolous for many people, considering the work being done by other artists to address the nightmare of our current political reality, social injustice, and income inequality (not to mention the pandemic that we are living through). But I still insist that this is an important show,” she says. After several years of proposing the show, it’s finally found a home at Heaven Gallery. She urges the idea that folks need an occasional break. “All I want to do is go to a party or an art opening and be packed in a room with my friends, but that will have to wait until it is safe to do so. In the meantime, we can remember that we will see our friends again someday, there will be dinner parties and flirtation and joy.”

“Fête Galante”—the exhibition and the painting style— celebrates the satins, elaborate feasts, flirtations on the dance floors, and whispering sweet nothings. It’s a celebration of many things that we’ve lost in the past six months.

Brooklyn-based painter Tess Michalik has been painting for 15 years. “As a person that grew up in an unstable environment with PTSD and mountainous anxiety, [I have] a paint practice that feeds my desire to harness and embrace and master such feelings,” she says.

Her draw toward memorials, shrines, celebrations, and rituals that bring joy is exemplified in her paintings. Her work, referencing cake and parties, is a reflection of a desire to “want to show the good, find the good, [and] turn my nervous mania into a presentable light and cuddly kind of thing.” She says she wants to “package it as something pleasant,” when under the surface she is dealing with anxiety. The thickness of the oil paints is reminiscent of cake or pastry, which creates a whimsical celebratory feel. I want to lick her paintings. Buttercream Daydream teases the viewer to stick their finger in the center and try and taste. Let me eat cake! Michalik calls herself a “paint pig.” She says she’s always covered in it, “always gotta mix up huge piles of paint and slather it onto a surface.” And her works illustrate this process with detailed layers of inch-thick paint that appear too scrumptious to look away.

The whimsical nature of her works references the entire theme of the exhibition. The pieces are intimate and tangible. “I have drawn upon themes of sex in the past and have made paintings about touch, courtship, physical intimacy—I feel like this is all the same realm of thought, just packaged in a different image. It is still the sensation of physical sexual energy, you’re just not looking at naked bodies. They are physical/textural manifestations of sensations, sculpted out of paint that is reminiscent of flesh or a seductive piece of cake that was in the room at Versailles where people flirted in masquerade.”

Zabicki found several of the artists on Instagram, some on Painters Table, and a few she knows from the Chicago art scene. I’m immediately drawn to Power Couple by Katarina Janeckova. A figure is facing the viewer with their ass up in the air as a creature rests on her backside reading a book or examining her body—I’m not entirely sure. It’s the most overtly sexual piece in the exhibition with others more subtle and soft, like Karen Azarnia’s In the Garden II showing two figures holding hands.

Many of the works have similar details that tie them together, like Aubrey Levinthal’s Zoom Birthday Party and Aglaé Bassens’s Sweet Nothings, which both include cherries. Fodder by Melissa Murray and Socially Distanced Picnic by Sophie Treppendahl are picnic scenes, each displaying a large spread of food eaten in the sun. They all look at human connection, intimacy, and the thrill of those interactions. I leave the show wanting to hug my friends. I want to dance under a disco ball. But, for now, I’m content at seeing the party come alive on the walls of a gallery.