Samantha Joy Groff: Huntress – Half Gallery, Los Angeles

Samantha Joy Groff, Backwoods Penitent Diana, Prophetic, 20" x 16, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 2024
Art Martin Cid Magazine
Art Martin Cid Magazine

Rural America is an America that is often overlooked, and even more discounted are the people who live within these regions and their ways of life. Generally dismissed as being unrelatable or out of touch with those who live in urban and city centers, the histories within these regions run quite deep and the Mennonite communities of Pennsylvania fall into this dismissed subset of rich cultures within America. These communities have longstanding commitments to pacifism, nonviolence, advocating for peace, and community building which date back to their origins in 16th-century Europe. This communal lifestyle is evident in practices such as cooperative farming and sewing circles, where neighbors and family come together and work collectively toward common goals in support of each other – much akin to the ways of life that residents of small towns throughout rural America often function.

The Huntress exhibition by Samantha Joy Groff is a selection of new and recent works from her ongoing Dark Pastures series which draws inspiration from the mythological figure of Diana the Huntress–a common figure within Renaissance art–with her upbringing in a rural Mennonite Pennsylvania. Groff has set out to portray her goddesses of the countryside, nature, hunters, wildlife, and the night and move away from the traditional portrayals of Diana in serene and ecstatic moments. Groff’s paintings delve into the darker aspects of the literal and metaphorical hunt and life within rural areas of America, by using imagery of women and animals as the dual subjects of desire. While the women depicted in the paintings are not actively engaged in hunting, the ambiguity surrounding their relationship to the prey creates an atmosphere of suspense and unease. Using luminous surfaces and vibrant yellows, the paintings evoke a sense of hypervigilance, a sense of impending doom, and a need for protection.

The interaction between the human and animal in the artworks carries an undertone of violence, as they are depicted as being handled in a manner that suggests restraint and discomfort, both by the animals and the female sitters. The wearing of animal skins, typically associated with camouflage or higher social status, takes on a grotesque quality, with headdresses and veils crafted from found materials and animal pelts. The compositions of Groff’s paintings echo classical masterworks and make art historical references to works such as “Lady with Ermine” by Leonardo Da Vinci and “Portrait of Louis XIV” by Hyacinthe Rigaud, which balances both the presence of luxury through adorning oneself with fur and the domestication of wildlife. Groff riffs on classical paintings by depicting her bruised and embattled figures wearing sheer nightgowns and satin dresses that antagonize and counter traditional Mennonite garb against the backdrop of a lonely wilderness. Her pieces highlight the stark disparity between the idealized image of Diana and the harsh realities faced by the women depicted in each of the paintings and act as metaphors for the challenges women face within a patriarchal society.

Within the exhibition is a single outlier painting that features two interlocked bucks and acts as a throughline piece that carries forward the repeating symbolism of the male subject within the Dark Pastures series. Groff hearkens back to the mythos of Diana turning Actaeon the hunter into a deer, after which he runs off into the woods and is himself then hunted. The romanticized notion of communion with nature is juxtaposed with the harsh reality of human interference and exploitation of nature and wildlife. The human desire to connect with wildlife becomes a slippery slope, as human interactions such as leaving feed out or coaxing them into comfort with human interaction, the deer domesticate in a sense and become more emboldened to enter urban areas. With no natural predators, deer often become a nuisance around Pennsylvania and are often found in neighborhoods and city parks which results in communities having to initiate deer management programs (regulated hunts) to thin the deer populations.

Groff draws further parallels between being the hunter and the hunted through the lens of the feminine experience. This nuanced portrayal of femininity throughout the series of paintings challenges the misconceptions and stereotypes projected upon working-class women, whose perceived sexuality and excess are considered as grotesque. Groff incorporates elements of social commentary by reinterpreting historical symbols of wealth and status, such as fur headdresses, using unconventional materials to underscore the disconnect between traditional notions of luxury, objectification of the body, and contemporary values. The Huntress and Dark Pastures series further underscore themes of feminine power and self-preservation, alongside the complexities of the relationships and interactions between humans, nature, and wildlife. The exhibition invites viewers to reconsider traditional narratives and confront the unsettling truths and misconceptions of rural America.

-Aaron Levi Garvey

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