By Haven Ashley
Teresa Oaxaca’s The Journey of Life is charming as it is brutal, a visual confection with layers of silk and ribbon in tones of taffy, petal, and pearl. A realist painter with a surrealist sensibility, her work is often sherbet-sweet but never saccharine. Ever the innovator, she discards the mantle of tradition, imbuing her luxurious visions with symbolic narrative, historical reference, and contemporary significance.
Oaxaca’s best-in-show winning painting in our April Open Exhibit began as a still life chronicling the four ages of man, which are represented on the table-turned-ship as impish 19th-century dolls and a human skull. It is a reference to Thomas Cole’s four painting series The Voyage of Life whose subject journeys through life’s stages from childhood to old age while riding on a boat. As Oaxaca’s painting evolved, she chose to set the composition in the open ocean, rather than a closed interior. The artist out at sea—at the mercy of the tides, the moon, Posiden’s hand—is a metaphor of the unknowingness of life.
Oaxaca combines the follies of Rococo excess with the fearsome form of two great whites to create an allegory for human anxiety. “In this painting, the sharks represent what it feels like to be anxious,” she says, describing it as a feeling of nebulous danger lurking behind you. “Fear can be logical, but it shouldn’t control your life.” Oaxaca demonstrates this mindset in her self portrait by directing her gaze confidently to her viewers (and perhaps her former self, too) rather than the serrated mouths of the sharks. “I’ve always been interested in sharks,” Oaxaca continued, “They’re beautiful and ancient. They’re part of a world we don’t fully understand, the ocean, so they’re mysterious creatures as well.”
Oaxaca’s The Journey of Life takes inspiration from another nautical painting: Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley. It depicts a young man seemingly doomed to death by teeth and terror, and is viewed by many as a reference to salvation. The subject, Brook Watson, not only survived the attack, he went on to have a successful business career and it is believed he even commissioned the painting. To Oaxaca, Watson’s likely commissioning of Copley’s painting was an act of resilience, proof of what the human spirit can endure and overcome.
The Journey of Life was not a commissioned piece and holds great personal significance to Oaxaca as a representation of her career’s progress. Here, her blue gown and butterscotch-blonde wig recall her own Jester Self Portrait, a painting that she considers one of her most iconic. “I’ve been requested to make so many versions of that portrait over the years,” she commented. The treasured totems and present-day references in The Journey of Life are many, from the harrowing image of Notre Dame aflame to the pert goldfinch (an allusion to Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch) to the decadent flower arrangements. “I always paint live flowers, but these particular ones are even more special, more personal,” She remarked on the saffron and lychee hued blooms, which were painted from her own garden’s bevy of David Austin roses, peonies, and tea roses.
Despite these insights into Oaxaca’s sumptuous, candy-colored world, much of her work maintains its veil of ambiguity. To demand answers from her oeuvre would be asking an alchemist to reveal their secret chemistry. “Bring your own experiences, play with your imagination,” the artist instructed her audience, with a note of mischief. “Art should still be mysterious, even realist art. I think we’ve become a bit too literal. You can’t understand everything. Maybe I don’t even understand my own work completely.”