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Bernice Purdy: Welfare Lady
Welfare Lady 1979
In response to an alumnus’ complaint that this painting should not hang in the MSVU library because it was ‘stereotyping welfare recipients’ and also advocating an ‘undesirable lifestyle’ and setting ‘a bad example for students’, Ingrid Jenkner wrote;
The painting is a satirical self-portrait, one of a suite of works concerning the artist’s socio-economic predicament. As a woman of working-class origin who struggled to obtain artmaking materials, Purdy may have been satirizing the opulent nudes on couches that are traditional subjects in paintings by acknowledged European male masters. In Welfare Lady, Purdy sets her own ironically languorous figure in a single-room dwelling whose details suggest to me poverty observed at first-hand. Studied carefully as a complete image, Welfare Lady projects authentically angry emotion in fully experienced detail.
For the self-taught Nova Scotian artist, painting has always been about survival, whether it is implied in her choice of media (when she lacks the resources to purchase art materials, her friends and family have often donated them to her) or in the theme and subject matter of her work. A single mother on social assistance, Purdy says that paintings such as Untitled (Bus Stop) come out of the direct memory of my life. Scenes like these obliquely portray the artist’s socio-economic predicament, together with her preference for positive and empowering affirmations.
Having had little formal training, Purdy has developed a commitment to painting which often addresses the socio-economic realities of single parent families. As is the case with Welfare Lady (1978) and At the End of the Rope (1980) the artist approaches her subject matter with an insider=s understanding of working class women=s poverty, and makes a literal yet eloquent statement.
In her Now Appearing catalogue essay, Jenkner expands on her previous response, saying, Perhaps because Bernice Purdy is self-taught, she knows a thing or two about political art. The first is that you start with what you, yourself, know and are. Welfare Lady is an autobiographical and clearly class-identified painting. For me, its rhetorical appeal comes from the artist’s expression of disrespect for educated taste, in other words, her bad attitude. Born of subordination and exclusion, Welfare Lady thumbs her nose at Picasso’s pneumatic beach babes. More precisely, she mocks the smugly ‘correct’ attitudes that circulate in institutions of higher learning.
KB and from Now Appearing by I. Jenkner