Installation view of art works by Monica Ikegwu, Megan Lewis and Lavett Ballard on view in The Beautiful and the Damned at Galerie Myrtis. Image courtesy of Galerie Myrtis.

According to the exhibition statement written by curator Myrtis Bedolla, “The Beautiful and the Damned asserts beauty as imagined through the lens of three African American women artists who challenge the notion of the historic limiting and unattainable standards of what is desirable.” The Beautiful and the Damned features the work of Megan Lewis, Lavett Ballard, and Monika Ikegwu, three Black women artists who Galerie Myrtis represents. In this exhibition, the women explore desire and standards of beauty in their elegant, powerful, and sentimental depictions of Black men and women. 

Lavett Ballard’s nine artworks on display are collaged worlds full of Black pop culture references and archival imagery. Ballard traditionally creates her works on more unconventional surfaces, adding an element of texture to what the viewer might assume at first glance were more two-dimensional works on paper. Ballard creates mixed-media collaged artworks on hand-carved birchwood panels and wood fencing. 

In “Shine” (2022), Black women are depicted in a matrix of texture, shape, and form. A young woman of school age is wearing a uniform and waving. She directly faces the viewer; next to her, three Black women in historical clothing look in her direction. On the right side of the panel, a larger figure is depicted looking out of the frame, and she is both past and present, composed of two separate sets of imagery. Her face has a set of eyes collaged onto them; directly beneath her line of vision is a Black woman with an afro, blaxploitation style; she wears a pencil skirt and is holding a shotgun. All of the Black women that Ballard has implemented in “Shine” share the frame with circles of blue fabric, gold spheres, and orange and white leaves, beautifully illustrating a range of representations of Black women. 

Megan Lewis updates her traditional large-scale portraits of Black figures with an added layer of texture achieved through the application of oil, acrylic paint, and layers of fabric. Like in Ballard’s work, another layer of depth is experienced when you step directly in front of the work, vibrant punches of hot pink, verdant greens, lemon and buttercream yellows, and purples. Lewis’ massive paintings of men are infused with a level of tenderness.

Installation view of Megan Lewis’s work on view in The Beautiful and the Damned at Galerie Myrtis. Image courtesy of Galerie Myrtis.

In “They Make A Million Songs About It” (2022), a male figure is central. He is shirtless and wearing blue shorts. His fingernails are painted a daisy yellow, one hand rests on his chest, and his brown skin is flecked with various flicks and specks of paint. The most beautiful moment of the work is his lips, which are painted in shades of red and pink, nearly indistinguishable at moments from the sharpness of the matte fuchsia background. At the bottom of the painting, Lewis has surrounded his torso with large painted flowers. Here, Lewis’s application of paint feels like the technique she achieves in “The Only Place It Exists Is In Your Head,” where actual fabric is stretched onto the canvas. Both applications of material wash her subjects in the same romantic and dream-like quality. Both male figures look at you and into you, their gazes sublime and searching. In this work, the central figure, another Black male with brown eyes, gazes at the viewer against a background of blue and white. His shirt is constructed of fabric that Lewis has arranged; stripes, roses, and other floral fabrics compose his garment. His skin is also glittered with Lewis’ intentionally haphazard brush strokes in variegated colors. 

Monica Ikegwu offers six large paintings of women painted in oil and on canvas. Including a self-portrait diptych, “Closed” (2021) and “Open” (2021). In both paintings, the artist is displayed in crimson, wearing a jacket and maintained against the red background. In “Closed,” Ikegwu’s jacket is closed; she looks at the viewer regally, the folds of her jacket painted with intense depth and shadows. In “Open,” the artist’s jacket is unzipped, resting around her arms; she wears a red tank top, and her crimson fingernails match the background of the painting. The figure’s gaze is resolute and relaxed.

While Ballard and Lewis wield mixed media and paint with an array of materials, Ikegwu’s technique strictly utilizes oil on canvas, creating artworks that feature Black women. Ikegwu applies paint masterfully in a way that renders her figures hyper-realistic. All three women have created remarkable artworks that represent Black people in the full embodiment of range, depth, and inherent beauty. 

The Beautiful and the Damned is on view at Galerie Myrtis, a Black-owned gallery that specializes in fine art advisory and Black contemporary art, through November 5. 

Installation view of artworks by Monica Ikegwu and Megan Lewis on view in The Beautiful and the Damned at Galerie Myrtis. Image courtesy of Galerie Myrtis.

Teri Henderson is the Arts and Culture Editor of Baltimore Beat. She is the author of the 2021 book Black Collagists. Previously, she was a staff writer for BmoreArt, gallery coordinator for Connect +...