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Who Am I? Exhibition

Published onAug 24, 2020

Enigma, 2002
Brenda Jones (American, b. 1950)
Oil on canvas
Gift of the artist. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.

Artist’s Interpretation

This painting is a reflection on, as well as an assimilation of past and present events in my life. The frailty of emotions, the struggle to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people that are at times trapped between the unimaginable. To articulate thoughts of fear, regret, empathy, forgiveness, anger and hate was such a delicate balance. The sometimes-human faces or the visual forms will not leave my conscious thoughts, the images portrayed are the faces of my World.

Brenda Jones
University Professor, Art and Visual Culture


I first came across Brenda Jones’s Enigma painting in Fall 2015. It was during the reception honoring the 40th anniversary of the University Museums. How not to be intrigued by or drawn to such a remarkable painting, especially since it bears its name so well, and as someone who loves Renaissance art?

One cannot help but wonder what is going on in the scene one is witnessing. Why is the female figure’s head wrapped and concealed? Why are her hands tied by a barely visible thread? Why is the other person trapped in a cage? Have both been punished or is one inflicting pain on the other? Where is the naked female figure going or escaping to? Are they all in some sort of an arena as the opening in the back might suggest? Did Jones wish to pay tribute to European Renaissance and Early Modern art? The naked figure reminded me of the many renditions of the Three Graces, especially those by Raphael and Rubens. Is this painting Jones’s take on that recurring (universal?) theme? If so, what happened to the Three Graces, Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia-- as they have historically been depicted embracing each other or in loving, sisterly bonds? The three goddesses also represented charm, beauty, and fertility. Is Jones commenting on how these notions are impacting women in the twenty-first century? Did Jones represent another mythical triad, namely the Parcae-- Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos? If so, whose fate are they weaving and deciding? Again, since they seem to be somewhat at odds, did they not agree on that fate? Or did fate turn against them? Did they become tired of the endless spinning and cutting of lives?

The Renaissance was an era famous for its allegorical paintings, riddles meant to be solved and typically based on Greco-Roman mythology. One of the most famous ones (and very much a favorite of mine) is Agnolo Bronzino’s An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (ca. 1545), on display at the National Gallery in London, England. Whenever I am fortunate to travel to London, I spent several minutes sitting in front of the painting. It never ceases to amaze me. As a matter of fact, for the past 475 years, no one has agreed on its meaning, interpretations by scholars and anyone continue to flourish yearly.

You might have noticed that my text about Jones’s Enigma has been, thus far, almost only made of questions. Similar to Bronzino’s work, Jones’s painting remains elusive and subject to many interpretations. As such, Jones both perpetuates the tradition of the allegorical painting but also demonstrates the dynamic nature of art, as well as its potential timelessness and borderlessness. In hundreds of years from now, Enigma will continue to fascinate us. Even more so as, in 2016 and at another ISU Museums reception, I saw another painting by Jones titled Social Justice and labeled as part of the Enigma series. This second painting features only one figure whose head is concealed in a similar manner as in Enigma. It seems to be a mannequin, wrapped in what appears to be a blanket or quilt, and is holding an empty cage. Behind the figure, hangs a painting of a white tent from which a bubble or bottle escapes. Unlike in the first painting, the figure seems genderless. I was intrigued by the title and the theme all over again. What social justice issue(s) is (are) being depicted? Was that already at stake in the first painting? How far has my interpretation been influenced, if not blinded, by my positionality? What do I have still to learn and, just as importantly, unlearn? I have no definitive answer for you, except that art will always embark you on fantastic voyages, including self-discovery.

Dr. Schaal would like to thank Prof. Jones for agreeing to have Enigma featured on the Women in French 2022 conference at ISU (May 12-14).

Dr. Michèle A. Schaal
Associate Professor, French and Women’s and Gender Studies




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