A few years ago, Ana Benaroya received what she considers the ultimate compliment. “Saw this young artist’s work recently,” the renowned painter Katherine Bradford wrote in an Instagram post about one of Benaroya’s paintings. “Now have to completely rethink nipples.” It was, Benaroya recalls when I stop by her studio in Jersey City, “the ideal validation.”
Technically, Benaroya’s paintings are female nudes. Unlike their historical counterparts, her figures are almost impossibly muscular, and colorful in both the literal and figurative sense. They project so much confidence that they’ll either give you a bounce in your step or make you blush. And on April 8, they’ll be on full display in “Swept Away,” the inaugural exhibition of Venus Over Manhattan’s new downtown outpost, which will focus on younger artists. (The Upper East Side mainstay is celebrating its 10th anniversary by expanding to 55 Great Jones Street, right next door to the stables that Andy Warhol converted into the home and studio of Jean-Michel Basquiat.)
“In many ways, I feel like my art is often the opposite of how I am as a person,” Benaroya, 36, says. “I’m pretty quiet, not in-your-face. I can be very shy. And these characters I paint, there’s nothing bashful about them. Their bodies exist exactly as they want them to. Their limbs have no limits; they have no shame.” This lack of what might be called civility has led to comparisons to Peter Saul, who has been celebrated for his colorful, cartoonish depravity; in fact, Benaroya’s works were paired with Saul’s in an exhibition at Ross + Kramer Gallery’s Hamptons space in 2019.
Born in Queens and raised in East Brunswick, New Jersey, Benaroya earned a BFA in illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art. After that, she spent nearly a decade doing graphic design for clients like ABC and the New Yorker. On the side she made drawings, which eventually led to small gouache paintings on fluorescent paper. “They were very graphic and similar to my illustrations, and I felt like this is really exciting,” she recalls. Except at the time, the figures weren’t of women. “I’ve never been attracted to men, so it was extra strange that I was doing that,” she says. “I think by not depicting women, ever, I never had to question or confront my attraction to them. I could just depict these macho dudes.”
Growing up, Benaroya loved comics and cartoons like The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which inform her work even now. The more her figures took on the pumped-up physiques of superheroes, the more confidence the artist gained. She always felt there weren’t enough depictions of women for young girls who didn’t identify with traditional femininity, so she set about correcting that. She applied to Yale in 2017, and while earning her MFA in painting, realized there was a way she could connect the cartoon characters of her childhood with her own adult experiences. The figures in her paintings are unclothed because she doesn’t want to place them in a particular time period, though only in part. “I want depictions of female nudes that have desire and passion, but because the women are the sex objects—because they see that in each other,” she says. “I feel like not many examples of that exist, from the perspective of someone like me.”
There are buckets and buckets of gesso in Benaroya’s studio. To start a painting, she applies seven layers’ worth to a canvas and sands it down until it’s just smooth enough, then paints an abstract backdrop with spray and oil paint. Completing a painting like the large-scale ones soon on view at Venus Over Manhattan takes up to two weeks. Thanks to her background in illustration, the drawings that make up the other half of the show take about half the time. By pairing oil-based India ink brush pens with solid-based markers, Benaroya can easily keep the black lines that characterize them clean. “As an illustrator, I was super quick,” she says. “Lots of deadlines and projects at once.”
The more we talk, the more I wonder what Benaroya thinks about a phrase frequently associated with her work: “the female gaze.” She’s ambivalent, but it prompts her to consider a more nuanced question. “What does lesbian desire look like?,” she asks. “That is a particular gaze. I'm not sure how to define it—it’s very indefinable, and often invisible. And that’s something that maybe can be encompassed in the female gaze. Maybe not, or maybe just a small part of it.” Benaroya guesses that men make up most of her collector base, but perhaps only by virtue of the fact that so many art collectors are male. Men make up a portion of those who regularly message her about her work on Instagram, but she thinks her paintings and drawings resonate most with “women, queer people, all sorts.”
As I’m about to head out, I ask Benaroya about some of her earliest artworks. Her parents saved them all; in fact, she has on hand a folder of drawings made when she was in elementary and middle school. After rifling through some boxes, she returns with a batch of loose-leaf papers and starts pulling them out at random. “I wanted to be a car designer,” she says, laughing, as we come across a colored pencil drawing of a vehicle, prominently signed “By Ana Benaroya” in cursive.
There are recognizable superheroes—her beloved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, rendered in marker, and a printout of Spider-Man timestamped 1999—as well as others of Benaroya’s own invention. As we admire the bulging physique of one of my personal favorites, a masked man with impressive abs named King Hair, Benaroya laughs, then says, “Really, I haven’t changed that much.”