Presumed Innocence, or Fifty Shades of Green: On the Work of Anna Weyant
by Jens Hoffmann
To make art always also means to insert oneself into a particular conversation with the
past in order to assess what has already been done, by whom, and how, but also to engage
in conversation with what is taking place at this particular moment. Anna Weyant takes
this idea very much to heart in her first solo exhibition, Welcome to the Dollhouse,
presented at 56 Henry in New York. Weyant was born in Calgary, currently lives in New
York, and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2017. Welcome to the
Dollhouse brings together some concerns from her previous work—circling around
questions of youth and adolescence—with the wicked reality of growing up. The title is a
direct reference to Todd Solondz’s 1995 movie of the same name—a tragicomic coming-
of-age story about a teenage girl, Dawn Wiener, whose schoolmates call her Wiener Dog.
Dawn undergoes all sorts of humiliations and abuses while attempting to fit in, in large
part because her manipulative and cruel little sister, Missy, sabotages all of Dawn’s
efforts to join the crew of cool kids at her school.
Weyant’s artworks take cues from Dutch Golden Age paintings; the artist frequently
mentions her adoration for Gerrit van Honthorst, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals, and
Henrick Terbrugghen. Yet it is unclear if she fully embraces that tradition, even if she
calls upon a lot of its tropes; indeed, she is just as knowledgeable when it comes to
modern and contemporary art and popular culture. There is a lot of tongue-in-cheek
humor about everything she does. Her paintings are playful, tragicomic, and haunting,
and sit firmly in a lineage of contemporary artists like John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, Rita
Ackermann, and perhaps even Lisa Yuskavage.
The show features a dozen paintings in total. Two are of a dollhouse, one showing its
facade and the other an interior cutaway. The former is titled Let there be (some more)
light, evoking René Magritte’s iconic Empire of Light series, and also of course the
creation of the world in the Book of Genesis, an English translation of the Hebrew
sentence יְהִי אוֹר (Let there be light) in the Torah, the first part of the Hebrew Bible.
Anatomy of a Doll’s House, the interior view, might refer to Norwegian writer Henrik
Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House about the awakening of a middle-class society in
Norway at the end of the eighteenth century—a society not unlike the one Weyant comes
from. Perhaps tellingly, she uses the same phrasing as the British translation of Ibsen’s
title, “A Doll’s House,” rather than “Dollhouse,” as is more commonly said in the United
States. Anatomy of a Doll’s House presents us with a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen,
and a bedroom, all empty, waiting for the play to start. It brings to mind the infamous
empty houses of Huguette Clark, the twentieth-century heiress and philanthropist who
lived in various hospitals and other institutions, leaving her several large mansions
unoccupied. One likewise can’t escape thinking of Amy Bennett’s paintings of typical
American middle- and upper-middle-class suburban exteriors. There might even be a bit
of Laurie Simmons’s early photographs of domestic dollhouse scenes in Weyant’s
paintings. Yet Weyant seems less interested in reflecting on the role of women in the
Western nuclear family than in families’ hidden and un-discussed underbellies. Looking
more closely at Let there be (some more) light, we notice that the house’s door has been
opened by force: it is open and its knob is broken off. There is a shoe nearby, perhaps left
by a Cinderella-like character.
The other ten paintings, hanging on the opposite wall, depict individual rooms of the
house populated by a group of girls. We know that Weyant’s personal dollhouse from her
early youth served as the model for the one depicted in the paintings, and we thus feel a
bit transported back to her childhood. Yet even though dollhouses are now mostly
associated with children, when they first emerged at the end of the Renaissance they were
a pastime for adults, who collected and carefully decorated them with idealized interiors.
The dollhouse as we know it today—meaning, a young girls’ hobby—emerged in
eighteenth-century Europe during the Industrial Revolution. One of the most famous
historical dollhouses belonged to Queen Mary of England (1867–1953) and was designed
by the well-known architect Sir Edwin Lutyens; the English writer Arthur Conan Doyle,
author of the iconic Sherlock Holmes books, even wrote to-scale books to stock its
library. Queen Mary’s dollhouse is still on view today at Windsor Castle, and is seen by
millions of visitors every year. By far the most famous dollhouse in the world of art is the
so-called Stettheimer Dollhouse, on view at the Museum of the City of New York, made
by Carrie Stettheimer (1869–1944), sister of notable artist and art collector Florine
Stettheimer. Carrie worked on the house from 1916 to 1935. Its art collection includes
original miniature artworks by Alexander Archipenko, Gaston Lachaise, and Marcel
Duchamp; Duchamp made for it a miniature copy of his famous painting Nude
Descending a Staircase (1912). Likewise, Weyant’s painted scenes are often homages to
or direct citations of artists she admires, or references to movies or literature she loves.
Her painted dollhouse is in effect a gallery within the gallery, revealing influences that
have shaped her as an artist.
Weyant spoke to me recently about her fascination with the literary character Eloise,
created by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight in the 1950s. Eloise is a
young girl who lives on the top floor of the Plaza Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue
together with her absent-minded nanny, her dog Weenie, and a turtle named Skipperdee.
Eloise is an independent young girl up to all sorts of mischief, for instance roller-skating
down the corridors of the Plaza, pouring champagne down the mail chute, or writing her
name on the hotel walls. The book’s subtitle, “A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups,” sums
up Weyant’s interest in the story—it is in fact a book for those in between childhood and
Titles play an important part in Weyant’s work. A painting of a sad-looking doll with
Kleenex tissues in her bra to make her breasts appear bigger is titled Some Dolls are
Bigger Than Others, a reference to the famous Smiths song “Some Girls Are Bigger
Than Others” (1985). Another, showing one of the dolls escaping the house via a rope
such that we only see the feet through the window, perhaps alludes to the teenager’s
suicide scene in Luchino Visconti’s well-known but heavily criticized film The Damned
(1969), which takes place inside a mostly empty mansion. Weyant titled this work
Escape Artist—I imagine Visconti himself here, fleeing the critics who panned his movie.
One particularly clever work is John, Weyant’s version of John Currin’s Anna (2004),
showing a woman’s face half-obscured by a candelabra. In Weyant’s painting a girl
playing cards is equally obscured by an almost identical candleholder. Cards are a
recurring motif in Weyant’s work, and relate not only to games like poker, solitaire, and
rummy but also to card tricks, positing the artist as a trickster who plays games with her
audience. This is very clear in her painting Self Portrait of a Gambler, showing four
playing cards that spell out Weyant’s first name, Anna (aces for the two As and 2 cards
turned sideways for the Ns). The work effectively functions as the artist’s signature for
the overall installation, but it also speaks to the fact that this is Weyant’s first solo
exhibition, in which she, figuratively speaking, is putting her cards on the table.
Another painting involving cards might be related to Balthus’s The Card Game (1950).
Weyant has titled her painting From A to A, and we see in it only the leg and foot of a girl
hiding an ace of diamonds under a table. From A to A plays with the concept of “From A
to B” or “From A to Z.” Here, however, there is no start or finish line, no clear
parameters, neither beginning nor end, no particular alphabet to follow. There is simply
no place to go. Everyone is trapped in its hermetic, dreamlike scenario.
Other paintings continue Weyant’s exploration of art history without being too direct or
obvious. There is for example Put Yourself in My Shoes, in which we see an empty bed
with two legs sticking out underneath and a pair of black shoes nearby. Francesca
Woodman’s photographs come to mind. Tales of a Tub references another painting, this
time a historical one: Vermeer’s famous Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Widow (ca.
1657–59). Vermeer’s work made the news when it was revealed that there is a second
character in the room (whom someone else painted over after his death), which if visible
would give the painting a vastly different meaning. The idea of a hidden ghost in a work
is very much in line with Weyant’s interest in the surreal, the world of dreams, and the
uncanny. Weyant also looks to art with biblical content from the baroque era. The doll in
Lance in Her Side has had her appendix removed, resulting in a small scar on her torso,
which evokes the five stigmata of Christ crucified: the nails through hands and feet, the
scars from whipping, and a wound from the lance of a Roman legionnaire. The most
obvious example of a painting about the five holy wounds is Diego Velázquez’s Christ
on the Cross (1632). Simultaneously the appendix scar points, perhaps more
recognizably, to the 1939 book Madeline by Ludwig Bemelmans.
Despite all the references, one might say that with this initial solo exhibition of her work,
her first public offering, Weyant is exorcising the ghosts of her artistic past—the artists,
writers, and filmmakers who have shaped her sense of culture and the world. Now, we
imagine, after this first show, she can move forward with more freedom, having outlined
her particular conversation with art history. In our conversation about her show, Weyant
also mentioned Michael Haneke’s film The White Ribbon (2009), in which a group of
children terrorize a German village just before the outbreak of World War II, and
Charlotte, Scarlett Johansson’s character in Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation
(2003). Coppola has made it a bit of a motif to use female characters who are mature for
their age, even a bit wicked. Weyant also mentions the malicious but seemingly innocent
Amma Crellin in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects (2018) (based on the 2006 book by
Gillian Flynn), who also plays with a dollhouse. Weyant is fascinated by adolescent girls
who on the surface seem innocent but could stab someone at any moment.
One other artist and director who comes to mind in this context is Larry Clark, whose
1995 movie Kids (based on a screenplay by Harmony Korine, who would later also direct
Spring Breakers  about a group of adolescent girls on spring break who become
involved with criminal activities) is perhaps the definitive work of hedonistic adolescent
behavior in regard to drugs, sex, and general unruliness. Yet it is not so much the (male-
initiated) rowdiness and outward abrasiveness of Kids that Weyant is interested in. Her
work is more devious and haunting, with a poetic undertone somewhere nearer the
German Romantic painters of the early eighteenth century. The transgressions are subtle,
under a veneer of presumed innocence—including her own.
The paintings have very distinct color range dominated by various shades of dark green,
including the beautiful Scalamandre (one of the world’s most prestigious fabric and wall
covering manufacturers) inspired wallpaper. While visiting her studio I noticed a
photograph from 2004 of her elementary school class in Calgary, with all the students
wearing the same dark-green uniform. Weyant confirmed that there is a strong
connection between her use of the color green in her paintings, particularly multiple dark
shades of green, and the greens of her adolescence, which in the case of the admittedly
ugly outfit manifested in rebelliousness. The theme of childhood purity corrupted by
violence (sometime by adults, sometimes otherwise) is heavily present in Weyant’s work.
It moves like a twisted fairy tale, threatening truth and forming a clear iconography of a
much less innocent future. Welcome to the Dollhouse tells a story of adolescent torment
that reverberates into adulthood. The works hint at a pervading, true-to-life wickedness
hidden beneath distracting veneers.