Strolling through the WAM galleries last weekend, I was drawn to Julia Jacquette’s 1999 oil painting, Radiant. It’s hard to miss, vast in size with pop-art colors, nods to pin-up culture, and a dramatic tone reminiscent of Lichtenstein. The piece features (mostly white) women’s faces and feminine hands sensually depicting various activities and languid lines. Of note, in several of the tiles, is the obvious existence of an engagement/wedding ring, or an obvious comparable lack thereof.
I notice wedding bands and engagement rings readily – I’m not sure when I started to do so, but if I’m being honest, it might be one of the first things I notice about a person. As of late, I’ve tried to do more critical thinking about this, especially in relation to my studies in Political Science and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies and my own feelings on love, relationships, commitment, comfort, what have you. … why the focus on the ring?
As with everything, love and marriage are political. Rings find their roots in religion, patriarchy, economics – why do women wear markers of being ‘taken’ up to the wedding but men do not?
Why do we not talk about the ethics of diamonds? Why did it take as long as it did for all people to have the right to marry in this country? How entwined with heteronormativity, gender roles, property, and whiteness is the institution of marriage to begin with? Could it be dangerous to look at the sensual, beautifully ringed hands in the painting and associate that easy viewing with the lifelong, often difficult work of partnership? My feminist and social justice leanings render these points important to consider seriously, on a societal level and for myself.
I think it’s because of the ring as a symbol – of love, yes, but more so of commitment and attachment – that I am drawn to notice it. If a person wears a ring, they have someone to go home to. They are not alone. I want this for those close to me, I want it for myself, and I want it for strangers – joy in camaraderie with others, connection and care of family, and the beauty of love. Companionship.
In my mind, I know this quick association is ludicrous – a great many people are absolutely, really, truly happy (more happy than they would be otherwise) being independent and on their own. For several folks, family is stressful, sad, negative. Some individuals or couples choose not to wear rings – it’s inconvenient, they need not show their ‘attachment’ for political, personal, or other reasons. Some may have the symbol that I see and associate positively on their finger but that symbol for them may be of a partnership that is strained, abusive, failing. All of this I know.
And yet when I see an absence of a ring, I hope for that person that they do not have to be alone in all of their dealings. When I see a ring, I associate it with feelings of contentment. Maybe it’s the extrovert in me doing the feeling. The bottom line is that I, idyllically, in a world that is off balance and systemically screwed up, wish happiness for the people I see – and I assume that a life shared with other people might bring that.
Jacquette’s painting is part of the traveling exhibition, The Human Touch: Selections from the RBC Wealth Management Art Collection, which bears the body as a subject and showcases themes relating to ‘the human condition.’ What could be more intrinsic to the humanity than a hope for close bonds, for companionship, for community? Radiant is alluring, it’s beautiful, it’s so dang attractive. And with a closer look (check out some of those phallic objects), it is a catalyst for thinking on gender, sexuality, marriage, and for me, the politics of the ring as it relates to love, togetherness, and hope.
To end, whatever your road, I hope you find happiness.