If the West had been won by women, would they still come out guns blazing? In Felice House's series of paintings, entitled Re-Western, women become the dominant figures in the desert. They sit astride horses and brandish guns, looking mysterious, powerful and utterly independent.
House explores the genre of Western cinema by placing female subjects in iconic roles from the time. James Dean in Giant becomes Julia Dean, Antonio Banderas in Desperado becomes Virginia Banderas and there's even a version of John Wayne named Rebekah.
House says she's always been intrigued by the culture of the cowboy while simultaneously infuriated by the types of roles offered to women in the genre. So, she set out to examine gender-based power in the old timey West.
House, who grew up in Massachusetts, polled her friends and family to discover which iconic Western films she should delve into. The Searchers; The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and High Noon were all named. She then found visually powerful scenes from each of the movies, wrote down the exact second that each frame appeared and took a still image. Models recreated the poses of the high-power cowboys, with their own twists.
The paintings are full of texture and allure. House says that she starts with a orange base to give each of the portraits a fiery, smoldering quality that empowers the subjects. These are contemporary, powerful images that "give women agency through color," House explains.
The amount of attention House pays to the technical aspects of the image come from her time spent studying at the Schuler School of Fine Arts, a classical atelier in Baltimore where she learned to master the technical elements of painting.
In art school, House fine tuned her thought process and became familiar with art movements. One such influential movement was Women Painting Women, which supports and recognizes female painters from around the world who use other women as their subjects.
The founders of the movement—Alia El-Bermaani, Diane Feissel and Sadie Valeri—noticed that shows were representing men painting images of women for other men. They portrayed their subjects as "nude, beautiful, and accessible," House says.
House wanted to flip that image completely and make women who were "heroic in the way that they're actually inaccessible."
All of her subjects in Re-Western are non-confrontational. Their gazes do not linger on the viewer; they're off in the distance—much like the sexy "All-American appeal" of the lone ranger. Re-Western embodies a female subject whose entire being is independent and full of choice.
The pieces are created just slightly larger than life to portray a larger-than-life woman. At Leeds College of Art where Re-Western is currently on display, the paintings are hung a bit higher than eye-level. Viewers must look up in order to take in the whole subject.
"James Dean is really sexy and powerful, perhaps mainly because he's in control," House says. "I wanted to allow that to be a woman."