Artist Cassidy Boyuk brings needed female perspective to ‘Mused’

The painter’s stunning new solo exhibition, which opens at Mansion 731 on Saturday, March 2, upends the ‘babes and sheets’ approach adopted by many male artists working in the classical style.
One of the paintings on display in "Mused"
One of the paintings on display in "Mused"Courtesy Cassidy Boyuk

Before Cassidy Boyuk could learn classical painting techniques, she first had to let go of concepts developed from childhood, including the idea of artistic freedom.

“I think a lot of people walk into the program thinking, ‘I’m an artist, this feels very free, the process of creating,’” said Boyuk, who at age 18 enrolled in the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. “And in the first couple of years, it feels more like a math class than an art class. … The program I was in was very methodical, where you’re really training your eye for accuracy.”

For the first two years, Boyuk said she wasn’t even allowed to pick up a paintbrush, with early lessons centered on recreating the drawings of French painter and lithographer Charles Bargue with machinelike precision. “Sometimes it was, ‘You need to move this [line] over the width of a hair,’” said Boyuk, whose new solo exhibition, “Mused,” opens at the Mansion 731 on Saturday, March 2, in partnership with OTE Arts. “And that doesn’t work for everybody, but I thought it was a cool challenge.”

Boyuk has long had an interest in realism and the classical style, beginning an apprenticeship at age 15 with Columbus artist Michael Cooley, with whom she studied everything from Bargue drawings and working with live models to color theory and the subtle ways paints can blend to introduce coolness or warmth. Drawing closer to a portrait of one model, Clara, slight pops of blue and yellow subtly help tease out light and shadow, while the background of a larger piece set in the wilderness becomes an enchanting study of greens.

“It’s one of the first landscapes I’ve painted, and learning to paint in green was exhausting. I think I complained to everybody because I was so sick of having green all over me all of the time when I was making it,” Boyuk said, and laughed. “And it’s hard working with green, temperature wise, because you add white to it and it becomes cool toned and almost blue, and then if you add yellow to it, it’s like, yellow. It’s hard to bring dark and light to it without having it look like a completely different color.”

In general, the paintings begin with a series of photographs, Boyuk working with models – many of whom are fellow artists or pulled from her circle of friends – to capture images that could be striking when transferred to canvas. At times, she’ll have a loose concept in mind, such as a series of paintings featuring sisters and meant to depict a range of dimensions inherent in that genetic bond. Other times, the personality of the person being painted can draw out unexpected wrinkles. Set nearby, two portraits of the same model, Clara, tease out contrasting aspects in her personality, which Boyuk credited in part to a mid-photoshoot wardrobe change. “It was interesting to put her in a different outfit and watch her whole demeanor become more elegant,” Boyuk said.

Once Boyuk lands on a photo, she draws it on the canvas with charcoal, then follows with an undercoat of burnt or raw umber paint, which she said helps her to dial in her values and suss out any errors in the drawing. From there, the artist begins to paint in color, with some of her expertly rendered works, including a languid portrait of friend and model Jared, taking shape in a matter of weeks, and others consuming as much as two months or more.

One of the paintings on display in "Mused"
One of the paintings on display in "Mused"Courtesy Cassidy Boyuk

The majority of works on display in “Mused” center on feminine models, which Boyuk described as a more recent development. In school, the artist said, she tended toward a more rigid, chunky style that better lent itself to masculine figures. In more recent times, however, her approach has softened, which she chalked up in part to circumstance (she’s friends with more women, and so they tend to appear more frequently in her work) and in part to her desire to bring a female perspective to a style of painting that has long been dominated by men.

“And that was really evident in Florence, where you walk around the museums and you see the names of maybe two women, one of whom was assaulted in her studio, and then they broke her fingers during her trial to test if she was lying,” Boyuk said, speaking of Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi. “It wasn’t easy to be an artist and a woman at that point. … And I’ve always realized I’m privileged to be born when I was and to be able to learn this style.”

While Boyuk embraces the classical tradition, her perspective also allows her to upend it, shifting away from overt sexualization – the artist joked about the “babes and sheets” approach often employed within the form, with male painters depicting beautiful nude women reclining on satin-sheened spreads – and narratives shaped by the masculine perspective. “It’s fun to take visuals [associated] with the church and monarch and then paint my friends,” Boyuk said. “It brings a playfulness and a youthfulness to it when you put those things together.”

One of Boyuk’s paintings, for instance, serves as the first in a series in which she intends to recast Greek myths from a more female-centric point of view. The outsized canvas, which features a woman pouring water into a pond, is loosely based on the John William Waterhouse painting “Circe Invidiosa,” which Boyuk has always loved in spite of the disconnect she felt from it. “In his painting, [the model] looks really angry, and I struggled to relate to the expression on her face,” she said.

Boyuk’s take, in contrast, features a woman whose look of cool determination runs counter to the wilderness in which she’s set, the shadowy overgrowth of trees and lily pads meant to reflect the inner turmoil against which she is struggling.

“A lot of those Greek myths are about sexual violence and female rage, and I think those are things men just can’t truly understand the way women do,” Boyuk said. “They’re still beautiful artworks, but for so many years those stories have been told by men, and I think it’s important that women tell the story.”

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