Women figurative painters in ‘Rising Voices’ at Studio Incamminati, 2019 Bennett Prize finalists

Artblog contributor Michael Lieberman reviews "Rising Voices," an exhibition of ten finalists of the inaugural Bennett Prize. Bennett awards $50,000 biennially to one woman painter specializing in figurative realism. The traveling exhibition (now closed) was hosted by Studio Incamminati here in Philadelphia!

Abstract figurative painting of a thin white woman holding a baby (who is feeding on her breast) in one hand, and she is holding her other hand out of a window.
Aneka Ingold, “Postpartum” Mixed media on paper, 72 x 48 inches, 2018. Image courtesy of RJD Gallery, Bridgehampton, NY

The gallery at Studio Incamminati recently hosted an exhibition Rising Voices, the work of the ten finalists for the inaugural 2019 Bennett Prize. The Prize, $50,000 to be awarded biennially to one woman painter, was established in 2018 by San Antonio, TX realist art collectors Steven Alan Bennett and his wife Elaine Melotti Schmidt, in collaboration with the Muskegon Museum of Art and the Pittsburgh Foundation, in order to propel the careers of women painters whose work falls under the umbrella of contemporary figurative realism. Bennett is on the Board of Directors of Studio Incamminati.

There were over 600 submissions for the inaugural Prize, from artists living primarily in the United States, but many who came originally from all over the globe, and each artist submitted a number of pieces to the competition. Ultimately, jurors Art Martin, Andrea Kowch, Maria Tomasula, and Stephen Bennett awarded the Prize to Aneka Ingold, of Tampa, Florida.

Ingold’s “Postpartum,” a collage of static icons including a blue nude, a baby, two fossil trilobites, a snake, a bird, balls of yarn and a machine gives you an idea how far contemporary figurative realism has strayed from traditional figurative painting, even from realism itself. The painting, like many others in the exhibition, has absorbed much from various other postmodern movements, with nods to the past including, of course, Surrealism.


There’s a great deal to think about in “Postpartum,” but I’m fascinated by the woman’s arm in the window. It’s not clear whether she’s reaching out, receiving, or perhaps pointing. There’s certainly something of interest out there. With her vacant stare, she seems far from entwined in life within the frame, including her baby nursing. She’s determined and unrestrained, even severe, and I think that reflects much of what we see in the other pieces in the show: women’s voices defying conventions and expectations.

Realistic portrait of a thin white woman holding a cat over her head. The cat is relaxed, making a crescent shape.
Jenny Morgan, “Crescent” Oil on canvas, 70 x 48 inches, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist

Jenny Morgan, based in Brooklyn, NY, was one of the ten finalists for the Prize, and Morgan’s painting “Crescent” — a full frontal nude woman in a grisaille painting with a cat curled around her head — is a striking example of what the Bennett group is highlighting in its quest to recognize women painters working in figurative realism. I was struck by the artist’s understatement of what is ordinarily featured in a female nude — genitalia — but without diminishing the power she projects. As someone who ordinarily balks at the presence of cats in art work, I was surprisingly pleased by this one – which turns domestication upon its head.

Rebecca Léveillé’s (Amherst, MA) “The Panel Discussion (The Lovers),” a passionate scene of a knight in armor and a nude princess embracing, is beautifully depicted, and neither derailed nor diminished by the realistic rendering of a water bottle sitting in the foreground, nor by the panel of observers sitting in the background. At first, I was surprised by the inclusion of women on the panel, but I shouldn’t have been. The painting, like many in the exhibition, implicitly challenges the patriarchy and hierarchy of the art world by virtue of its celebration of the female as artist and/or subject.

Abstract realistic painting of a white, blonde, straight couple embracing- the man in a suit of armor, the woman, naked. Behind them is a panel of white adults with bottles of water smiling and listening to each other speak.
Rebecca Léveillé, “The Panel Discussion (The Lovers)” Oil on canvas, 48 x 36 inches, 2017-2018. Image courtesy of the artist

Finally, I was surprised that the Bennett recognized Philadelphia artist Mary Henderson. See her “Winter Coats,” an image of a multi-generational group of women in a street march. Much as I love her remarkable photorealistic group portraits, they are far more literal than any work of the other finalists, and I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that the Bennett jurors were looking for work that crossed boundaries more overtly than Henderson’s work does.

I have to admit that I would have preferred to see the monetary award spread among a group of finalists rather than the full amount to a single one of them. That, I think, would do more to “propel” the careers of women artists, which Bennett describes as its mission.

Photorealistic painting of a crowd of people, most of which are women, talking, laughing, and walking together in winter clothes. The background is solid pink, so the location is obscured.
Mary Henderson, “Winter Coats” Oil on panel, 12 x 24 inches, 2017. Image courtesy of Lyons Wier Gallery, NYC

The other finalists whose works are on display in the exhibit are Dorielle Caimi (Santa Fe, NM), Jennifer R. A. Campbell (Washington, D.C.), Kira Nam Greene (Brooklyn, NY), Stefanie Jackson (Athens, GA), Daniela Kovacic Muzio (Evanston, IL), and Carrie Pearce (Peoria, IL).


The 2019 Bennett Prize exhibition began at the Muskegon Museum of Art, and following that traveled to the Reading Public Museum and the University of Tampa-Scarfone/Hartley Gallery, before landing at Incamminati, where it closed on May 9th. Its final stop will be at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust – 937 Gallery, beginning on June 4th and running to August 8th.

Studio Incamminati, by the way, is located in the Bok Building, a huge former vocational school in South Philadelphia which has been beautifully refurbished and now houses restaurants, nonprofits, craft shops and other small businesses, as well as artists.

[ED. Note: “Rising Voices” is now closed. The exhibition ran March 24 – May 9, 2021 at Studio Incamminati, BOK Building, 1901 S. 9th St., Philadelphia, PA 19148.]