When Toni Barca was 10 years old, she heard her mother talking about a female model whose partner abandoned her after she’d had a double mastectomy to prevent the spread of breast cancer. The injustice of that woman’s predicament and the emotional scarring it must have caused never left Barca, and today, the subject matter still weighs heavy on the South Pasadena artist’s heart.
“The message is, if you’re not perfect, men won’t love you,” she says. “We as women have to deal with the shame of losing a breast. I just felt compelled that this was a discussion we weren’t having.”
The dynamic power of love, lust and partnership in the face of great loss is at the heart of Barca’s “The Breast Cancer Series — An Erotic Love Story” on display at South Pasadena’s Tah Gallery through March 18. The series of small, linocut drawings portray partners pushing through the painful transformation of breast cancer and mastectomy to rediscover the passion and love waiting on the other side of acceptance.
“An Erotic Love Story” is not the artist’s first foray into themes of love, lust and sexuality. In 2006, 10 samples of her work were accepted into the collection of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction at Indiana University, founded in 1947 by pioneer sexuality researcher Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey one year before the publication of his “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.”
Tah Gallery curator Sandy Taylor said she was happy to provide a forum for Barca’s important work, despite society’s reluctance to embrace sexualized nudity in public art. “Her works reveal the delicate interaction between male and female, and others, in relationship to self-esteem, the need to still be loved and the fragility of the human soul and its ability to overcome adversity,” Taylor adds.
The four linocuts in “An Erotic Love Story” are part of Barca’s bigger exploration into themes of eroticism, survival and femininity. She remembers learning about a tribe of Amazonian females who voluntarily had their left breasts removed to become better archers; when one such woman emerged during a sketching session, Barca knew she had to go deeper into the subject.
“It was a light bulb moment,” she recalls. “It was an Amazon woman kneeling with a scar. I went ‘Oh my God, breast cancer.’ I immediately knew that’s what I had to draw.”
The panels are small, meant to draw the viewer in for an intimate conversation. Each depicts a woman in recovery from mastectomy; the surgical scar prominently displayed alongside a healthy breast seems to indicate the woman’s strength in having survived. “I Have the Power,” shows a solitary nude female figure in a victory stance before a rising sun that, Barca explains, “represents the dawning of a new self.” The piece “I Still Love You” reveals a tender moment between a couple — a sexually aroused nude male figure reaches out his hand a tearful and scarred lover, even as she tentatively shrouds her still-healing wound from his sight.
“Because of her transformation, he is really turned on by her spirituality, her soul as a warrior,” Barca says of the piece. “Sexuality is really what happens between two people and their souls and minds. It’s beyond the body.”
The artist will be available during a March 17 closing reception for “A Breast Cancer Series” from 5 to 8 p.m. at Tah Gallery, 1015 Mission St., South Pasadena. For more information on the exhibit or gallery, visit tahgallery.com or call (626) 441-6846. To learn more about Barca and her art, check out tonibarca.com.