Since the 1970s, Joan Semmel has centered her practice around representations of the body from the female perspective, most often focusing on what she has termed self-images. "We all have some difficulty in confronting our aging physical selves," Semmel says, "so when you are painting yourself, it really means that you have to say, 'I'm doing this and I'm not going to make it pretty. I'm not going to hide it, disguise it, no face-lifts. It's going to be really the way I see it.' This is not a disease that's happening. It's the natural evolution of a person."
Touching Toes (2019) belongs to a recent group of paintings wherein the figure fills the frame in a manner that echoes the in-camera cropping of the photographs Semmel takes as the basis for her compositions. The meticulous execution of the artist's toes and fingers, stretching into the foreground of the frame, mimics the distorting effects of the camera's focus as the upper arms, legs, and torso are rendered far more loosely in contrast. As in other recent paintings, Touching Toes, returns to the bright, highly saturated tones and mostly monochromatic backgrounds first seen in the Sex Paintings for which she gained recognition early in her career. Strokes of warm red and orange hues are contoured by the precise application of sap green—delineating sharp edges of bone against a sumptuous field of flesh. Combining her vivid palette in the 1970s with a distinctively gestural use of paint—recalling her engagement with Abstract Expressionism in the 1960s—this work is uniquely situated within Semmel's practice over the past five decades as it firmly presents the female body as an autonomous site for challenging the objectification and fetishization of female sexuality.