Given the rich complexity of feminism past and present, we were intrigued to learn of the latest exhibition at Shade Gallery, located at monOrchid in Roosevelt Row. Titled "Feminism Today," the exhibition features works by 13 local artists -- all of them women whom curator Nicole Royse says she's long admired.
Royse planned the show in early February, after a "veteran artist" she won't name pulled out of a planned March exhibition at the gallery. She'd recently run across online articles saying wives and mothers couldn't be true artists, and she was concerned about Arizona policy makers infringing on women's rights. Thus the "Feminism Today" framework was born.
"Feminism Today" comes on the heels of several other exhibitions focusing on women -- including Jobot Coffee's "Ladies First Art Show!" with works by more than 30 women artists, and the "1 in 3" exhibit at Treeo described by Stacey Champion as an exploration of gender-based violence, feminism, and reproductive rights.
Those who've seen seminal works of feminist art -- such as Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party at the Brooklyn Museum, which includes place settings created to honor 39 women in history -- have high expectations for artworks given the feminism mantle. We're not convinced that any of these exhibitions made the leap from being shows featuring works by women to shows with a strong feminist thread.
It's one thing to show works by a variety of women artists, but another thing entirely to curate a show reflecting feminist sensibilities. Clearly Jobot wasn't even trying to go there. Come First Friday on April 3, we'll get to see 22 artists tackle the topic of gender identity, as Frontal Lobe Community Space and Gallery opens the "Equal Parts Art Show" curated by local artists Amanda Adkins and Ashley Macias.
With "Feminism Today," Royse says she wanted to give women artists who've worked hard to help build the local art scene a chance to express their own takes on feminism. The show includes works by Kristin Bauer, Christine Cassano, Cherie Buck Hutchinson, Mimi Jardine, Melissa Martinez, Monica Aissa Martinez, Constance McBride, Lara Plecas, Irma Sanchez, Mary Shindell, Beth Ames Swartz, Marilyn Szabo, and Denise Yaghmourian. She would have invited more, Royse says, if she had more wall space.
Some, including Cassano and Bauer, created new works specifically for this exhibtion. Swartz, who is part of a local feminist organization and has two works in the contemporary art collection of the Brooklyn Museum (home to the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art), suggested she show two works not previously exhibited in Arizona. Royse says she worked with each artist in selecting pieces for the show.
Works by women are shown too infrequently, she says, noting that this is the first time Shade Gallery has showcased a group exhibition with works solely by women artists. Her curatorial choice prompts an important question: How are women faring in the local arts scene in terms of opportunities to make, show, and sell art?
But "Feminism Today" fails to connect with much of modern-day feminism or the challenges facing contemporary women: the prevalence of rape on college campuses, the role of pro sports in fomenting violence against women, the rise of extremist ideologies that further women's oppression, the use of technology in demeaning women, or some feminists' rejection of transgender women's rights to self-identify as women.
Bauer created a giant circle of alternating words, "onward" and "upward," using acrylic, gouache, and graphite on 68 pieces of Stonhenge paper with push pins -- noting in her artist's statement that she's replacing the linear trajectory of patriarchal approaches to achievement and self-actualization with a circular model reflecting her own experiences.
Yaghmourian put dozens of American flag patches with various embroidery flaws on wood panels to create a 3-by-10-foot work titled Imperfectly Perfect, and explains in her artist's statement that "the American flag speaks metaphorically to numerous topics pertaining to freedom and equality for all."
Instead of mixing things up, works featured in "Feminism Today" are more or less mainstream. We'd have loved seeing pieces that claw at the consciousness, and conscience, of those who view them -- piercing through assumptions held dear, leaving people disturbed and unsettled. Only Mimi Jardine's The Litter Genderization Project achieves this.
Her mixed media installation features dozens of bits of litter laid out atop a table flanked by two silver cylindrical trash cans. One is labeled "Male," and the other labeled "Female." The work prompts viewers to consider which pieces of litter they'd place in which receptacle, inviting reflection on why we associate particular objects with one gender or another -- and what being forced to make an either/or choice means for those within the transgender community.
The dilemma isn't that works included in "Feminism Today" aren't good. Shindell's graphite and ink Dried Saguaro Fruit has beautiful lines and wide open spaces. Martinez's Anatomy of Support Structures, a mixed media on canvas work with a nude woman in handstand mode at its center, features incredible detail and color. What's problematic is the suggestion that they channel contemporary feminism.
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Ultimately, it begs the question: Why isn't it enough to simply exhibit the works of women, without suggesting they advance the cause of one ism or another?
"Feminism Today" continues through Friday, March 20. Several of the artists will talk briefly about their work during the closing reception from 6 to 10 p.m. on Third Friday. For more information, visit the monOrchid website.