Thursday, March 19, 2009

Breast ahoy

The Feminist Art Exhibition at Tacoma Community College

Published in the Weekly Volcano, March 19, 2009

Pictured: Portrait of Lee Krasner, oil painting by CJ Swanson.

The Feminist Art Exhibition at The Gallery at Tacoma Community College has everything you could ask of a feminist art show: references to feminist leaders from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the Guerilla Girls to Judy Chicago; multi-layered commentary on breasts, fashion and gender roles; and media ranging from painting and sculpture to video.

Norma Fried’s "Think Pink" would be delightfully playful if her subject matter were not so deadly serious. Her mixed-media work is a shadow box filled with cute little objects (mostly pink) that reference breast cancer.

Displayed next to "Think Pink" is one of the more provocative works in the show, Kim Reidelbach’s "Nutritional Value," four wax sculptures on display shelves in which breasts morph into food and sexy lingerie becomes table clothes. To the left is a beautifully shaped and very naturalistic bust of a woman with a lace bra falling off. The only thing about this figure that is not realistic is the color; it is coal black. Next to it is a flattened, deflated and scarred woman’s chest; then tiny disease-ridden breasts on a dinner plate with broccoli and other food items; and finally no breasts at all, just food — mother’s milk, sexual allure, disease and/or the ravages of age all in one four-part sculpture. This is art with the power to affect the viewer on many levels.

There are many other works in this show that obsess on breasts. Melissa Blach’s "Dress," a lacy paper dress hanging from the ceiling upon which dangle decorative little balls with nipples. Underneath are balloon-like breasts and high heel shoes with breasts. In a wall statement Blach talks about hearing about bra burning before she was old enough to wear one and about how woman’s clothing is often simultaneously concealing and revealing. I think her wall statement is more powerful than her art, which is decorative and playful.

There are also many tributes to pioneering feminists and even historical figures such as Rosa Parks, who is not normally thought of as a feminist but was. Among the more intriguing works are portraits of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera by David N. Goldberg, which are paired with a portrait of Lee Krasner by Goldberg’s wife, CJ Swanson. Here we have a contemporary artist couple paying tribute to earlier artist couples with portraits that while not overtly commenting on the history of women in art cannot help but remind an observant viewer of that history. Frida Kahlo was mentored by Diego Rivera and married him. Throughout her career she was subservient to him; yet now she is more revered than he is. Lee Krasner gave up a promising career as a painter to promote the work of her more famous husband, Jackson Pollock, and was barely recognized as an artist in her own right until long after his death. Coincidentally, both Goldberg and Swanson’s paintings are similar in style. Like Pollock and Krasner, they have influenced one another. And both bring to mind the works of yet another woman artist, Alice Neel, who is famous for her unflinching, warts-and-all portraits of her friends.

The show also features an amazing video by Linda Ford called "Nighthawks." It is based on the famously enigmatic painting of the same name by Edward Hopper, with narration by the novelist Joyce Carol Oates. The Manhattan diner of Hopper’s painting is transformed into a country diner in the snow, and through Oates’ words we listen in on the thoughts of a lonely (animated) man and woman. Just as in the Hopper painting, this film captures the essence of aloneness.

Motherhood is captured in the most iconic of images, but with a twist in this case, in Betty Sapp Ragan’s photo collage "San Francisco Madonna II." Ragan’s collages place contemporary figures within architectural nooks, crannies and frames to create a sense of timelessness. In this picture she depicts a classical Madonna and child but with the twist that the baby Jesus is a girl.

Another traditional religious icon is delivered by Gail Ramsey Wharton in her "Apple from Interior Series," acrylic, collage and charcoal. The subject is Eve eating the apple, the biblical story that has forever cast women in the role of temptresses and the font of all evil, and which demonstrates just how frightened men are of women. Wharton’s Eve is a surrealistic temptress with her oversized head and bright red apple within a black-and-white image. Like Ragan, Wharton’s images achieve universality by combining contemporary and historical images, but in an opposite way: Ragan puts contemporary figures in historical settings and Wharton puts historical figures in contemporary settings.

These are but a handful of the many works in this show, which features the works of 40 artists. Mostly women.

[Tacoma Community College, Feminist Art Exhibition, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, through May 8, 6501 South 19th Street, Building 5A, Tacoma]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Alec, I am continually impressed by your keen sensibilities, and your ability to put the right words to what often seem to me inexpressible qualities of artists' work. You are so good
at honing in on the essence of
what's before you. I'm so happy to have found this blog.