From Woman XII at Lakeland
If we learned anything about women and gender-queer folks over the last two years and two months, it is that we are resilient, powerful survivor-warriors. What seems clear both locally and globally for women in living in the Orange Era, is what artist Barbra Kruger plainly stated 30 years ago in her stark photo text piece: “Your body is a battleground.” While there are themes-aplenty in From Woman XII,Created by, of, and about women, curated by Mary Urbas and on view through March 29 at The Gallery at Lakeland, the body is one that unifies much of the work in the exhibition.
There are diverse approaches to the curatorial ethos of the exhibition: artists engender the body as both concrete and fluid, a space for oppression and control, as well as one that transcends politics and capitalism and connects to history, mythology, and earth energy. In this way, the exhibition illustrates both the historically patriarchal restriction of “the feminine,” with a new world order centered on creative energy and healing the planet. In this way, the battleground in this toxic political and environmental moment is the female and/or feminine body and spirit, as well as “planet-body” that is soil, air, and water.
Lisa Kenion’s zinc, concrete, and bronze assemblage, If They Go, We Go, makes this point most didactically. Colorfully wrought bronze flora and fauna sprout from a chunk of concrete, which rests on a zinc plate etched with phrases and terms often used to discuss global warming (“mono-cropping,” “herbicides,” “habitat loss”). Beyond the zinc plate are dark bronze insects, dead from the aforementioned industrial farming phenomena. Kenion’s use of obviously artificial colors on the “living” plants and insects sprouting from concrete, reminds us that agro-business has already altered the wildlife; the dead creatures portend what may come next—their demise and ours.
Animal imagery abounds in “From Woman XII…,” as women artists unabashedly connect feminine bodies to a universal “whole.” Linda Dempsey’s assemblage-sculptures are wrought from driftwood, and include feathers, seashells, and preserved dead butterflies. “Untitled II” aptly connects to Kenion’s assemblage, as both use mass-produced building materials as base. In Dempsey’s case, her driftwood woman sprouts from a worn piece of red brick.
Judy Takács’ Hatchlings is a stunningly vivid oil painting depicting the artist as nude on a purple backdrop, surrounded by dozens of fuzzy yellow chicks. The artist captures a sense of power, awareness, and playfulness in the self-portrait, connecting her own fertility to the chicks (alluding, perhaps that the chick comes before the egg) and to the reproductive cycles of the planet. Takács owns the chick, literally, as animal, which she affectionately holds, and, figuratively, as a “chick” herself. Her art historical reference to 15th century Flemish painter, Jan Van Eyck, who is well-known for the Arnolfini Portrait, is both clever and rib-splittingly funny. In the 1434 portrait, commissioned by Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his unnamed spouse, Van Eyck included his signature self-portrait in a small reflective orb. While this tactic was not uncommon for the Flemish artist, the contemporary public’s fascination with it is part of a long-held debate about the meaning of the painting in general. Arnolfini Portrait also includes the couple’s marital bed, a hanging ballast of green fabric shaped like a uterus, and “Mrs. Arnolfini” rendered in a heavy green dress that makes her look as if she is pregnant. While art historians have discounted the notion that “Mrs. Arnolfini” was pregnant when she sat for the painting, sex and reproduction are still central to the iconography. In a portrait of her own rendering, Takács is alone among her chicks, rolling around with her own reproductive power, laughing slyly at Van Eyck’s tiny “orb” and the end of the world (and its art history) as he knew it.
Portraiture abounds in the exhibition, and ranges from stagy and traditional, to expressionist and confrontational. Like Takács’ piece, Melissa Harris’ Self-Portrait is sardonic, namely in connection with Untitled II, a paradoxically beautiful watercolor rendering of a dirty water drainage pipe, which hangs next to the self portrait. In Untitled II the subject is scatological, with a twist, as Harris turns a waste-water drain into beauty with brushstrokes that are so seductively hewn that the burnt sienna paint and white paper still appear as wet. Self-Portrait depicts the artist seated on top of a piece of driftwood, which awkwardly floats above the same drain depicted in Untitled II. At first glance, Harris appears to smile, but her expression, the physicality of her face, reveal more than “content” or “pleased.” Harris captures truth in her own eyes, which are sad but determined, her mouth pursed, determined; in paint she challenges us to ask her what she knows, what she has seen. Harris is wise, nuanced subject. Like Takács, she rejects masculine art historical tropes, goading the past as she calmly watches its contemporary remnants crumble. Ultimately, as self-painted subjects, both Takács and Harris drift above it.
The complexity of woman and girlhood are well-represented in other portraits in “Woman XII…” Jaymi Zents’ Florid Profusion, rendered exquisitely on birch in pencil, depicts a young, white, wild-haired blonde woman, amid pink and gray flowers and floral patterns. The subject’s expression is both dazed and defiant, a look that many women contemporarily don to push through the daily onslaught of misogyny, which culminated in the fall of 2018 with Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford’s testimony during the Kavanaugh Hearings. Zents’ woman is nonetheless beautiful, her blouse floral and baroque, a stark contrast to the gloomy grey shapes surrounding her and the distance look on her face. Sarah Curry’s portraits of girls getting dressed paint a realistic view of girls getting dressed at the bedroom mirror. Pulling It Together depicts three African-American girls crowded together at the “mirror,” which is actually the realm of the viewer. Curry plainly recreates the girls’ daily hair management rituals of pinning, finger curling, braiding, and straightening. The artist is careful to include a larger, disconnected hand or two in the composition, perhaps reminding us that the morning hair ritual often depends on the time-consuming and costly weekend processes that these young women also endured to meet an ever-evolving and demanding beauty standard.
The strength and power of woman and girlhood is underscored by works centered on the misogynist, violent spirit of American history and politics. Lisa Ruschman’s I Have The Best Words, Believe Me, is glass mosaic applied to a women’s dress form. The spinning sculpture bears quotes from the person currently holding the office of United States President, including, “Doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass,” “I did try and f*** her. She was married,” “You’d f*** her, wouldn’t you? I’d f*** her, c’mon, wouldn’t you?,” as well as the now appropriated feminist phrase, “Nasty woman.” The shiny, reflective glass, undermined by the plethora of foul quotes illustrates the timeless adage, “All that glitters is not gold.” Nonetheless, curator Mary Urbas noted that a recent visitor was offended by the sculpture, finding the Trump quotes to be “unbelievable” and offensive. Urbas reflects on that response, then looking around at the art she assembled from across the U.S. on the new bright walls, amid the bright lights of the newly designed Gallery at Lakeland College, shrugs and says, “Truth hurts.” Indeed, and “Woman XII…” is evidence of the truth-making creativity at the core of grrrl- woman-power, 2019.
In its 12th iteration, “From Woman XII…” is on view through March 29, with an artist reception on Sunday March 24 from 3:30-5:00 p.m. Regular gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The Gallery at Lakeland is located in the D-Building on the first floor. All gallery exhibitions are free and open to the public; group tours are also available by appointment.