The announcement of an art exhibition focused on feminism these days may lead to an array of gasps and conjure mental images of militant, man-hating women. But that is exactly why it is relevant, if not necessary—to change the perception of what feminism is today. I myself was skeptical, wondering if I would experience a show about feminism or one simply including all female artists. Nicole Royse, curator for Shade Projects in downtown Phoenix, had a spot open up in her exhibition schedule, last minute I am told, and she immediately went to work organizing the show focused on what feminism means in our current social landscape for March, women’s history month. Impressively Ms. Royse selected 13 local artists, all female, whose body of work was feminist in nature or who she knew would create powerful expressions for the show.
The artists featured—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—do not all necessarily identify as feminists, but as females they each step into that role every day and provide unique views on the women’s issues still prevalent in our society. As such, each has their own definition of feminism and how it relates to them personally, which produced a diverse, thought-provoking exhibition that brings to light issues that are still too often ignored.
One of the reasons feminism is ignored is because its meaning is diluted and misunderstood by the younger generations. This is evident in the Tumblr page “Women Against Feminism” that claims feminism casts women as victims and men as predators. Pop stars are not helping the cause, such as singer/songwriter Lana Del Ray who calls herself a feminist as an excuse for her questionable behavior. But almost daily there are news stories about salary inequality, access to birth control, and the pro-life/pro-choice debate that prove gender equality is still a relevant issue. These are the issues feminism is concerned with and defined by according to the Feminist Majority Foundation, an organization that stresses equality, empowerment, and civil rights for women, as well as the LGBT community, and all groups that experience discrimination.
Some of the artists in Feminism Today relate to the second wave of feminism, which was closely tied to the civil rights movement in the 60s, but most of them identify with the current third wave, which is more global and seeking balance in areas ranging from religion to the sex-traffic market; healthcare to women’s portrayal in the media. As a whole, the exhibition serves as a resounding, “Yes!” to the question, “Is feminism relevant today?” I typically would not discuss every artist in a group exhibition this large, but in the spirit of inclusiveness I feel it is important to mention each of them and recognize their contribution to the discourse.
Beth Ames Swartz is a committed feminist since 1963 and has periodically implemented feminist ideals into her work, which mainly focuses on wisdom systems, compassion, and the sacredness of all life. Her two works “Return of the Chalice #2” (1988) and “The Wounded Healer, Healing Our Sacred Wounds #3” (1992) speak to feminine (or non-masculine) energy as a protector, but also as a deterrent of violence. Cherie Buck-Hutchison’s digitally manipulated, layered photographs explore public and private traditions that lack equality in decision making roles within practices in a society proud of its forward thinking. Constance McBride’s ceramics portray her own personal experience with aging and its effects on the female body—not just the physical but the emotional effects brought on by societal obsession with youth, especially pertaining to women and the definition of beauty. Her bravery in exploring such a personal topic is testament to the strength of an active, engaging female artist.
Irma Sanchez is typically known for her political art and feminism plays just a fraction of the whole of her body of work, in which she often refers to her place as a Latina in Arizona. Well-versed in women’s issues she chose to contribute a work focused on the balance of the roles in the family, and how they are defined by gender. Monica Aissa Martinez also identifies that her work naturally reflects her gender and heritage as a Latina, and like Sanchez who focuses on the female role in the family, Martinez includes the masculine with the feminine, in order to create balance. For many years she has been developing her anatomical mapping system in her work, seen here in “Anatomy of Support Structures” (2015). The painting masterfully uses polarities to balance the work along with the interaction of the roles women and men play in our world. The balance between the male and female figures, a self-portrait with her spouse, displays support and mutual love in her own family while exposing the lack of such in our imbalanced society.
Lara Plecas identifies herself as a strong, independent feminist, that’s how she was raised. What that means to her is that she is equal and just as free as any man, including her husband. “Our Journey I & II” (2015) are photo-encaustics using images taken while she and her husband were horseback riding together on their honeymoon enjoying the view and exploring together. The images are a metaphor for the commitment they made to each other and represent the equality in their marriage, right down to the agreement that they each contribute 50/50 to all of their financial needs. Marilyn Szabo’s three photographs of opera singer Maria Callas also speak to financial issues in feminism, specifically the challenges of a woman trying to get ahead in the entertainment industry during a lifetime that included struggles with her body image and the decline of her voice as she aged.
Christine Cassano’s installation works speak to femininity and strength in the face of great physical pain as well as the use of her own body to create the elements of her artwork. “Manumission” (2015) is a 9 foot high hanging installation made up of 200+ pieces of porcelain and small mirrors. She formed the porcelain by shackling clay to her body very tightly with twine and releasing them. The title of the work is defined as a formal emancipation from slavery, calling attention to the literal release of the porcelain from its constriction to her body as well as that of women from the grasp of a male dominated society. Another of Cassano’s works, “Get Into Your Own Skin” (2015) is made of more porcelain pieces resembling abstract vertebrae or bone-like structures connected to a fishing net hung like a women’s fashion display. Cassano’s use of porcelain is interesting as she refers to its use in dolls but also its fragile appearance and incredible durability. Similarly, Mary Shindell’s intricate drawings of natural desert forms speak to the delicateness of the forms and the act of drawing, polarized by the strengths of nature’s ability to defy extremes. Nature inspired Melissa Martinez’ work for the show as well. Her drawing “The Snake, The Datura, and The Sphinx Moth” (2015) portrays the family unit as the masculine viper and feminine flower, both toxic in nature, feeding the child, a sphinx moth often associated with rebirth. The simplicity of the image gives to a complex idea of gender roles in families and the mixture of them having the potential for both harm or good.
Like Shindell and Martinez, Mimi Jardine is also very concerned with the natural world and calling attention to the environment in her work. Her latest project, The Office of Environmental Responsibility, proved an interesting collaboration for this exhibition about feminism as she claims she is “ a conceptual artist afflicted with a preoccupation with the existence of litter” and a card carrying member of the National Organization for Women. The work, titled “The Litter Genderization Project” (2015) relates to the rejection of feminism by today’s youth based on semantics, not the root of the movement—gender equality. Jardine’s work is interactive, it allows the visitor to select from a number of found objects (litter) lied on a table and asks them to assign it a gender by disposing of it in the assigned “male” or “female” waste basket. She also provides a survey asking why they assigned the gender to that particular object. Jardine’s hope is that the interaction will illuminate our need as individuals to categorize, and the flaws that come with that need.
Denise Yaghmourian is drawn to pattern and the connection between all things. Her work “Imperfectly Perfect” is evidence of her preference for repetition. It consists of hundreds of defective embroidered American flag patches attached to wood panels measuring in total 36 by 120 inches. She views the imperfections as representations of the unique differences in us all as individuals. The symbolism of the flag is a metaphor for the repeated ideals of American equality and freedom for all. Kristin Bauer’s “Full Circle” (2015) also uses repetition as a key initiator in a dialogue on feminism. It is a work of process art where the actual creation is as important as the final product. Sixty-eight pieces of rectangular paper push-pinned to the wall in a perfect mandala, with the words “ONWARD” and “UPWARD” repeating back and forth in an infinite circle. It represents the daily mantra, or affirmation, of women dedicated to growth and change, but still experiencing the effects of inequality.
A puzzling aspect of the show is that although not officially included, Christopher “Boats” O’Shana’s photograph “The Belt of Venus, Chapter 1” hung adjacently, near the east entrance of the space. The image depicts a male prostitute (played by local artist Daniel Funkhouser) leaving a dingy hotel towards a Cadillac driving pimp, with a disgruntled john chasing behind. Many of the artists included in Feminism Today agreed that there is definitely room for male voices in feminism, because it is about gender equality. Some of them were unaware of the proximity of the photograph, some ignored it, but a few were adamantly opposed to its presence in the space. It caused me to consider local male artists who could have been included; Daniel Funkhouser would have been a perfect fit based on his work challenging gender roles.
As I introduced earlier, I was concerned that the show was simply going to be female artists, which would not have been a bad thing, it could be considered feminist in that regard too, but thankfully all of the work did explore the roles of women and gender in our society. Even more telling was the fact that there are so many artists that could have been included in this show. I found myself wondering why certain others were not and I had a long list. Then I realized that is a testament to the great representation and strength of female artists in the Phoenix area, even though many still feel they are underrepresented overall in the art world. This exhibition is a big win for the city, my thanks to all the women involved.
Bonus – I recently came across a great opportunity for women artists. Moore College of Art and Design has launched a brand new website for women’s history month MooreWomenArtists.org, an online destination for all women visual artists. Those who provide content will receive a free contributor’s page where they can promote themselves and their work.
All photographs courtesy of Nicole Royse unless otherwise noted.