Female Gaze – After the Fall
4035 Hamilton Avenue Cincinnati, Ohio 45223
From February 9 through April 6
Review by Kenn Day
Perhaps much of the chaotic nature of this exhibition is due to its subject matter. As the press release states: “After the Fall presents a snapshot in time and place of how women view themselves in contemporary society.” Since there is little cohesion to how women view themselves today, such cohesion is understandably lacking from the exhibition as well.
This clear statement of purpose is belied by the title Female Gaze, which references the feminist theory of the Male Gaze. This theory concluded that the presence of women in art was distorted by the predominance of heterosexual men as the artists, behind the camera or in other places of power. Considering this theory, are we to expect this exhibit to be about how women are distorted by their own perspectives?
The statement continues with a laborious attempt to use the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden as a “context for many theories of how men and women are perceived in the contemporary world.” The focus seems to have broadened into a full spectrum of gender issues. Rather than focusing on how women view themselves, I find the whole use of the Eden myth to be unnecessary and confusing.
The first images that catch my eye upon entering the exhibit are the smeared sepia photographs by Abbie Friend. While it is not too difficult to parse what Friend is going for, especially after reading the press release in which we are told that the photographer “examines the effects of motherhood on a young female figure through intricately detailed photographs. The severely lit monochromatic images present a dour tension between the potency of early sexuality and the vicissitudes of childbirth.” The anonymity of the model is further heightened by the lack of clarity or focus in any of the images. If there is intricate detail in this work, I cannot find it. Rather I am left with the sensation that someone is strenuously avoiding being photographed, or perhaps looking at themselves in the mirror. While this belated realization adds a sheen of ironic humor, it doesn’t make the images work in their stated intention – or as effective works of art.
The second set pulls my eyes away from the first and is immediately engaging, even dominating, in its presence. Olivia Hinds has utilized the female form as something more than symbol and less than person. Her canvasses express an approach to that acknowledges the intellectual necessity of self definition, while reaching a good way into the Mysteries of the human experience as well. While her bodies are faceless, allowing us a glimpse of the All Woman rather than an individual model, they retain much of the visual intensity that comes with portraiture. Here is a woman, who is both a human and a divine being. The bodies are fleshy and yet somewhat flat. They seem to penetrate the awareness of the viewer, in order to touch some deeper understanding. They take up space an almost aggressive manner, insistent on being seen.
In one of her nudes, the figure assertively fills the frame of the canvas, both her limbs supporting the square and cutting across it. Her pose is geometry made flesh, with the reddened lips of her vulva peeking out from her thighs like the lid of a not-quite-buried treasure. These images offer the view of women pragmatically; with the strength and force that some might have considered more masculine. And they do it well.
The transition from these large oil paintings to the conceptual piece by Violet Brady necessitates a considerable head shift. She has pinned a collection of her friend’s FaceBook profile pictures in a grid across the wall. These work well with the theme of the exhibit. Here we have a whole group of women who are expressing how they want themselves to be viewed, at least on their FaceBook pages. You can go on for as long as you like, making up stories in your head about each of the self-portraits. I’m left thinking : After all, isn’t it about time that women get to define who they are and how they are seen, as individuals as well as a gender? …which I assume is the intention.
Robin McKerrell’s grid of studio model shots in the next room is an interesting contrast to Brady’s informal images, which is somewhat lessened by having them in separate rooms. Taking the images as art, in and of themselves, is rather difficult. They are professional and slick, but not what I would generally consider art photography. Like Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, this is a conceptual piece that relies on its placement in the context of the exhibit. It does make you think. Just as Brady’s images reflect the ways that individual women choose to express and display themselves, McKerrell’s remind us of how society wants to have women expressed and displayed. Here the women are showing, not themselves, but shards of feminine social iconography. It is through images like these that women have learned what was expected of them; how they were once supposed to be seen. This is no longer so true – except in the realm of fashion.
Iza McIlvain’s large acrylics are delightful to look at, while their answer to the question of “how do we see ourselves?” strikes me as using the literal ironically. Each canvas is a view of the woman from the woman’s point of view. They implicate the viewer in the image, as if we are each looking down at our own body. I like the simplicity and directness of two of the paintings, each a snapshot of the model in ordinary settings, eating and writing in a journal. The Nest is considerably less effective, because it moves beyond this simple strategy into a complex haze of symbolism. There are nesting dolls, being held beneath the model’s breasts in a pose that seems to reflect male masturbation. A wedding ring floats ambiguously above a profusion of not quite formed body parts. Ambiguity rarely makes for good art, even when it expresses an apparent truth.
Some of the most effective and interesting images in the exhibit are those of Ava Robert’s. She creates her “reassembled” portraits “by cutting apart photos of female models and then pasting the small pieces back together again into alternative versions.” The finished work shows attention to both the conceptual as well as the formal, with some success on both fronts. The fact that the very media from which these portraits are constructed are images of the models adds a fascinating tinge to the viewing experience. And the images are arresting in their own right. Faces with many eyes and skin faceted and smooth at once, the women appear as a whimsical mixture of the ordinary and the divine: women viewed through the lens of dreams – or art.
I’m not sure what Sylvie Hayes Wallace was really trying to convey with her multilayered pieces, but it seems that the process is not complete. She uses a combination of photography and drawing in a way that lessens the impact of both. Her most successful image transforms the model into the body of a camera, by placing the hand of the photographer behind her head. Clever.
Much like the rest of society, these artists have a multiplicity of diverse perspectives, on how they view themselves and on how they are viewed. Not too deep. Not challenging. I believe the artists would have been better served with a clearer thesis to pursue, but perhaps that is at the root of this question. There are so many simultaneous and mutually contradicting answers that any clarity becomes submerged in the cacophony of media, opinion, image and meme.