I confess. I’m prejudiced against exhibitions of artists lumped together because of traits they can’t change (or only change with much effort), not aesthetics. That puts the focus on the maker not the art.
You know what I’m talking about. We’ve just had back-to-back months of such presentations: Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. The justification always is these artists have been and/or are underrepresented in the art history canon. Reparations is a word that has been thrown around a lot lately. Are these shows reparations?
So I approached “/just to be alive/an exhibition of the contemporary female artist” at 1628 Ltd. reluctantly.
First, let me say something about the venue. 1628 Ltd. is a “coworking space,” founded by Tamara Schwarting in July 2016. Located in downtown Cincinnati, it offers a variety of options for people needing temporary office space: drop-in coworking, dedicated desks, and private offices.
Schwarting believes that people do their best work in a creative environment, and 1628 has a permanent collection of contemporary art and mounts temporary exhibitions meant to encourage a dialogue between the community and artists.
For the second year, 1628 is presenting a show of work by women in celebration of Women’s History Month because, as Schwarting explains, “ . . . . female artists are still critically under-represented in today’s galleries, collections, and arts institutions. (I refer you back to the second paragraph.) Each spring we dedicate our space to celebrating women artists.”
“‘/just to be alive/’ features works by 20 local female-identifying artists,” says curator Meggie Bailey who ably organized this exhibition. “Each artwork speaks individually, forming a collective narrative celebration of the resilience of the female spirit.”
The title of the exhibition–“/just to be alive/ An Exhibition of the Contemporary Female Artist”–is a little opaque. “/just to be alive/” comes from a poem by Mary Oliver. To me those four words speak of desperation; all that can be hoped for is survival. The entire quote is more hopeful: “It is a serious thing//just to be alive/on this fresh morning/in this broken world.” The phrase–“An Exhibition of the Contemporary Female Artist”–is just plain awkward. The contemporary female artist–really?
A quick run-through of the 32 works by 20 artists, dispersed on two floors, assuaged my fear that the exhibition would be a polemic about feminism. But there was nothing about the art that declared it “woman made.” Still, I was surprised when I sat down to write to find that virtually every work that I had been drawn to could be seen through a feminist lens. (In this review, I mostly use feminist as a neutral adjective, not in a political sense.)
The natural place to start is with Kristine Donnelly’s Head Over Heels, a site-specific wall piece installed in 1628’s waiting area. Despite its delicacy, it commands the space. The scale of the work may push aside the references to women’s work, but there is no question that they exist once you take time to look, and that is how I suggest you view the exhibition.
Donnelly hand-cuts each shape with a simple blade, a laborious process that she describes as “obsessive, repetitive, and meditative” like traditional feminine needlework, such as lacemaking, tatting, crocheting, knitting, and quilting.
Interested in historical ornamentation and with a kinship with the Pattern and Decoration movement of the mid-1970s to early 1980s, Donnelly has sliced lace-like patterns in large sheets of mostly pastel-colored (aqua, taupe, greige, charcoal, and terra cotta) Tyvek. She’s then pinned the sheets to the wall so they droop like a Sam Gilliam painting or an Anne Healy fiberwork, or, by a stretch of imagination, a couturier draping a model.
Anissa Lewis’s photo-based print invites you into Covington’s Pleasant Street neighborhood and introduces you to a shyly smiling young woman who might be called Ayesha or Destini or Ella Mae after her great-grandmother. Lewis has “projected” a faded photograph of her, billboard-style on the side of a brick house. With her hair in an up-do and wearing a fancy dress, she seems dolled up for her school photo. With an aura of confidence, she appears ready to move ahead with her life, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the teenage Tish in the film If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a 1974 James Baldwin novel. (Indulge me here.) Tish was also confident and hopeful about her future, but, in the end, could not escape a society where Fonny, the father of her baby and fiancé, falsely accused of rape, takes a plea to shorten his unjust incarceration. Somehow she retains her faith that Fonny will survive prison, and they will be able to make some approximation of the life he and Tish once dreamed of.
From across the open space on the second-floor, I could clearly see Claire Talbot’s piece so didn’t think it was necessary to go closer. It was a representation of a pegboard with stylized tools–a saw, hammer, staple gun, drill, and a roll of tape–hanging from it, a tableau that might have been found in any well-organized do-it-yourselfer’s garage. What else was there to it?
But I did cross the room and saw that the medium was hand-felted wool, women’s work butting up against manly man tools. Talbot has given it a wryly funny title: Is she certified for that?
It’s ironic that what I would describe as the most overtly feminist works in the exhibition were done by Krista Sheneman. In Female Form #1 and #2, the artist cut out parts of female anatomy–legs, arms, torsos, breasts–from black-and-white photos of several nude women and stitched them together with black embroidery floss into a single figure. The effect is Dada-esque. With their bulging bellies and sagging breasts, they evoke the Venus of Willendorf sans head, which emphasizes their anonymity.
Sheneman’s mutilated women could symbolize the Violence Against Women Act, which has only been temporarily funded since it expired in September of last year. If a man had done these figures, he would immediately be branded a misogynist, so gender does matter.
Heather Jones’ bold black-and-white neo-geo composition packs a punch, like Muhammad Ali’s daughter Laila. The broad stripes and blocks in the wittily titled Step Out of Line are not painted but are cotton pieced together with fine machine-stitching, like in a quilt. What a difference technique makes.
Sculpture doesn’t fare well here. By my count, there are only four: two beaded skulls by Maria D’Souza, the ceramic Mohawk Mantra by Tracy Featherstone, and Loraine Wible’s The Gooey Column, a video projection on a Greek column. Another three works could be described as “dimensional”: Claire Talbot’s 2.5” deep Is she certified for that? is a wall relief; the same artist’s Monoculture features lenticular prints on a real clock; and Donnelly’s Head Over Heels wall installation.
Maria D’Souza uses colored beads to make abstract patterns on real animal skulls. They could be ritual or sacred objects from unnamed cultures, but they come across as decorative objects suitable to grace an office or home. Her website backs that up by noting, “She is a favorite of art consultants and interior designers by being able to consistently create custom pieces based on the requests of style, breed (she can use skulls provided by the client), color, size, materials, and even corporate and brand identity, for the clients they represent.”
By taking time to look at the artworks in“/just to be alive/,” I found ways to interpret the pieces through a feminist lens. But just casually walking through the show, not knowing its title, it was just a collection of unrelated works. Predicating an exhibition along gender or racial lines does a disservice to the artists and their work.
–Karen S. Chambers
“/just to be alive/ an exhibition of the contemporary female artist,” through May 31, 2019. 1628 Ltd., 11 Garfield Pl., Cincinnati, OH 45202, phone: Meggie Bailey, 513-320-2596,www.1628Ltd.com Mon.-Fri., 8:30 am-5:30 pm. While appointments to view the exhibition are not needed, would-be visitors are advised to call or email: curator Meggie Bailey, 513-320-2596, [email protected].