Women on women: New art exhibit reflects an introspective take on female identity
As chief curator at California’s Orange County Museum of Art, Elizabeth Armstrong was accustomed to looking for and discerning trends in contemporary art. A handful of years ago, she began to see a striking one in the way women approached the subject of their own identity.For several decades, female artists – photographer Cindy Sherman being the most notable example – viewed the subject of femininity, of feminism, of femaleness itself through a critical, conceptual lens. An overall directness was lacking; female artists tended to look at female identity mainly by dissecting how society saw women.
And then Armstrong sensed a change in perspective.”I was interested in a new generation of women who seemed beyond the critiquing,” she said. “It seemed women could look at women without the feminist baggage. There was a letting go of a lot of critical issues. It was a sea change in how women could make images of other women.”As she began compiling a list of artists who might exemplify this trend, Armstrong confronted a separate concern: Would an exhibit of work made only by women serve to ghettoize the female artists? Intuitively, she felt not. And she had recently curated a show, Ultra Baroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art, that had traveled all over the country without eliciting cries that the Latin American artists were put in a corner.”It proved to be just fine,” said Armstrong. “It can be very liberating to focus on one group of people – as long as it doesn’t denigrate them or put them in the margins.”Five years ago, it would never have occurred to me [to do an exhibit limited to female artists]. It would have felt marginal. Until five years ago, women artists weren’t shown very much. Our world was dominated by men. There are now so many more female artists, and that gave me permission to do this.
“This” is Girls’ Night Out. The show, which opened at the Orange County Museum of Art in September 2003, features the work of 10 female artists from Europe and North America: Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Salla Tykkä from Finland, the Netherlands’ Rineke Dijkstra, Londoner Sarah Jones, Daniela Rossell from Mexico City, Parisian Elina Brotherus, Switzerland’s Shirana Shahbazi and Americans Kelly Nipper, Katy Grannan and Dorit Cypis.Girls’ Night Out, which has traveled to Andover, Mass., and is headed for future stops in St. Louis and Houston, opened at the Aspen Art Museum on Thursday. The exhibit, which occupies both galleries of the museum, runs through July 24.In assembling the exhibit, Armstrong narrowed her focus to photography and video, two of the more recently developed media and, perhaps not coincidentally, fields in which women had made a relatively strong impact. She also glimpsed in the collective body of work a trend toward traditional notions of beauty and an embrace of older styles, especially portraiture, which interested her greatly.”When a group of young artists goes back to a traditional genre, how they transform it and what they add to it is very interesting to see,” she said.The most evident characteristic of Girls’ Night Out is the introspection the artists put in their work, mirroring a trait commonly associated with the feminine. Most obvious are the photographs by Brotherus, overtly self-critical self-portraits that have the artist, in some instances, side by side with a professional dancer. In all her works, Brotherus makes the cord that leads from her hand to her camera a prominent part of the composition, emphasizing the fact that these are self-portraits. Confirming Armstrong’s point, the photographs are as direct and personal as can be. They are also overwhelmingly intimate, which Armstrong says gives them their power.
“The willingness to expose oneself during self-examination, to show your deepest insecurities and doubts – you tend to see that more in women than men,” she said. “I’ve seen men do it with a sense of humor. But for Brotherus, it’s straightforward, intense and honest.”Rivaling Brotherus for directness is Dijkstra, who at 45 is among the older artists in the exhibit. (Girls’ Night Out breaks fairly neatly into two age groups: Four of the artists were born in the 1950s; six between ’69-’74.) Dijkstra – a “really central figure,” according to Armstrong – has both film and photos in the show. The 35mm double-projection film “The Buzzclub, Liverpool U.K./Mysteryworld, Zaandam, Netherlands, 1996-97,” features solitary figures, a young women followed by a young man, dancing against a plain backdrop. The photo series has the same young woman sitting in a chair, but each photo captures her at a different age.”To me, that epitomizes what the show’s about. It’s about self-consciousness – and it’s also about losing your self-consciousness,” said Armstrong. “It’s about that moment and how your self-consciousness and losing it co-exist, especially in the case of adolescence. It’s very psychological work, cased in a very formal presentation.”Working with portraiture in a more traditional way is Grannan. Her twist, however, is how she gets her subjects – through ads that provide minimal information.”So you get adolescents, for the most part, who are intrigued by the idea of being photographed,” said Armstrong. “And they pretty much wear what they want, set up how they want. So there’s a cultural anthropology aspect to it.”
With her “Rica y famosa” series, photos depicting Mexico’s rich and famous (and frivolous), Rossell is the one who comes closest to the critical analysis of the past. “I wanted to have one artist who dealt with that,” said Armstrong. “Most of these women are beyond that critique. I’m not sure she knew how critical these images would appear. The subjects – who were friends of hers, which is why they are so intimate – didn’t know they would be exhibited like this.”If there is a signature image in the show, it is Tykkä’s photograph of a young woman quizzically looking down at her T-shirt, which says “Girl.” The image, titled “The Sickest One,” is one of a three-part series. Another, “Sick,” has a woman in a café with blood running down her neck; “More Sick” features a woman lying on a hospital bed surrounded by discarded water bottles.”She had dealt with bulimia or anorexia” said Armstrong of Tykkä, who also has a David Lynch-style video, “Thriller,” in the exhibit. “If you take the three images together, they’re about keeping up appearances, the effort of being a woman. This is a disease that’s associated with the image of a woman. She’s just trying to exorcise it. She got beyond it. And she finds a really poetic, quiet, ambiguous way of dealing with it.”Girls’ Night Out will be at the Aspen Art Museum through July 24. Elizabeth Armstrong will give a public gallery talk on July 1. Rineke Dijkstra will speak on July 14. Both events will be at the museum.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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