Reviewing Women’s Art in a Year When Women Made News
Following this past weekend’s Women’s March Anniversary and the launching of #PowerToThePolls in Las Vegas, I wanted to go over some of the local doings where women’s art has taken prominence . The place to begin is at an exhibition that has already taken place—from November 29th – December 24th-- at Cerulean Arts on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. And if you missed the exhibition, you can still catch the works online at https://ceruleanarts.com/pages/a-starling-in-shadow-1 and see a video of the curator, Bill Scott, as he explains its rationale at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbOsQtgG5w8 ). Titled “A Starling In Shadow”, a poetic title after a poetic piece by Julie Zahn, one of the included artists. Most of the pieces are domestic in size, jewel-like in color and light, and often experimental in media and/or technique. Of course, my standouts
might not be your choices, but take a look starting with two watercolors by Nell Blaine. I
know Nell Blaine's work mostly as exuberant paintings of gardens and flowers in bloom—a favorite motif from her childhood. She studied with Hans Hofmann—which explains much about her color balance—and was an associate to artists Jane Freilicher, Larry Rivers, and other
Jane Street Gallery members. What I love about these are the freshness and confidence in the brushstrokes. In the “Cove with White Schooner”, the paper becomes the light and air and sun on this seascape while brushwork squiggles broad and narrow fill in to show the
movement of water, reflections and structures, and sky. The heavier and broader the stroke, the more the scene moves away from the viewer. In “Three Palms on a Hillside” strokes of paint in differing sizes and directions build up surface pattern. I know the place is dense because the marks are dense, but it is also light-filled because of the bits of white paper pouring through.
Not far from the centrally located Blaines is the mixed media piece by Andrea Packard called “Studio Dreams II”. A landscape, it too fits between representational imagery and abstraction.
Here I am delivered piles of information made from carving, cut fibers, papers, and other found materials. I want to roam through this piece, I want to touch it and peel parts away and then put them back. I want to make this!
There are very few portraits exhibited in this exhibition but two deserve special mention. One is “Gaze Direct (Aspasia)” by Julie Saecker Schneider. On the one-hand, the title both describes the action and interjects a metaphor. Asphasia was an unusual woman in ancient
Greece. An immigrant and a woman, both making her a second-class citizen, and a teacher and philosopher held in high regard for her wisdom. This artist is telling me something about this sitter who appears to be amused/bemused, staring back at me. I feel a little cowed. Moreover, this is made using carbon dust, a technique used for medical illustration. The building up, blending, erasing, and final contouring with pencil to make detail create a piece that is meticulous and ethereal. Mickayel Thurin’s “Morning Ritual” is meticulous in its own way—and that way is in the detail of events and the feeling this brings forth. Bright and colorful, I am reminded of one of Bonnard’s bathroom
paintings of his wife. This is an intimate scene with the two participants crowded into a shared space, while I, the viewer, am on the other side of the glass watching as they interact and don’t interact with each other. Zoe Zarod has placed a figure in her “Harmony (After Matisse)”. This dark work of chalk on paper recalls Matisse’s night time studio painting “Studio, Quai Saint Michel” with its sleeping figure pushed back and blocked by geometricall shaped objects. But this is not a copy, not only because Zarod inverts her figure but she also adds motifs favored by Matisse—drapery, flowers, checked board, a flower-shape from his collages. This may be a tribute piece (which I gather from the title) but it is a work of quietude and mystery all its own.
Although Bill Scott explained in his statement and taped talk that the exhibition at Cerulean that he organized was inspired by concurrent exhibitions on art work by women at both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Bryn Mawr College, these exhibitions also connect to a large-scale exhibition of the work of Violet Oakley at the Woodmere Museum. (Scott is perfectly positioned to implement this as the collector and donator of the works at Bryn Mawr and as a distinguished teacher at the Academy.) What is so wonderful about all this is that there is now a spiderweb of exhibitions focusing on women artists of the 19th to the 21st century. And I am grateful to these institutions, to the graduate students in the History of Art, Mechella Yezernitskaya and
Laurel Mc Laughlin, who conceived of the exhibition; to the curators who assisted with
the production; to the collections of women’s art—The Lee Alter Collection at PAFA and the William and Uytendale Scott Memorial Collection at Bryn Mawr for making this possible.
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts actually has two shows going on about women’s art. One, “Graphic Women” has the art work (mostly drawings and prints) by 19th century artists such as Cecelia Beaux, Violet Oakley, Mary Cassatt, Susan MacDowell Eakins, Mary Nimmo Moran, Alice Barber Stephens, and Lilian Westcott Hale. This is the exhibition tied to the Woodmere Museum’s large-scale presentation, “A Grand Vision: Violet Oakley and the American Renaissance” and runs through January 21st at the Woodmere Museum and “Graphic Women” runs until February 18th at PAFA . There is a catalog written by Dr. Patricia Likos Ricci, an associate professor of the history of art and the director of the Fine Arts Division at Elizabethtown College, who guest curated the exhibition. Other than connecting with the Woodmere Museum, I do not know how to get it. There are the first 8 pages available through ISSUU and the web site for the exhibition carries this and two very informative videos about the exhibition—one being with Dr. Licci herself. So, it is like having a private tour with the most informed docents in the world. See these at:
There is also a wonderful article on the exhibitor on one of my favorite art sites, Hyperallergic. It ends with the question I always ask about Oakley and her work—why is she not better known? Read it at:
The other exhibition of women’s art at PAFA is “Beyond Boundaries: Feminine Forms” which runs until March 18th, 2018 at PAFA and Bryn Mawr College. There is an exhibition catalog available at Bryn Mawr College for “Beyond Boundaries”. It is also available as a download at
The catalog is wonderful reading and includes essays by Mechella Yezernitskaya and Laurel Mc Laughlin, question and answer sections with Bill Scott (who donated his collection, begun as a photo collection—a lovely outreach story-- by his parents to Bryn Mawr College. Again, definitely read the essays!) and Linda Lee Alter (who donated her collection of women’s art to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). These interviews not only give insight into the drives and artful activity of collecting, but the passion each artist (both are practicing artists) feels for “filling in” this undervalued and under valuated area of the History (Herstory) of Art.
Which brings me to some sad news … and some more happy reading. This past October 29th, Linda Nochlin passed away. Most feminists (especially feminist artists) know her for “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists” a ground-breaking work that was published in the January 1971 edition of Art News in an issue dedicated to “Women’s liberation. Women artists, and art history.” In this essay she was responding to exactly that
question brought to her by Richard Feigen, a friend and art dealer. In this writing she laid out the systemic problems facing women artists. My favorite lines, and ones that hold as true today as ever before, “Those who have privileges invariably hold on to them… The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education.” But read (or reread) it yourself. And then look at the crisis in this country, or look to your children. Look at our systems, our experiences and education (education starts and ends with our life experiences), what choices we make and what choices we give. And then think about whether or not America is great and how we (notice this is community action) can make it great.
And after you have read this essay, here is a very enjoyable book my daughter gave me. “Broad Strokes: 15 Women Who Made Art and Made History (In That Order)” by Bridget Quinn and illustrated by Lisa Congdon is a delight to read. Conversational in tone, it is often as much about her passions as an art historian as short biographies on her subjects. Of course Artemisia Gentileschi and Rosa Bonheur are in there. But she skips over Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun in favor of Adelaide Labille-Guiard—I don’t know why she couldn’t have done both as they were not only contemporaries but were painting in the same court AND each teaching young women artists. Alice Neel and Lee Krasner, Kara Walker and Louise Bourgeois were pleasant and expected inclusions. But I did not know Susan O’Malley, a heart-breaking story of an artist gone too soon. And I was pleased to find out more about Edmonia Lewis and Ruth Asawa. It was also amusing to find out that one of the ways for a woman to become known as a great artist is to have a major museum (like the Louvre in Judith Leyster’s case and the Met in Marie Denise Villers case) mistake their work for a great male artist’s work (David in the case of Villers and Hals in the case of Leyster). Their stories make you want to read Linda Nochlin again!
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