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Maruani Mercier, Brussels, Belgium 2017
by Wendy White


Introduction


When Maruani Mercier Gallery first asked me curate a show comprising only women painters, I hesitated. Exhibitions that posit gender as a curatorial premise are problematic for so many reasons—gender in itself is not a theme, shows of all women can be ghettoizing, and the whole endeavor may perpetuate clichés about women being on a different playing field than men.


In 2017 this shouldn’t be an issue, but as we watched the prospect of a female president go down the drain we realized that we’re no more post-gender than we are post-race. For that reason, it’s fair to hold galleries and museums that mount all-women shows accountable for what happens during the rest of their exhibition calendar. Are race- and gender-specific shows just a clever way to neatly bundle all non-white-male artists into one month, so that they can then return to their regularly scheduled programming? When it became clear that this particular show was not borne of a quota or a trend, but rather came about because the artists that Maruani Mercier Gallery were recently drawn to happened to be women, I accepted the challenge.


It wasn’t hard to think of artists, but I had the task of getting past my own hang-ups about all-woman shows. I’ve seen many and taken part in at least one that completely avoided mentioning gender in the exhibition materials. Either acknowledge it or ignore it, whichever you find less offensive, it seemed to say. That’s a sleight of hand strategy that, in my opinion, is deceptive on the surface and disingenuous at its core. Coy attempts to disguise curatorial impulses only underscore real problems like gender bias. Rarely if ever has the status quo been disrupted without a mandate or critical mass, and we’re well aware that auction records break glass ceilings a hell of a lot faster than any essay or well-organized exhibition ever could. My personal feeling is that these shows need to happen more and with less hesitation and caveats—especially now.


Understandably, there are artists who decline to participate in all-woman shows on principle, and I respect that. I’ve said no to a few myself, and I’ve struggled to define their long-term advantages. Ultimately, my gut feeling is that when the work is good—conceptually rigorous, investigative, thought provoking, exciting, perhaps even threatening to social and intellectual norms—that it supersedes curatorial premise and all of the other issues fall away. Quality of the work is always what matters in the end, and if underrepresentation is dealt with at the same time, it’s a win-win.


So, with that in mind, what does a relatively small cross section of artworks made by American women spanning four generations look like, at a moment when the entire world feels fractured, divided, and teetering on instability?


Man Alive


The phrase “man alive” most likely originated in the late 1800s in England, however its definition is disputed. It may have been one of Queen Victoria’s acceptable alternatives for an expletive, or perhaps it indicated that men at sea had found a shipwreck survivor. Either way, when hollered out of shock or surprise it offered a spirited verbal response to something unexpected.


Warning! These artists are not here to adorn your banquet halls and corner of offices with their polite handcrafts and delicate musings...


Judith Bernstein’s paintings of dicks, inspired by the grafitti in men’s bathrooms when she was a student at Yale in the late 1960s, align patriarchy, machismo, and militarism with male genitalia. When she started showing them in the 70s, most art historians were too busy writing essays on Donald Judd to take notice. Stop the Madness, Stop the Machine! Bernstein begged us. But we didn’t stop, and today her commentary is as on-point as ever. Cockman, a recurring motif, is a giant warhead of a limp penis—an ever-prescient symbol of America’s Military-Industrial Complex. Displayed under black light, the grit of Bernstein’s work is ramped up even more. Their graphic insistence is literally illuminated, as if you flipped on the light in an East Village bar bathroom at 3AM. It’s protest, portrait and history wrapped into one.


With protest images heavy on our minds, it’s refreshing to see tough-to-distill subjects like police brutality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and gun violence coalesce as abstract/figurative hybrids in the works of Nina Chanel Abney. Her surfaces, highly controlled but not fussy, allow for the tiniest aberration to expose a giant well of content. Spray-painted edges abut hard, flat geometric fields, perhaps speaking to the way events are described simultaneously through print and electronic media. With a nod to Stuart Davis’ proto-pop formalism, Abney uses quasi-familiar art historical language to shape fresh content. She has something to say and it’s not always polite. Listen up.


In tumultuous times like these we look to artists, poets and musicians to make sense of things. We expect an immediate reaction, as if they have a direct line to emotions or a prediction for the future. Sue Williams is one of those artists. Never one to shy away from political commentary, she has taken on topics of domestic abuse, war, rape, and 9/11. In her work, what looks entirely saccharine at first glance gives way to a landscape of loaded vignettes up close. Is that a disembodied leg or a broken penis? A baby’s birth, or a rocket launching from an upside-down asshole with feet? Williams’ is a specific brand of high-key perversion, fearlessly distilling the decorative and the hardcore. “If I have visibility, I have the responsibility to try and change things,” she has said.


Williams also reminds us that violence against women is not just a topic brought careening to the surface via current American politics, but rather an issue entrenched in our society and exacerbated by advertising, print media, and our addiction to reality television.


From the beginning, Marilyn Minter took on the fashion industry’s overt sexualizing and commoditization of the female body. Her surfaces, made by thumb prints rather than brushes, are at once concise and blurry, perfect and flawed, as if she’s wiped away a steamy mirror to reveal the most deliciously lurid, partially obscured reflection. Some might say her works align with a Pamela Anderson-style feminism, where one’s assets—in Minter’s case, her exceptional technical skills—are on loud display in every freckle, blemish, and perfectly rendered pubic hair. Others see a more blatant co-opting of stereotypical femme motifs, made more potent through Minter’s early and radical use of photography and embrace of pornography. Essentially, to see Minter’s work one has to look beyond “pretty” and contend with the messy human urge to be seen, valued, and relevant. There, behind the crystal candelabra and the Cosmopolitan cover, authenticity is both obscured and made more visible by makeup, plastic surgery and layers of baubles and glitz.


Critics of so-called feminist art, to which some women hold a strong allegiance and others recoil in horror, have seen most of the artists assembled here through that lens at some point. It’s a wholly subjective critique. Just as it’s wrong to assume that women painters must take an automatic stance on gender, it’s also a mistake to look at any artist’s work as less than the sum total of their experiences, which are shaped in part by how we are perceived by others. How much power a work of art has is relative to how willing the artist is to be vulnerable in the face of viewers and critics. The good ones choose to wade into the mud with their work.


To that end, tweaking the system is typically more provocative than fully bucking it. Rosson Crow’s swashbuckling paintings riff on History Painting, a genre famously devoid of artistic style, but with an injection of Crow’s home-state-of-Texas heat. She is not here to gussy up your parlor, rather her paintings of interiors are the dystopian aftermath of the very rooms where American cultural tragedies played out. Decades of nostalgic events are retold in demonstrative fashion and luxurious detail. Glowing layers of oil, acrylic, photo transfer, and spray paint seem to explode once-recognizable scenes into smithereens. There are nods to fashion and politics and no absence of nostalgia. In Crow’s world, one doesn’t hold back from showing the perversion of the American Imperialist dream, one enhances it, leaving the image dripping in front of the viewer like a Technicolor crime scene.


That reminds me—the United States of America has a brand new President and First Lady! Excuse us while we all take a moment to collectively vomit on the white wall-to-wall carpeting...


Photo collage and assemblage are inherently political media, just by way of process and accumulation. Brenna Youngblood tackles identity by way of the everyday object, pushing tactile surfaces against familiar collaged images such as light bulbs, televisions, and soda cans. Against the grittiness of her worked canvases, these carefully chosen objects take on a talisman-like charge. Liz Markus paints sulking fashion models slinking back in midcentury chairs, debutantes, New York socialites and Hollywood royalty. She seems to say that perhaps the lily isn’t all that gilded, that all the fur and diamonds in the world can’t mask the tragic aspect of a life committed to chasing glamour. In riotous combinations of brightly colored washes, Markus paints around collaged elements with radiating rainbow bands, as if tracing their auras. Against the graininess of raw canvas, these cutouts are part serial killer, part shrine to print media. Attitude is everything. Don’t stand up straight and definitely don’t comb your greasy hair. This isn’t a beauty pageant.


In the crisp, cinematic, photo-based works of Julia Wachtel, appropriation is near weaponized. Juxtaposition would inaptly describe her in-your-face mash-ups, which are at once witty and sad, inviting and confrontational. “Images have an explicit and sometimes even hidden agenda,” she has said, and in that spirit she doesn’t shy away from how cannily those bits are combined. Her conflations are wry and cheeky, but after prolonged viewing also reveal a dark side, with cartoons adding the occasional dose of levity or satire. As a result, they own most any room they’re in. Rochelle Feinstein’s one-word text bubble paintings are collaged onto nature photographs from the 70s, shifting the viewer’s cognitive response from taking in the image to dealing with the text’s directive. It’s the kind of work that has immediate graphic appeal (in some the text is huge and backward with cartoon-like black, angular outlines), however lurking below their minimal presentation is an aggressive stance on images themselves—perhaps even a distrust of what we, as viewers in art and life, think we see.


This might be a good time to rethink what looks good in your apartment. It might also be time for a content awakening, because at this very moment they’re putting a gold-plated drop ceiling over the 18 million cracks made by Hillary Clinton...


For nearly five decades, Pat Steir has been an innovator in abstract painting. Her early experimentation with pouring and throwing paint and letting gravity take over led to her most iconic works, the Waterfall paintings. She has always been highly prolific and, unlike many of her male peers, Steir’s works have branched out in fearless formal and conceptual directions. Up close, her paintings have a spidery craquelure surface, evoking rain trails in mud or the cracked glaze of an ancient ceramic vase. From a distance, they vibrate and meditate, the result of an incredibly delicate balance of negative and positive space.


Joanne Greenbaum thrives by not setting limits—not of scale, medium, nor subject matter. It’s open season in her studio. She nods to cubism while simultaneously upending its rules. She fearlessly collapses drawing, painting, marker scribbles, canonized gestures, drips, splats, ballpoint pen, and washy pools in a way that shouldn’t work but does. It’s as if she intuitively draws out the physical properties of her materials as a way of dispelling preconceived notions of what is acceptable in the first place. The conversely subtle paintings of Nathlie Provosty show us that not every important moment comes at high volume. Carefully masking tiny bits of the canvases’ edges, she draws out an almost accordion-like effect, like delicate sheets of paper folding into one. Just when you think you’ve grasped the composition, a view from the side yields a subtle shift from matte to gloss, revealing a U shape. Her works communicate in a whisper and sometimes that’s loud enough.


The abstract painters in Man Alive aren’t looking to embellish the foyer or match the sofa. After the last several years of deathly boring, process-based abstraction, we can finally (hopefully) celebrate the death of decoration. Keltie Ferris maximizes the juxtaposition of geometric abstraction and the atomized gesture. In her giant canvases, diffused marks made with an airbrush (a tool with the gorgeous ability to freeze a gesture as if still suspended in space) create giant blurry spots amid fields of pixel-like shapes. Viewing them up close is like passing a Mondrian upside-down at high speed. In her Bodyprints series, in which she coats her partially-clothed body with pigment and then presses onto paper, Ferris nods to Yves Klein’s practice of using naked women as paintbrushes. But Ferris doesn’t conduct others to make her moves—she’s put herself on the line, upping the stakes and injecting the work in the most personal, vulnerable way. The results are moving, tenuous and alive.


Let’s pause for a moment while that 45th Presidential portrait is hung in its not-so-rightful place...


In the midst of a triumphant return of the figure in recent painting, women artists are leading the charge by disrupting the norms of subject matter. Jordan Casteel’s recent portraits take inspiration from the streets of Harlem. Casually approaching and then getting to know her subjects well is a way of building community for Casteel, who takes multiple photographs before constructing her final composition through a process of combining pieces from different shots. In tandem with her fractional paint application, this patchwork process draws out keen emotional states in the men she paints—her black male is a strong, caring, optimistic mirror for all of humanity. This is the America we know.


For Mickalene Thomas, it is the female form that is the symbol of sexual confidence, femininity and power. Each painting begins with an elaborate setup in a corner of her studio, from which she photographs live subjects, the results of these sessions leading to collages and paintings. Her process builds on the history of classical portraiture yet, in her often rhinestone-encrusted works, black women take the place historically reserved for Western art history’s leading men. “When I take a photograph, that gaze is forcing the viewer to see my subjects—to recognize them,” she has said. We see them, and they see us back. In her room-sized installations, complete with wood paneling and 70s décor, Thomas shows us that it’s often materials themselves that are the message.


That is also true of Ruth Root’s giant, abstract wall works. Each comprises two parts, a digitally-printed pattern shape and a painted Plexiglas piece that, when shaped and combined, look as if she’s perhaps taken the air out of a piece of furniture, leaving behind a flattened pool of color and pattern. Her process makes each element look folded or woven into the next, like origami. There’s a distinct function/dysfunction paradox in her work as well as a disassembling of our preconceptions of the decorative. She doesn’t play by the rules of painting or sculpture and, as we know, that space in between is a gloriously difficult dance with the devil.


Similarly meditative, Kaari Upson uses molds cast from mattresses found on the streets of Los Angeles to make her eerie silicon works. Awash in painterly stains and punctuated by crumples and folds, Upson’s sculptures nod to the domestic as well as “the orifices, the navels and anuses,” as she describes them. One can’t help but think of beds as both the sites of sex and dreams and also nightmares and abuse. As women watch our reproductive rights come under fire around the globe, they also feel like a metaphor for safety and fertility, though for Upson, the connection is much more personal. She describes her relationship to the couches and beds she spent so much time on while recovering from chemotherapy as that of “a hostage.” Sometimes art needs to tell us about the artist first, and then the world.


Man Alive as a whole is just one glimpse of a weird new America that we have yet to see in full (we aren’t even sure if we want to). But what better way to get used to the water than to cannonball in? To that end, the artists assembled here are drawn together not only by the politics inherent in their work or activism in their personal life, but also by the amount of risk they endure and the stand-alone impact of what they choose to make. Though none of them yet bears the full impact of this new America, they refuse to settle, refuse to be quiet, refuse to make nice. Let someone else bake the fucking cookies.