By Ashley Shah and Rachelle L. Williams
Currently on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is Heavy Metal, the fifth installment of the Women to Watch exhibition series. This series is presented every two to three years and highlights emerging or underrepresented artists. Heavy Metal features twenty contemporary women artists from around the country and the world who are creatively “investigating the physical properties and expressive possibilities of a variety of metals.”
“The idea that metalworking is too physically demanding for women to do is pervasive in historical as well as contemporary discourse,” said NMWA director Susan Fisher Sterling. One of the goals of the exhibition, then, is to “disrupt the predominantly masculine narrative that surrounds metalworking despite women’s consistent presence in the field for centuries.” Heavy Metal, explains NMWA Associate Curator Virginia Treanor, also “demonstrates that contemporary women artists carry on a vibrant legacy in metalwork.”
Treanor’s approach to organizing this exhibition was to choose works that showcased metal in a variety of textures, scales, and colors. In so doing, several themes and subthemes emerged. Much of the work in this exhibit is very hand-intensive, focusing on the use of repetition in processes and in the use of materials. The act of making and unmaking, another theme evident in the show, has obvious transformative effects relevant to how materials are being manipulated. Viewers will note that in several of the works, the metal employed has changed in appearance and quality. Many of the represented artists created works making an attempt at visualizing nature and its elements, often inaccessible in our daily lives. As such, light becomes an important factor in viewing and experiencing the exhibition. Lastly, each artist used her work as a medium for addressing larger cultural, social, and political ideas that impact women internationally.
Having seen Heavy Metal together when it first opened to the public, East City Art writers Ashley Shah (AS) and Rachelle Williams (RW) here reflect on the exhibition and share their conversation about the title and the meaning of some of the metal works in the exhibition.
AS: Rachelle, you have talked a lot about the title of this exhibit.
RW: Yes, I have. (laughs) You know, for me, the first thing that came to mind was rock music, especially heavy metal. And, I thought about what Ginny (Virginia Treanor) said which is that she hopes this exhibition is reinforcement of the fact, rather than a revelation, that women work in metal. And that got me thinking about women in rock culture.
AS: That’s so interesting. My immediate instinct was to go to the physicality of metal. And then that got me thinking about how metal evokes every one of the senses. You can do touch, you can do sight, you can do sound, you can do…I don’t know if you can do taste and smell.
RW: Smell, with metal, sure: when you think about it being melted. Taste? I don’t know.
AS: Well, you know, for example, some people can’t taste cilantro. It has a metallic taste to them. But, I found that interesting; thinking about the mix of sensations that metal evokes, and thinking about metal not only as a material but also as a concept.
RW: I never thought about that– metal and the senses. I don’t think that’s something we always think about – the ways in which art engages our senses. But now that we’re talking about it, I’m thinking about which works in the exhibit do that.
AS: You know, in thinking about the title, what surprised me was the scale of the objects in the exhibit. There were some really small works, like the jewelry done by Puerto Rican artist Cheryl Acosta. When I hear ‘heavy metal,’ I wouldn’t necessarily think jewelry.
RW: I wouldn’t either. Something like Chilean artist Alejandra Prieto’s, Pyrite Mirror, though, was perhaps expected. I think they said it weighed about 1200 pounds?
AS: Right! And they weren’t sure if it would get up the elevator.
RW: Honestly, based on the title, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I think the exhibit offers a lot of elements of surprise. Speaking of surprises, two of the works that stood out for us, once we learned what they were about are American artist Holly Laws’ Placeholder and Three Eastern Bluebirds. Both are so timely in discussions being had about immigration and the election…
AS: Even more so these days as Trump is threatening to shut down the government if they don’t build a border wall.
RW: Exactly! Interestingly, Laws created both of these sculptures in response to the 2016 elections. Looking at these works, though, I would not have seen that. The first thing you notice is the ironing board. Based on that, you might then start thinking about domestic space. Unless you really ask questions, you miss all the layers of meaning the artist is trying to convey.
AS: In Three Eastern Bluebirds, Laws was thinking about the glass ceiling. She said that creating the 144 feathers for each bird was cathartic, and was how she dealt with her sadness and disappointment about the election.
RW: A point of reference for me in thinking about this work is Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings especially regarding ideas of being or feeling trapped and having no place to go. Unfortunately, there are still barriers in place designed to keep women confined, and yet they sing, or write, or make art in order to be heard.
AS: Another thing that I thought was interesting about Three Eastern Bluebirds was you could get close to it but not too close, so the work evoked a sense of distance. Laws did a lot of intricate work to craft the 144 feathers in each bird yet you can’t see that because of the cage that’s surrounding it. It made me think, if you’re not inherently part of the conversation then you’re distant from it.
RW: In Placeholder, there is a cast bronze twig on top of an ironing board. When I saw this, I wondered why she would put this object on an ironing board.
AS: That twig references the ocotillo, a type of plant that grows along the US and Mexican border.
RW: In the audio guide, Laws says this work suggests a waiting, perhaps even a national waiting, for a time when the country can act for the good of all. That comment made me think about our discussions around immigration in this country. And I also started thinking about how much we rely on that labor force to do many of the things most of us don’t want to do, like cleaning our dirty bathroom!
AS: Again, this is something I wasn’t expecting to see in an exhibit titled ‘heavy metal.’ Neither of these works appears to be heavy. They are perhaps heavy in concept, but not in actual weight.
RW: New York-based artist Alice Hope had three different works in the exhibition, but the one I know we both found most interesting was Untitled, the one where she strung together used Budweiser tabs.
AS: One thing that I found significant was that she didn’t use just any sort of tabs, she used Budweiser beer tabs. When I think of Budweiser out of a can, I think of sports and, on a basic level, men gathering around a TV to watch the game.
RW: In interviews, Hope has explained that she never went out looking for tabs but came across a 700 pound box of them at a metal recycling center and decided to explore their use as a material in her art. In that box, were hundreds of Budweiser tabs!
AS: Hmm, interesting.
RW: Hope also said that she is not so much interested in using recycled material in her work as she is in thinking about the cultural references objects like tabs, for example, have. Hope believes everyone has had the experience of opening a can. Now, I’ve never opened a can of Budweiser before so I had no idea the tabs were this color.
AS: Yes, Budweiser tabs are red on the can, but that is an important detail to note. I wasn’t expecting something this bright in an exhibition focusing on metal. It really commands attention in the exhibit. I want to take a shot at a metaphor. It might be a stretch, but are you ready for it?
RW: Let’s hear it.
AS: So, each Budweiser tab is a small part of the beer can, but when a bunch of beer tabs are separated and strung together as in Hope’s work, the tabs become prominent, and have a new meaning together. If you translate that analogy to women’s issues in today’s society, each woman individually faces oppression, but when you combine all, or many of their stories, it gives women a voice and power that they may not have been noticed or heard on their own.
RW: That’s interesting – it’s taking something that is individual and inherently magnifying the power when you create a collective.
AS: Exactly! (laughs) Thank you for running with that.
RW: I also found myself gravitating towards the costume sculptures by Peruvian artist Carolina Rieckhof Brommer. Those are easily two of my favorite works. Before I listened to the audio explanation about these sculptures, I actually thought Self-portrait 3 was a dress, but it’s an apron – made of kitchen brillo pads!
AS: Hmm. I thought it was a dress too. It’s amazing that she wore these sculptures!
RW: Brommer talks about the personal violence she experienced on the streets of Lima. She made this coat, Self-portrait 4, in an attempt to address her feelings of frustration and impotence. When she wore it out in public, no one stopped her or questioned her.
AS: I can’t imagine walking around with that on. It is metal–heavy metal. That certainly would have been uncomfortable to wear. I’m curious–what did you think of the titles?
RW: I loved that she titled these ‘self-portraits’ because, I think, in some ways it challenges what we consider a traditional self-portrait. She transformed her personal experiences into these ‘clothes,’ these sculptural works, that are about protecting herself against violence and about her fear of being trapped in the role of housewife.
AS: Something else that struck me, given that the apron also looks like a dress, is the idea that a woman has to play multiple roles at once.
RW: Oh, interesting. Please expand on that.
AS: For example, the woman may be expected to be a homemaker and wear her apron, but she is also expected to be a polished, cultured woman in an elegant dress. It highlights the frequent duality of our gender roles. That concept seen together with the heavy coat implies that we have to be everything, yet still fight to protect ourselves. With the coat, she is protecting herself, but also somewhat hiding herself.
RW: Good point. She also said that when she wore this, she was aware that if someone tried to attack her, they would be hurt by the hit, but that she also would feel the blow. It doesn’t keep her completely immune from attack, but is another layer of protection that she didn’t have before.
AS: We could talk for days about these works! Let’s end by highly recommending a trip to NMWA to see this exhibit. Hopefully, viewers will be as surprised by what they find here as we were.
Editor’s Note: the article has been updated to reflect that Alice Hope is a New York-based artist.
Heavy Metal – Women to Watch 2018 is on view through September 16, 2018. You can find more information at: https://nmwa.org/exhibitions/heavy-metal.