No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection presents an intriguing conundrum wrapped in swirling colors: how to showcase the viewpoint of women artists without reflexively implying that gender is the sole, defining characteristic of their artistic identity. Simultaneously epic and intimate in scale, the exhibition seeks to examine how contemporary women artists have responded to and shaped artistic discourse over the last three decades. It is an almost Herculean task, which the curatorial staff at the National Museum of Women in the Arts wisely tackle by limiting the focus of the exhibition to two key themes. The 59 works on display are presented in conjunction with the Rubell Family Collection/Contemporary Arts Foundation Miami, where a larger version of No Man’s Land which debuted in December, 2015.
Stepping off the elevator, Mira Dancy’s Street Ofelia (neon blue) immediately encapsulates the two interlocking themes of body image and physical process that form the basis of the exhibition. Intense, vivid blue describes the female figure in vaguely Art Deco terms. While taut, streamlined musculature is highlighted over soft, feminine features, a cock of the head and right arm posed up around the face lend a certain “pin-up” quality to the pose. Adding to the gender fluidity are the materials used. Glass and neon are historically worlds away from the materials and techniques to which women artists traditionally had access. While perhaps common in a contemporary milieu, this work may not have come to fruition just a few decades ago.
Pointedly viewed through this particular lens—the fact that a woman’s artistic interpretation of her surroundings or very anatomy were consistently minimized throughout much of Western art history—the exhibition forces the viewer to examine the works in a fresh light, acknowledging subtle bias and allowing new impressions to rise to the fore. Of the two themes presented, viewers will likely find artists dealing directly with the female body to be more accessible contextually because, as Chief Curator Kathryn Wat points out, male artists’ interpretations of the female nude have been an artistic staple for millennia. In that regard, it is illuminating to note the ways in which our focus on the female body is shaped by the notion that the women depicted are falling specifically under a female gauze. Works in the first several galleries bear this out.
Marlene Dumas’ Jealousy in the Harem for instance plays with the classic pose of the odalisque, or chambermaid, often seen languidly lounging upon a settee in poses designed to titillate the male viewer. Here Dumas has created a woman, unflatteringly posed laying down, whose visage and curves upend standard notions of beauty with no pretense being made to satisfy the delights of a potential (male) collector. Instead Dumas seems to revel in her role as provocateur, daring us to see the complex woman unmoored from traditional notions of beauty. Miriam Cahn’s Versehrt displays a similar ethos in a ghostly color palette that portrays the majority of the subject’s bodily form, injecting flesh tones only to highlight “her” chest. Suggestions of fabric at the bottom of the picture frame could be read as either clothing being removed or a body about to be sheathed. In either case, the viewer is forced to consider the emotional (rather than physical) aspects of the sitter. Emotions also weigh heavily in Hayv Kahraman’s Migrant.I¸ which depicts a woman ensnared between the realities of her native land and her new home. Here the figure is captured in stark, violent terms that force the viewer to dwell on her emotional state rather than any presumed beauty.
One gallery away, a similar violence is more subtly alluded to in Dana Schutz’s Lovers where a kaleidoscopic, park-like setting sets the stage for a lovers’ tryst. Look closely though and the couple is not alone, suggesting something menacing awaits. Thick globs of paint underscore this sense of foreboding energy and the viewer is left to wonder, are we seeing a passionate embrace or something more nefarious? Sitting opposite this painting is violence personified, but of a tongue-in-cheek sort. Jennifer Rubell’s sculpture Lysa III depicting an outré buxom blond had this (male) reviewer cringing as her legs were closed together, pulverizing the walnuts strategically placed at the juncture of her pelvis. Female attendees of the press preview gleefully drew from a large bowl of nuts, each taking a turn in shattering a metaphorical art world patriarchy. Lysa III above all also demonstrates the importance of context in examining a work, forcing us to consider how we would react to the piece if created by a male rather than female artist.
Interpretations based on the gender of the artist become more nuanced when examining works that deal with the exhibition’s second concept of physical process. As one moves through the exhibition, overt figuration gradually gives away to works more focused on using materials or processes as the basis for critical commentary. Cecily Brown begins this transition to more process-inspired work with Service de Luxe, a large-scale oil painting that displays an almost erotic tension between figuration and abstraction. While bodily parts are alluded too, it is the process of painting in all its voluptuousness that rises to the foreground as hot reds and pinks undulate across the canvas. We’ve seen similar images in Willem de Kooning’s Woman series, but Brown is able to coax a new level of intimate sensuality from the paint, mixing tenderness with sexuality. Mira Dancy’s Snake Rose OBE (the artist’s second work in the exhibition) performs the same balancing act in a more pixelated format.
A few steps further and all sense of figuration is left behind. Rosemarie Trockel’s outsized Colony takes Minimalism to heart with its ebony, monochrome finish. Closer inspection reveals the artist’s choice of material is wool, a material known more for its use in the decorative arts than “serious” artistic works. The wool is machine-knitted (shedding the material of its domestic contexts) and stretched onto its frame, demanding that we consider it as relevant to the concept of Minimalism as any of her male peers. Dianna Molzan presents a similar line of inquiry with her work Untitled, forcing the viewer to confront our very definition of painting. By removing every vertical thread from her canvas, Molzan creates a surface that behaves more like loose fabric as it pulls free from its wood frame. Like Trockel, Molzan seemingly posits that women artists are as equally adept at questioning the fundamentals of painting as their male counterparts, even if those investigations have often been overlooked.
Other contemporary fields of 20th century artistic inquiry make appearances such as Op-Art (in the works of Karin Davie and Kerstin Brätsch) and the mixed media assemblages of Helen Marten and Mary Weatherford. Yet it is the sculptured works created from common domestic items that seem to most embody the notion of contemporary women artists usurping the traditional hierarchies embodied by notions of craft versus fine art. Anicka Yi’s Life Serves Up The Occasional Pink Unicorn literally serves up a wall of tempura-fried flowers that decay over time. Touching upon themes of death and transition, the work also posits that “womens’ work” (in this case cooking) can be seen as one part science and one part artistic inquiry. Solange Pessoa’s Hammock brings the natural world indoors with giant, oddly biological tubules that cling together as they escape the confines of the gallery wall. Colored by ground-up dirt that continuously leeches down onto the gallery floor, the work could be an alien lifeform, yet in Pessola’s hands feels oddly endearing rather than threatening. In a similar vein, Maria Nepomuceno’s Untitled (installed at the beginning of the exhibition due to its size) presents a biomorphic being composed of braided straw punctuated by strands of beads. With several gaping maws extending out in all directions, the work has a muscular, intense energy that suggests feeding time is soon upon us. Yet that energy is playful rather than dangerous, suggesting that the organism prefers nectar to flesh or perhaps will be just as happy with the discarded walnut shells in the adjacent gallery. Part of this realization is due to the choice of materials—straw is certainly more demure than steel. But I also cannot help but wonder if some of that endearing feeling is the result of the artist’s gendered experience of the world.
And therein lies the conundrum at the heart of the exhibition. In creating a single-gendered exhibition highlighting the artists’ historically outsider status, are we to assume that the artistic ideas presented are influenced primarily by gender? Pose that question to the artists and we are likely to have 37 divergent answers, which to a certain extent points to the absurdity of that premise. Still, gender is fundamental to our core identities, informing the way we see the world like ripples gliding across a pond. In this regard, the exhibition poses more questions than it answers.
And perhaps that is a blessing in disguise. Confronted with a multiplicity of voices, we are forced to listen—to be open to new ways of thinking about the world. As women fight in courtrooms, boardrooms and chatrooms of public opinion to be heard and fully embraced, it was only a matter of time for gallery walls to reflect this dialogue. Don’t visit No Man’s Land because it’s a focused, women-centric show; visit because the art explodes the very notions of gender, forcing us to consider a more embracing humanity in its wake.
No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection runs through January 8, 2017 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. For more information, including gallery hours, artist talks and special events, visit the museum’s website here.