IT IS NO SECRET THAT THE ART WORLD, though responsible for propagating spectacular, history-shaping movements, has been at best an uneven playing field for men versus women in the fight for respect and artistic reification. At worst it’s served as an unassailable fortress wherein institutionalized sexism is not just a latent function of the system but part of its very foundation. Though tides are changing, there’s still a plethora of damning statistics that show how far a climb to parity women in art face. From every aspect of its trappings – access to institutional support, curatorial impartiality and more – the same fact rings true of the art world as it always has: female artists, gallerists, curators, and the like must fight for the opportunities men are easily handed by a self-perpetuating system. In secondary markets, the highest price that a piece of work by a living female artist has ever been sold for was $9.8 million, when a bidder purchased Bluewald by Cady Noland at a Christie’s auction last May. At that same auction, a Mark Rothko painting sold for $81.9 million. Women run only one quarter of the premier art museums in this country, and earn significantly less (some stats citing up to one-third less) than men who occupy the same roles. 5% of works shown in modern and contemporary galleries at major museums in the US are attributed to women, even though they represent 51% of today’s visual artists. Why these facts are extant needs no explanation. Rather, we should focus on the women in art – from living legends to emerging talent, to status quo-shattering iconoclasts – who are here and always have been. These women collectively provide a glimpse into a world underrepresented yet bursting with energy, ready to occupy its rightful place in history.
Having single-handedly changed the trajectory of performance art on a global scale through her seminal early work in the 1970s, Marina Abramović now stands as one of the most important antecedents to 21st century conceptual art. Pushing the envelope is as much a part of her inner life as it is a part of her artistic ethos. Her performances invariably include the exploration of social boundaries – the delineation between herself and her audience (in one of her earliest works, Rhythm 0, she placed seventy-two objects – including a whip and a gun – on a table, letting the audience use them as they pleased on her for six hours). Fox News once referred infamously to her as “Some Yugoslavian- born provocateur,” in response to The Artist Is Present – a recent installation at MoMA in which she sat silently in a chair for seven hours a day, inviting museum-goers to sit across from her and gaze into her eyes, so long as they did not speak or move (though some wept, and one stripped naked). Today, Abramović is nearly seventy. A recent documentary chronicles her life, work, and relationship with partner Uwe Laysiepen, with whom she split in the early 90s due largely to the fact that she was superseding him professionally. She says, “If you’re a woman, it’s almost impossible to establish a relationship. You’re too much for everybody. The woman always has to play this role of being fragile and dependent. And if you’re not, they’re fascinated by you, but only for a little while.”
As one of the top-selling female artists of all time, Yayoi Kusama has earned her place at the metaphorical table after leading a life marked by intense personal struggle. She was instrumental in shaping the Avant-Garde movement, after departing Japan in the 1950s to seek creative refuge in the NYC art scene. Her work employs extensive use of psychedelia – bright colors, and the central importance of polka dots, which she claims possess divine energy. “I, Kusama, am the modern Alice in Wonderland,” she once mused. Indeed, part of the beauty in her work is defined by her lifelong struggle with mental illness (she experienced visual and aural hallucinations from the time she was a small child, and voluntarily committed herself to an asylum in 1977, where she still resides today). She has pointed to this as an essential aspect of her creativity. “I don’t want to cure my mental problems, rather I want to utilize them as a generating force for my art.” At the age of eighty-six, she has outlived nearly all of her male cohorts from her early days, when sexism in the industry nearly broke her career.
American photographer Cindy Sherman has spent her lifetime interrogating the concept of identity through self-portraits that touch on themes of pop culture, sociology and politics. Taking images from various media outlets throughout history – some iconic, others quotidian – and deconstructing their value, she reconstructs them, starring herself as the object, exposing at once the artifice and true nature of “representation.” Ironically, she removes her own identity from the image in taking on the identity of others. “I feel I’m anonymous in my work. When I look at the pictures, I never see myself; they aren’t self-portraits. Sometimes I disappear,” she has remarked. Her career has defined the last forty years of photographic art, and she shows no signs of slowing down. In 2012, MoMA presented a retrospective of her work, which included 170 of her photographs.
Brooklyn-based mixed-media artist Sophia Wallace began making waves after spearheading her now widely-acknowledged, highly controversial “Cliteracy” movement – a revolution unto itself – in which she seeks to educate the public through installation art referencing the fantastically-neglected female sexual anatomy, thereby liberating women from moors that in her estimation strip away at what is a birth right. Her most notable pieces include stencils of multiple tiny, ornately designed depictions of anatomically-correct clitorises, as well as large scale murals that enumerate factoids about the clitoris, most of which are under- looked in classrooms and science books. Wallace was recently featured in The Untitled Magazine‘s exhibiton, “The ‘F’ Word: Feminism in Art.”
Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is a visual artist, writer and activist who broke ground in 2012 with her public art installations that began popping up on the streets of NYC and gaining notoriety. Those who live in the city are likely familiar with her work, as it’s difficult to walk by her murals without noticing the messages they convey. Her “Stop Telling Women To Smile” street art campaign went viral and became part of a larger discourse on catcalling and street harassment. Her stencils are based on the specific stories of women who have experienced sexual harassment via public dialogue with men and include portraits of the interviewees.
Seminal feminist art collective Guerrilla Girls have been speaking out against institutionalized sexism and racism in the art world for over thirty years now, and they are still going strong. They formed in 1985 in reaction to an exhibit at MoMA curated by Kynaston McShine, titled “An International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture.” The show commemorated the inauguration of the newly renovated MoMA, and was designed to present a survey of “the most significant contemporary art in the world” with works by 169 featured artists. Of those 169, only 13 were women. As a response, the Guerrilla Girls banded together and began speaking out publicly, through deliberate confrontations with individuals and institutions that they feel are the perpetrators of misogyny in art. They use code names – mostly those of famous female artists whose legacies they hope to sustain (the founders are known as Frida Kahlo and Kathe Kollwitz) – in order to remain anonymous, wearing gorilla masks. Since their inception they have continued to stage public protests against sexism in the art world. Their posters and billboards bear emblems such as “Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?” and were originally plastered in public spaces. Now, three decades later, their work has come full circle: The Whitney Museum recently acquired 88 of their posters, from 1985 to 2012. David Kiehl, the museum’s director, declared them “art world royalty.” Of their efforts, they have said, “Many people believe that art is special and exempt from conventional scrutiny. While art may be transcendent, the art world should be subject to the same standards as anywhere else. We think there’s a civil rights issue here.”
THE FUTURE LEGENDS
French-born multi-media artist Joana Vasconcelos entered the public eye after her participation in the 2005 Venice Biennale, wherein she presented A Noiva (The Bride), a twenty-foot-tall chandelier fashioned from tampons. She often uses everyday objects to fabricate her works, thereby commenting on various identity conflicts humans face in the modern era, such as the public/private, handmade/industrial dichotomies. Many of her works incorporate interactive elements, encouraging the viewer to engage with the art, such as her 2014 sculpture Call Center, which used hundreds of black rotary telephones to construct a six-foot shotgun, with a score composed by Jonas Runa playing from the phone speakers via motion-censored microcontrollers. In exploring the tension that exists between handcrafted versus machine-made objects, she often takes commercially produced commodities, like laptops or plastic statuettes, and envelops them in handmade crochet slips, addressing mediums traditionally defined as “craft” and their specifically female designation.
Columbia Professor, installation artist, and painter Sarah Sze has left her legacy on the art world by way of her long list of professional achievements, including a 2003 MacArthur Genius Award, and acting as the US Representative to the Venice Biennale in 2013. Her installations are immense, both in size and impact. She is as innovative with her use of space – building into the ground, digging into the wall, or stretching across the entire span of a museum – as she is with materials (she’s used cotton buds, tea bags, light bulbs, found objects, and living plants for construction). The results are large-scale structures that overwhelm with their magnitude, yet are comprised of tiny pieces of ephemera organized impeccably. Sze is currently represented by the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, and in 2016 a series of her drawings on ceramic tiles will be permanently installed in the new 2nd Avenue Subway at the 96th Street station.
Andrea Fraser is an LA-based performance artist known for her boundary-pushing work in the realm of institutional critique. Her most famous works to date include 1989’s Museum Highlights, where she gave fake tours while posing as a guide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, describing the museum itself, including its cafeteria and drinking fountains in verbose language. In 2003’s iteration of her Untitled series, she made a sixty-minute video of a sexual encounter in a hotel room with one of her private collectors. Intended to probe the question of male power, it equated the art world to prostitution. The Untitled series took root in the early 1980s, when she painted over classic works of art by male artists from Raphael to de Kooning, reconstructing them as photographs to shed light on historical revisionism and the concept of authenticity. Now a professor at UCLA, Fraser is one of the most respected voices in feminist performance art.
Kim Gordon is most well known as the bassist in iconic new wave band Sonic Youth. Her music career has spanned three decades and her name alone has become emblematic of feminism in rock. Many don’t know that Gordon started out as a visual artist, curator and art writer, having attended the Otis College of Art and Design in LA. Her works have been exhibited worldwide, with recent shows that include retrospective Design Office with Kim Gordon – Since 1980, presented at White Columns in 2013, and 2014’s Wreath Paintings at the Fitzpatrick-Leland House. Her latest show, The City Is A Garden, was presented at the 303 Gallery in New York City during July 2015, and featured mixed media on canvas. Showcasing an intentional irreverence for the medium, her paintings were crumpled up, stepped on, and flung about in an attempt to convey battle scars from her past. Banners of Kim in mid-performance hung above the art to “dramatize the big reveal.” Of her artistic career, she’s said, “When you’re in a group, you’re always sharing everything. It’s protected. Your own ego is not there for criticism, but you also never quite feel the full power of its glory, either. A few years ago I started to feel like I owed it to myself to really focus on doing art.”
Alison Mosshart of London based alt-punk darlings The Kills and Jack White’s Dead Weather recently made waves in the art world with her debut solo exhibition, Fire Power, which opened at the Joseph Gross Gallery in New York. The exhibit included 127 pieces of her works that spanned across multiple mediums, namely painting, drawing and tapestry (one of the more notable pieces, “Big Red,” she created by driving a remote control monster truck across a canvas), all chronicling her life on the road as a performer. Common threads throughout her work touch on themes of the itinerant lifestyle and the freedom one can achieve through it. “There are few things I find more freeing and romantic as bombing down a highway,” she speaks regarding her inspiration. Most of the pieces were done on the road “in vans, airports, hotel rooms, and backstage,” and truly reflect the ethos of a traveller. She says the shittier the hotel room, the better: “If I’m at the Holiday Inn, I’ll paint on the bed.” Though she has no classical training in art, she has been doing it since her formative years as a skater punk and now has a multi-user art studio in her Nashville home, where she lives when she’s not in London or on the road.
Pussy Riot is a punk rock performance art/activist collective based in Moscow that grabbed international media attention in 2011 after three members of the group, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were arrested, imprisoned and eventually convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” The group has been unwaveringly vocal in their criticism of Vladimir Putin, whom they deem a dictator, and are known for their provocative and public guerrilla-style performances (they wear brightly colored dresses and shroud their faces with ski masks). Though Putin has attempted on multiple occasions to silence them, they continue to speak out. Most recently, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina set up a news outlet, MediaZona, which investigates the police and prison systems in various parts of Russia. Tolokonnikova explains, “Since our release from prison six months ago we’ve felt the Russian media are no longer able to cover what is going on. Because of the heavy censorship by authorities there is no space for anything in the media that criticizes Putin’s policies and tracks human rights abuses by Russian courts and law enforcement. Courts, prisons, arrests, convictions, riots in facilities, political criminal cases, crimes by law enforcement officials – our new media outlet will try to cover it all.” For their initiative with MediaZona, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina, both 26, landed on The Guardian’s, Moscow 30 under 30: the people’s power list. In honor of the current refugee crisis Europe is facing, Pussy Riot recently released their latest video “Refugees In”, shot at Banksy’s Dismaland.
Article by Marianne White for The Untitled Magazine’s #GirlPower Issue
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