Tag Archives: Gaela Erwin

Arts

Cautious Optimism

Patterned tentacles burst from the wall of Louisville’s 21c Museum. They are suspended in motion, paused in the act of wriggling free from the gallery’s white wall. Viewed at a distance, Frances Goodman’s Medusa (2013-2014) appears wet. Each tentacle seems coated by a glossy residue, projecting a luminous sheen. A few steps closer and scales begin to take shape—the tentacles’ patterns have been meticulously constructed from thousands of acrylic fingernails.

Frances Goodman, Medusa, 2013-2014

Goodman recodes these mass-produced ornaments, turning a beauty industry commodity against itself. The decorative becomes subversive—often overlooked as a mere form of bodily artifice, these acrylic prosthetics have been tightly assembled to encase phallic wall protrusions. Medusa is a three-dimensional creature that stretches its mythological ties to masculine aggression and feminine seduction, yet also mines the meaning of an object that—through fashion advertising—has come to signify femininity.

In their 1973 article in Womanspace Journal, Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro asked: “What does it feel like to be a woman?”[1] 21c Louisville’s current exhibition, The Future is Female, takes inspiration from this legacy of feminist writers, artists, and activists of the 1970s, exploring the varying trajectories of craft-based practices, mythology, ecology, and identity. What resonates most, however, is the exhibition’s timing. In the United States, the resistance to women’s rights has encountered a social and political acceptability unseen since the years of the Reagan administration.[2]

What does the phrase “The Future is Female” mean in the age of Trump? 21c Louisville’s latest exhibition does not ask this question—at least not explicitly. At a time, however, when the spectacle of reality television has merged with sexism of politics, when misogyny is dismissed as “men being men” (and then rewarded with a presidency), when government funding for the National Endowment for Arts hangs in the balance, when a large majority of politicians view gender as biologically determined and not socially constructed, and when the leader of the so-called free world flirts with a nuclear arms race, futurity—specifically a future that incorporates women and the arts—seems optimistic. Yet this optimism and political energy is partly what fueled the artists of the Women’s Liberation movement in the 1970s.[3]

Nandipha Mntambo, Umfanekiso wesibuko, 2013

A prominent thread connects many of the works in The Future is Female—mortality is referenced not only through the human body and the abject, but also through a consideration of globalization’s slow decay of both cultures and ecological systems. Nandipha Mntambo blurs the line between skin and clothing by structuring cowhide into rigid human-animal hybrids. Cast from the artist’s body, two ghostly figures rest on their arms and legs—frozen in the act of crawling. As the cowhide slowly melts down the figures’ backs, its stiff ripples condense and begin to resemble folds of human skin. Tails protrude from the gathered hide.

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Naomi Safran-Hon, W.S. Pink Sweater (with other trash), 2016

In the mixed-media work of Naomi Safran-Hon, the human body is present through detritus—remnants of clothing intertwine with obliterated concrete, capturing the bulldozed homes of Wadi Salib, a neighborhood once home to Palestinians and Mizrahi Jewish inhabitants before its confiscation by the state of Israel in 1948. Safran-Hon inserts lace and concrete directly into an archival inkjet print, layering a third dimension onto what is normally flattened by camera and printer.

To be clear, the phrase “the future is female” is not a recent addition to feminist discourse. It first appeared on a T-shirt in the 1970s.[4] The original design was made for Labyris Books—the first women’s bookstore in New York City. Liza Cowan photographed her then-girlfriend, Alix Dobkin, wearing the shirt in 1975. Forty years later, in 2015, the image of Dobkin was posted on h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y—an Instagram account that documents “herstoric lesbian imagery.”

E.V. Day, Waterlily, 2011

E.V. Day’s striking Waterlily (2011) pulls anatomic imagery from the artwork of her foremothers—Georgia O’Keefe and Chicago. Through enlarging the vivid fuchsia water lily that she collected, pressed, and then digitally scanned during her residency at The Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny, Day reclaims past histories of feminist investigation. The flower’s fleshy texture and prominent reproductive organs are magnified through the scanning process, and its enlarged form is both foreboding and seductive. The print’s pigment is so concentrated that it casts a light pink glow on neighboring works.

On the wall parallel to Medusa, three circular hand mirrors are individually framed by hot-pink resin Venus symbols. The mirrors are lightly etched with a single word in all-capital typeface: FEMINIST, EQUAL, or POWERFUL. Michele Pred’s Reflections (2015), as they are displayed across from the acrylic-nail monster, reexamine the mythological tale of Perseus and Medusa.

Michele Pred, Reflections (Powerful) and Reflections (Feminist), 2015

When approached at a specific angle, the mirrors can reflect Medusa with the addition of Pred’s positive language—a clever positioning that references Perseus’s use of a mirror to evade Medusa’s fatal stare, but also pushes against stereotypes of women in classical mythology and their prevailing societal effects.

The Future is Female is a careful selection of important works by emerging and established women artists: Jenny Holzer, Monica Cook, Kiki Smith, Sanell Aggenbach, Gaela Erwin, Nina Katchadourian, Carrie Mae Weems, Vibha Galhotra, Alison Saar, Tiffany Carbonneau, Kathleen McQuade Olliges, Hanna Liden, and Julie Levesque. The exhibition includes artists from Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America, but Katchadourian’s homage to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury—Under Pressure (2014)—takes place 35,000 feet above ground.

Nina Katchadourian, Under Pressure, 2014

In an airplane restroom, she “recreates” Mercury and Bowie’s 1981 duet, using a standard polyester airline blanket, toilet paper, and the contents of her carry-on luggage to construct costumes. Under Pressure merges Katchadourian’s humorous performance with a poignant critique, as Mercury and Bowie rejected gender constructs rooted in patriarchal standards. The Future is Female embarks on a similar mission by pushing against the grain of normativity and advocating for a future that surmounts the current sociopolitical climate.

The Future is Female is on view through May 2017.

[1] Whitney Chadwhick, Women, Art, and Society, 5th ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2012), 378.

[2] Chadwhick, Women, Art, and Society, 378.

[3] Linda Nochlin, “’Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Thirty Years After,” Women Artists: The Linda Nochlin Reader, ed. Maura Reilly (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2015), 311.

[4] Marisa Meltzer, “A Feminist T-Shirt Resurfaces from the ‘70s,” The New York TimesNovember 18, 2015,

Arts

A Review: Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past

Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past is on view at the Speed Art Museum through October 30th. It complements an earlier art exhibition, Gaela Erwin: Mother that was on view at the University of Louisville’s Cressman Center for the Visual Arts this past summer.

In each show Erwin explores her genealogy, both familial and artistic. The German Expressionist Max Beckmann wrote in 1939, “the self is the greatest mystery in the world.”  Like Beckmann’s pursuit of “the mystery of being,” Erwin’s art may be seen as a continual effort to be ever more specific about the psychology of identity, household relationships and art historical heritage. The family portraits are less about lineage and more about penetrating self-discovery. The artist is not leaning on art historical models for legitimation or prestige, but to delve deeply into the nature of portraiture in past and present practice.

Gaela Erwin (American), Portrait of my Mother in her Wedding Dress, 2013, chalk pastel, Collection of Laura Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotels

Erwin’s greatest invention in the Cressman show was to depict her nonagenarian mother asleep, reclining full length, attired in her wedding dress. Erwin’s mother (now deceased) suffered from dementia and Erwin’s use of her mother as a subject ironically presents a gifted physiognomist contemplating a loved one subtly expressionless. The bridal gown unfamiliarizes the sitter: dress-up is a way of losing touch with time, and heightening, in this case, the struggle of age versus beauty.

In her affecting portrayals of the last years of her mother’s life, Erwin conveys a telling inventory of the symptoms of dementia evoked in John Bayley’s phrases describing his wife, Iris Murdoch: “behindhand;” “unreassured;” “wonder on the edge of fear;” “the daily pucker of blank anxiety.”  Erwin charts her mother’s mien, the dropping lower lip, the sagging flesh, and the bulging carotid artery, yet also intimates empathy for a striking woman seemingly accustomed to being beautiful, the chalk uncannily taking on the substance of rouge and lipstick. The pastel is handled very directly in this work and left unblended as in the bold red and black marks defining the arthritic fingers of the sitter’s right hand.

Several double portraits of Erwin and her sister Shelley were in both exhibitions. Especially in the costumed double portraits in the Speed show, the artist intimates the complexity of sibling relationships and the numbing exhaustion of negotiating the care of a dying parent. In The Erwin Sisters as Artist and Poet compressing the figures against the frontal plane signals both closeness and discomfort. Nonetheless, the recurring portraits in 18th and 19th Century costume create an air of politesse, courtly manners and courtesies, as if these traditions offered a pathway to an authentically civil society.

Gaela Erwin, Self-Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth, 2016, pastel on paper, Courtesy of the Artist

An extension of the portraits with her sister is Erwin’s Self Portrait as Twins Separated at Birth. The backdrop of trees adapted from Francis Cotes in four works is here rendered a trompe l’oeil picture within a picture held on the wall behind the double portrait with push pins and masking tape. The finesse with which the sheen of blue satin is rendered in the 18th Century Erwin, on the left, contrasts with the abstract expressionist gestural drawing describing the faded Union Jack t-shirt in the contemporary Erwin on the right.

The gaze of the informal, t-shirted and blue-jeaned self is direct and confrontational, while the historicized figure averts from looking at the viewer. A traditional symbol of vanity, a peacock feather, adorns the shawl draped over the arms of the costumed version. The constricted period gown and blonde wig gives the fictional character an air of hauteur, dominating the sister two centuries her junior. A literal depiction of the idiom denoting worry and anxiety, “ I am beside myself,” is given a narrative cast. As in many other works in the exhibition, there is a sense of incipient action – the moment before the moment something momentous will happen, perhaps when artifice is revealed and the real Gaela Erwin steps forward.

In the catalogue to the exhibition, Eileen Yanoviak, Exhibition Coordinator at the Speed Art Museum, places Erwin’s portraits firmly in the tradition of the fantasy portrait, with its openings to associations and fictions about the past:  “They are a sort of ‘self-fashioning’ through history, a way to select those attributes and narratives that define an individual. Removed from contemporary reality, these portraits seem to reveal the paradoxes and complexities of the present through the past.”

Erwin pays homage to pastel practice with riffs on studies by 18th Century masters in the Speed’s collection by Jean-Baptiste Perroneau (1715-1783), and Francis Cotes ( 1726-1770), as well as the 20th Century artist, Winold Reiss (1786-1953).

Gaela Erwin (American), Licia and Neema, 2016, Pastel on paper, Courtesy of the artist

The exhibition’s tour-de-force is a double portrait of Licia Priest and Neema Tambo modeled on the Francis Cotes depiction of two young women. The African-American subjects are resplendent in 18th Century costume: Erwin’s pastel is more finished in these likenesses than in other works in the show and Priest and Tambo occupy a more ample field. Erwin deploys her technical skills to provide a convincing case for the dignity and self-possession of the sitters. Yanoviak notes, accurately, that they are “aggressively present.”  The fantasy of elegant, aristocratic black women in 18th Century high fashion garb engenders a back-and-forth meditation on sexual and racial politics in the 18th Century and today. Staging does not constrict the figures or indulge an inveigling flattery but instead re-doubles ironic reverberations between person and persona, actor and role. Like a great evening of theater, the performers seem totally believable, the artificiality and glitz of setting and costume enhancing rather than detracting from the illusion.

The Speed needs to be applauded for a very full presentation of a Kentucky artist with an excellent illustrated catalogue. Also notable is the juxtaposition of historical works from the permanent collection and contemporary responses. For all art museums, the holy grails of relevance and accessibility are elusive – Gaela Erwin: Reframing the Past sets a high and imitable standard.