Atlanta-based artist Jessica Caldas took her first foray into curating with the show “Sense of Self” at the Arts Exchange, on view through September 6. Comprising works by female-identified artists, the show examines the “concept of womanhood” and the societal, cultural, and political implications of that identity. The show overall is an important contribution to the contemporary art ecology in Atlanta, which can often lack a political register or commitment. (That’s not to say it’s not there; I’m speaking of the mainstream here.) It also brings up important questions concerning the relationship between issue-driven work and aesthetics. How are we supposed to look at and engage in the work?
Placing this show within a consciousness-raising tradition of second-wave feminism creates a standard generational relationship between the works on view in terms of modes of feminist thought and action. As much as my knee-jerk reaction is to claim the second-wave brand of feminism outdated, it is important for those of us not of that generation to look to those formative radical feminist projects that built communities and worked to transform society. It’s even more crucial to recognize that those efforts still need to be taken up, considering that sexism is alive and well. The institutional exclusion of women artists has been prominent in the media this year, with the Yams Collective withdrawal from the Whitney Biennial, Eunsong Kim and Maya Mackrandilal’s public critique of the biennial, and the alternative “Whitney Houston Biennial.”
Caldas described to me how the works can stand outside of a feminist framework. My question regarding this, though, is what feminism’s impact could be, especially considering the antifeminist viral sensation of #WomenAgainstFeminism. Clearly (and, let’s be clear, I never use the word “clearly”), these people do not fully understand the complexities of feminism.
The kind of feminism that these antifeminists decry is exemplified by the work of Elaine Alibrandi and Elyse Defoor. Their works in the show are explicit commentaries on the role and aesthetics of women. Alibrandi’s Fill in the Blanks and Cast Off and Defoor’s Shed 6 all use garments as material. Individually and paired, Defoor’s black wedding dress in Shed 6 and Alibrandi’s salvaged iron bars in Pretty Prison can feel like outdated clichés. These works bring up a tricky situation: Yes, womanhood can feel confining and marriage should not be forced, yet these works make blunt statements that antifeminists latch onto to support their agenda. Indeed, many of these women cite their contentment with their marriage and taking care of their significant other as reasons for being antifeminist. However, it is not exactly clear whether Defoor’s use of the wedding dress corresponds to compulsory heterosexuality. On the other hand, Alibrandi’s Cast Off potentiates a conversation about women’s access to the museum. In Alibrandi’s use of the stretcher as support for the dress, beads, sandals, and handbag, we can read as a critique of the historically male-dominated field of painting.
Grace Needlman‘s Nothing but the stovepipe, made in collaboration with Elisa Gonzalez, is an outgrowth of her work as an arts educator. The work lives in the world of socially engaged practice, arguably as an extension of feminist art centers that began on the West Coast in 1970 with Judy Chicago’s feminist art program and A Studio of Their Own at Fresno State University. Needlman’s work explores a community of homesteading women in North Dakota who engage with the Pangea House, a community collective.
Kelly Kristin Jones, Elnaz Javani, and Iman Person contribute more abstract works to the show, which simultaneously provide a genealogy concerning art practices that address women’s work and craft while also tending towards feminist theories of intersectionality. Both Javani’s and Person’s works function as diary entries. Javani’s embroideries depict amorphous bodies connected by a cloud of red thread, while Person’s ink drawings on paper evoke cavelike dwellings. Jones’s collage-esque pieces, which are circle cutouts of flesh tones from glossy magazines, can be viewed either in the context of women’s scrapbooking practices and the family album or charts displaying the results of demographic studies.
What does it mean to create identity-driven work that is specifically about the category “woman” today? How is it possible to still hold on to this category? Maybe it’s all the Judith Butler that lives in the back of my brain screaming out that these categories shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s also one of the reasons that I refused to submit work to the Company XX show at Mammal Gallery (not to mention the corporate lingo which suggests a consolidated brand), which states to be “not about feminism” but about “supporting the local female art community.” I am not saying that we shouldn’t support shows that feature women—striving to represent women artists is something we should always consider. What I am saying, though, is that if the project clings to the category “woman” or “female” while retaining notions of “individual expression” we have a problem. Why use the terminology of expression? Expression is not always free or individual.
On the other hand, Caldas’s commitment in “Sense of Self” is to illuminate the cultural constraints that shape “woman.” This is about the complex relationship of the individual within an assemblage of forces/institutions/powers. Part of me knows that without these categories women will continue to remain underrepresented in the contemporary art ecology. It is always good to stop and consider the ways in which real bodies shape and are shaped by terminology and societal constructs. Curatorial rigor here is paramount. Context and framing is important to how works will be viewed and read. This should not be taken lightly.
Taking into account the lack of attention early feminism paid to race, exploring issues of exclusion in multiple registers is essential, something that Kim and Mackrandilal’s article points out. This show has the potential to prompt such conversations, especially considering Caldas’s own work that focuses on domestic violence, which unfortunately the exhibition statement does not cite. Considering recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, now is as good a time as any to address the egregious situation that is pervasive in this country. Because of my particular personal and theoretical inclinations, I see feminism as an organizing resource, not something to be tossed aside.
What I am left sitting with, though, are questions about my own bias of what contemporary art is and should be: what it should look like, how it should function, etc. Where is the space for politics? How could it not be political? Must we eschew aesthetic concerns when addressing issues? Or, should we engage in other ways of looking?
The closing reception for “Sense of Self” will take place Saturday, September 6, from 1 to 5pm, and will include an artist talk and studio visit with Elyse Defoor.
Meredith Kooi is the editor of Radius, an experimental radio broadcast platform based in Chicago. She is currently a PhD student in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University, a performance and visual artist, and a monthly contributor to Bad At Sports.