“Are they real?” my friend asked as our eyes met over the (very real) flowers woven into the frame of InKyoung Chun’s glowing mixed media sculpture Two Hearts, stationed by the entrance to Atlanta Contemporary as part of the current exhibition She is Here.
Functioning as a sort of retrospective of selected participants from the museum’s Studio Artist Program since 2001, the exhibition features works by twenty “female” artists representing a range of generational, cultural, and artistic backgrounds.
In Two Hearts, Chun’s delicate juxtaposition of tenderly cut flowers with crackling neon light struck me as poignant. The materials’ fragility and impermanence add to the work’s emotional weight, just as the limited scope of our individual lives both infuses and undoes meaning within them. In this sense, the sculpture petitions the viewer for optimism and even sentimentality despite the uncertain, dark state of the world.
Washing a patch of earth on the other side of a gallery window in fluorescent pink through a pane of colored glass, MaDora Frey’s installation Venus’s Looking Glass appears almost as a post-minimalist feminist monument, indicating the vibrancy of our smaller, private worlds amid a greater cosmology of feminine power. In Cecilia Kane’s series How Am I Feeling Today?, eighty-nine laser-printed handkerchiefs—one for each year of Kane’s mother’s life—contain self-portraits that the artist embroidered on these heirlooms, documenting an array of emotions and themes: grief, nostalgia, inheritance, and identity.
The video Jalaiah, a collaboration between photographer Jill Frank and LA-based artist Nikita Gale, follows Jalaiah Harmon, the Atlanta teen who created the viral TikTok dance “The Renegade”—only here she’s not dancing. She sits, walks, and rides her bike, talks on the phone and braids her hair. This vision of a young Black woman at rest, particularly one whose creative work has already narrowly avoided total theft and commodification, offers a path of gentle yet radical transmutation.
Co-organized by independent curators Kristen V. Cahill and Daricia Mia DeMarr, She is Here ostensibly aims to address the endemic lack of representation and inclusion of women in the art world at large. While this characterization of institutional misogyny is valid, it remains unclear if She is Here offers sufficient remedies to the problem it diagnoses. The exhibition’s overall approach to gender is strikingly reminiscent of second-wave feminism, essentializing women’s bodies, interests, and activities with metaphors grounded in fertility and reproduction. (The wall text accompanying the exhibition reads, in part: “She is the womb… She nurses. She nurtures… She is fertile soil.”) Such an anachronistic vision of femininity should be uncomfortable in any context in 2020, but particularly in an exhibition where one of the participating artists uses they / them pronouns.
Only varying due to a slight difference in formatting, S/he is Her/e was also the title of the first museum solo exhibition by the late artist Genesis Breyer P-Orridge at Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in 2013. For Breyer P-Orridge, the phrase S/he is Her/e represented the opposite of the sort of gender reductionism on display at Atlanta Contemporary, instead opening up the infinite possibilities of what s/he and h/er late wife Lady Jaye called “pandrogeny”—a hybridized and shared gender identity they pursued together through a series of collaborative artworks involving plastic surgery and hormone therapy. Contrasted with this similarly titled precedent, Atlanta Contemporary’s She is Here assembles a compelling collection of artworks but falters and falls short due to the limitations of its visions of femininity and gender, the very topics it claims to foreground.
After leaving the museum, my mind kept returning to the suspended potted orchid in Townscape, another installation by Chun, mounted against the ceiling of the main gallery. When I mentioned this to my friend, they admitted having missed it entirely, not realizing they needed to look from a different direction.
Co-curated by Kristen V. Cahill and Daricia Mia DeMarr, She is Here is on view at Atlanta Contemporary through January 31, 2021.