The idea for Burnaway originated from a front-porch conversation about the need for more dialogue about local art. Dr. Susan Richmond, assistant professor of modern and contemporary art history and visual culture at Georgia State University writes this week’s edition of Our Front Porch.
The Glass Ceiling Shattered: 30 Years—3 Great American Women Artists at Alan Avery Art Company features work by Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler, and Kara Walker. Despite its inflated rhetoric, the exhibition’s title is a sober reminder that female artists continue to garner less commercial success than their male counterparts, often for reasons having little to do with perceptions of quality or greatness. That the three artists featured here have defied the odds is encouraging, but only to a degree, as their status as “salable” artists who are also women seems to be the only glue holding the show together. Despite the incongruity of the grouping, however, The Glass Ceiling Shattered features some outstanding work.
In terms of sheer numbers of works included, Louise Nevelson is the star of the show. The Russian-born artist began her career in New York in the 1930s, and she is best known for her large-scale wood assemblages fashioned from boxes, furniture parts, and other found objects painted entirely black, or white, or gold. At once imposing and mysterious, these wood assemblages are visually and symbolically complex, and they demonstrate Nevelson’s facility with cubist form and surrealist allusion. Falling squarely into neither category, however, the artist’s monochromatic sculptures invoke associations that lie just beyond consciousness. The same is true for the prints and cast paper reliefs included here.
Like her sculptures, Nevelson’s flat works feature organic forms loosely arranged into a grid or series of rectilinear compartments. In some instances, color is a result of Nevelson’s chosen medium—cast white paper or intaglio lead, for instance, generates monochromatic effects similar to ones in the artist’s painted assemblages. Texture is a significant feature, notably in the cast paper reliefs, which impart a grainy, organic quality and a soft play of shadow and reflection to Nevelson’s compositions. A series of etchings and aquatints demonstrates a different side of the artist’s color sensibility. In AT I (1973), bright pinks and greens contribute a feeling of depth, movement, and even translucency. Here and in subsequent etching and aquatint series, the artist introduces color and texture by using torn pieces of paper, decorative doilies, and other such materials. The layered compositions, which are not as modular as Nevelson’s work, appear less self-contained and reflect a different, inventive freedom.
For Helen Frankenthaler (who, sadly, recently passed away), color has always been of prime importance: It features prominently in her earliest poured and stained canvases of the 1950s, the fluidity of which quickly earned Frankenthaler the dubious honor of being labeled the artistic “bridge” between Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings of the 1940s and a subsequent generation of (mostly male) color field painters, including Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland; it is also central to a more recent series of woodcuts, ones inspired by the artist’s sustained interest in the Japanese ukiyo-e tradition. First produced in the seventeenth century, ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) celebrate the evanescent pleasures of the sensual and natural world. Typically produced with upward of thirty colors and multiple printing blocks, the Japanese woodcut tradition emphasizes precision and delicacy.
Frankenthaler mastered the technique without forgoing the improvisational fluidity and color transparency of her signature style. The 34-color woodcut Snow Pines (2004) consists of broad areas of subtly modulated colors punctuated by dynamic brush swaths and swirls. Evocative of a landscape without, strictly speaking, representing one, the print is lush and painterly in a manner that all but defies its graphic origins. Though a far cry technically from Frankenthaler’s innovative stained paintings, the woodcut prints may prove to be just as significant in terms of their contribution to the field of contemporary printmaking.
The same cannot be said for Kara Walker’s foray into printmaking. Though related stylistically and thematically to the artist’s adroit cut-paper silhouette installations, the works included here seem to be little more than collectible versions of such creations. To be sure, the artist’s irreverent humor is still evident in Walker’s absurdist reimagining of the antebellum South. In Scene 6 of the silkscreen suite Emancipation Approximation (1999–2000), a kneeling slave serves as a chair for his master, in front of whom a female slave kneels to perform fellatio; above them two winged cupids lock lips. The unlikely combination of sentimentality and degradation, which remains as intentionally ambiguous as it is emotionally charged, is typical of all of the images in the suite.
Walker’s work, which has famously inspired both accolades and indictments, has virtually nothing in common with Nevelson’s jigsawlike, abstract compositions. And yet, somewhat improbably, the juxtaposition of the two in Avery’s gallery made me pause. To be sure, the color schemes are similar (blacks, whites, and grays) but the commonality lies elsewhere. In each body of work, a play of opposites—flatness and recession, curves and straight lines, organic forms and empty spaces—demands careful viewing. The impact of each lies in the respective details, in how these details function in tandem, and ultimately in weighing what we know against what we see unfolding in front of us, whether it’s in the intricate constructions of Nevelson’s prints and cast reliefs or the figurative dramas of Walker’s silkscreens.
Walker’s imaginative narratives and hybrid creatures pose significant challenges to any attempt to essentialize gender or racial identities. At the same time, the artist reminds us of the extent to which such identities are inevitably shaped, regulated, and formally institutionalized, such that—to recall the exhibition title—any metaphorical claim to have shattered the “glass ceiling” still remains the exception to the rule. Ultimately, the eclectic grouping of Nevelson, Frankenthaler, and Walker demonstrates that no singular style, theme, or attitude defines the “woman artist”; by extension, no one formula can predict her ability to be exceptional or great. It is a shame, however, that there remains a perceived need to make such a qualification.
The Glass Ceiling Shattered: 30 Years—3 Great American Women Artists will remain up at Alan Avery Art Company through February 10, 2012.