Sunday, July 27, 2008

De-Flowering the Artist

There are generally two approaches to feminist art. One recognizes the absence of female artists in museums and galleries. This approach also sees the designation of certain media, such as needlework and ceramics as specifically feminine. The second approach instead addresses the way women have been or are portrayed in art and the media. These portrayals, it is argued, create a feminine social construct to which women are restricted. Both artistic approaches investigate Western notions of beauty and explore women’s historical role as the object of this beauty. Works by two emerging artists currently showing separately in Cincinnati are stepping into the feminist art debate with different results.

Gayle Shaw Clark’s two stoneware pieces are currently on view as part of Manifest Gallery’s Master Pieces. The large sculpted flowers are part of a series of 15 that depict the stages of life, birth to death, of this flower. For the artist, the flower is the symbol an inherent beauty at every stage of a woman’s life. Clark cites art historians Linda Nochlin and Nancy Friday who have written about societal constructs of beauty to which women are expected to adhere. And like many women, Clark can cite numerous anecdotes revealing women’s frustration with societal expectations. So why flowers? Doesn’t Clark risk perpetuating the societal construct of feminine beauty she claims frustrates her? Furthermore, the flower Clark chooses is phallic. She doesn’t name the flower, but it resembles the infamous Corpse Flower. This is not a flower known for its beauty, but for its horrible odor. Of course this last detail opens up a whole other can of....well, you know.

The multi-media work of Jennifer Acus-Smith was exhibited at The Gathering in Over-the Rhine during Final Friday. Acus-Smith quite easily adopts the visual language of well-known feminist artists as she engages the questions of feminine beauty in the fashion industry. For example, the more recent work of Cindy Sherman, photos of dismembered (and re-membered?) mannequins, echoes in Acus-Smith’s digital prints. These present what look like collages made of magazine images of female body parts reconfigured to illustrate a contorted sense of feminine beauty. Consumer excesses directed to adorning the female body is a focus in the Acus-Smith’s work. Though as with Clark’s work, flowers find a way in Acus-Smith’s paintings. Here, the influence of Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers is impossible to ignore. Instead of the corpse flower, emphasized vulvar forms are present Acus-Smith’s work.

Perhaps my response to Clark’s work is not so much cerebral as instinctual. To accept two large white stoneware phallic flowers as symbolic of feminine beauty threatens a small but powerful fit of hysterics (yes, I said this) from this viewer. Is mine an old feminist rage sounding “after how far we’ve come…?” Perhaps. But as an art historian, I am more confident about an artist who references the work of past artists who are established participants in the discussion. For this reason I look forward to watching Acus-Smith as she continues to develop her unique visual language in the feminist art debate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Artistic Narratives

The works in the current exhibition at Manifest Gallery, Master Pieces present some long lasting trends like portraiture and nudes, the requisite sculpture, photography, and conceptual work. Though in this wonderfully interesting mix I noticed what seems to be a newer theme or interest. Alongside of feminist inquiries and contemplations of memory, we find in this current exhibition an interest in narrative constructs. Art, particularly painting and sculpture has always been a storytelling tool. The power of these media as conduits of realism went unquestioned throughout much of history. Photography enjoyed such persuasive powers at its birth until about the middle of the 20th century. We now know that one does not take a picture, but instead makes one.

Fittingly, photography is the medium of choice for both Thea Augustina Eck and Svala Olafsdottir whose works are part of the Master Pieces show. Both artists pay special attention to the constructs of narratives, historical and mythological. Eck’s It Is Never Tomorrow series is made of 24 photographs (two are at Manifest Gallery) that explore the work of Early British Arctic Explorers. Photography allows Eck to present this series as a record of historical fact, yet as an artist, she fully recognizes her freedom to interpret history and re-present the historical narrative. There is no way her beautiful photographs that monumentalize figures in the arctic landscape could have been taken during the historical period she presents. It is this flux between fact and fiction that is a fundamental element of the historical narrative she exposes.

Svala Olafsdottir also works in photography and inspired by the past. From Iceland, much of her work is grounded in Icelandic mythology and fables. Though this is her source, Svala claims not to be a storyteller herself. Instead she is interested in what she calls non-linear narratives. Her Untitled #2, a photograph on canvas presents what looks like a person’s face underwater, perhaps drowning. While this viewer is not familiar with Icelandic folklore, seaside Norse history makes me somewhat confident about the setting. Despite what may be an eerie image of death or dying, the lush colors, light and rippling water provide a mesmerizing effect that is inviting. Lifting scenes from otherwise well-known fables allows the viewer (even those familiar with these specific stories) to re-view the stories outside of their linear constructs.

Both artists recognize the role of stories and histories in our cultures. It is refreshing to see artists making such self-referential statements presenting the role of the storyteller, the media, and the implication of the reader.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Refitting the Museum

The Cincinnati Art Museum’s new exhibition, Long Time No See sets to pitch the need for an expansion that will include additional gallery space. As with many such exhibitions, it is designed as a bit of teaser for what is to come; a P.R. push to open a capital campaign that will kick-start the museum’s expansion. The show claims to capture the “soul of the Cincinnati Art Museum.” The museum seems to speak of itself in corporeal terms. The “soul” is the inner cavity of the building in which these objects have been held for 10 or more years. Thus the focus of the show is the body of the museum rather than the body of work.

The exhibition does display some wonderful pieces from various cultures and periods. As I walked through the galleries there were many times I wondered almost aloud why some of these pieces have not been rotating out of storage. A Gauguin, a handful of wonderful paintings by Degas and a beautifully whimsical piece by Mark Fox, Congregation, 2005 can almost certainly find room in the current galleries. For others like a Japanese screen, more room means simply more storage since the age and delicacy of the screen may allow only rare viewings no matter how much gallery space is added.

There are those pieces in the exhibition that easily demand to be pulled out of storage that are simply breathtaking. These include African and Asian works as well as a Mesopotamian floor mosaic. The Cincinnati Art Museum has always been deficient in space dedicated to “other” art histories, reserving these collections for the underbellies of stairwells. I hope the expansion will correct this embarrassing problem.

Finally, the show presents the model for the expansion. As expected, many have criticisms and praises for the look of the building’s exterior or its body. But it is its interior; how we reveal that which resides in the "soul" of the museum that is most important.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Ohio Arts Icon, Dr. Sherman Lee Dies

The former director of the Cleveland Museum of Art died this week. He served as director from 1958 until 1983 and is certainly responsible for the museum's admirable standing in the art world. Few realize that the CMA has been ranked in the top 5 art museums in the world.

Personally I am grateful to him for instilling in me an absolute love of Asian Art. It was his text, A History of Far Eastern Art, that I poured over and happily toted (though so heavy!) for a semester. It was through Dr. Lee's eye that I saw the beauty in the act of the painter's stroke. And it is because of him we have one of the greatest art institutions in the world here in Ohio.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Toy Stories

Radiohead’s Thom York says: "The reason 'Fitter Happier' exists is 'cos of mental background noise. Some days you're in a disturbed state and it moves to the front." Cincinnati artist Stephen Smith seems to present this movement from back to front (and back again?) in the 6 panels that make up his Fitter, Happier, More Productive currently on view at Red Tree Gallery in Oakley. Approaching these panels in the gallery from right to left start from more abstract blurs toward focused images. Is this blur the disturbed state to which York refers? Or perhaps it is the image of what look like Playmobil toys that represent this state. It is the presence of recognizable toys in Smith’s work that got me thinking about the role of toys in our culture as conduits of pop themes.

For over the last generation, we have seen a number of pop cultural characters appear in the toy aisles. Most notable are comic book super heroes like Superman and Disney characters like Mickey Mouse. Now it seems as though absolutely no children’s programming will hit the airwaves unless it is paired with a toy that has marketing potential. While the pop icon as toy is such a common presence in our culture, more recently I (and no doubt you) have noticed an interesting shift to toy as pop icon.
Trying to determine the birth of this trend, I go back only to Pixar’s Toy Story. (Perhaps this can be traced back much further?) This film was cast with a number of our favorite toys such as Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, little army men, and barrel of monkeys. While I don’t want to take away from the wonderful story, the film’s success at least partly relies on our own sense of nostalgia and love of our childhood toys. Toy Story effectively revealed the impact toys have on our childhoods and Toy Story 2 revealed the exploitation of that impact.

The movement of toys from the store to the screen has further conflated the pop icon as toy/toy as pop icon roles in our culture. Dare I say it? The toy has gone Post-Modern on us. Today video games based on the extremely popular films that make up Star Wars and Indiana Jones not only exploit the love of the films, but like Toy Story also tap into our nostalgic love of toys, specifically Lego. These video games allow us enter the well-known plots as Lego characters of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Indiana Jones.

Stephen Smith’s work is notable for its representation of toys as pop icons of our culture. And in many he seems to be following the current trend of employing the toy in his exploration of universal and sometimes grand themes in popular culture. His Where I End and You Begin is another Radiohead lyric reference that again finds the image of a toy. While Smith’s work can be whimsical or even appear comical, a closer look may reveal that these are not merely children’s playthings.

Monday, July 7, 2008


“piece•work,” the sculpture of Walter Zurko currently exhibited in the Weston Art Gallery is simultaneously beautiful in its minimalist formal aesthetic and uncomfortable as a group of objects pointing towards the utility of hard labor. Almost immediately upon entering the gallery, I was struck by the harshness of the subject. The cages and yokes, easily recognizable forms, seem to present an older more rugged time as objects in a history or anthropology museum. The only thing missing are the drawings or photographs of individuals using these tools in the home or on farms. Still without such labels, these objects evoke entrapment. Even the familiarity of repetition of the bars of the cages or the inviting smoothness of the wood of the yokes does not eliminate the thought of individuals trapped or burdened in their work. I could not help but imagine individuals working with these objects, thus bearing the yokes or trapped in the cuffs that seem to decoratively hang on the gallery wall.
By moving towards more representational works, Zurko similarly traps the viewer in a need to resolve this ambiguity. How do we resolve our desire to admire the tactile aesthetic of objects that painfully hold captive workers in their craft?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Public Intimacies

An exploration of private versus public spaces is present throughout modern and contemporary art. A couple of artists whose works are currently showing in the Carnegie’s Go Figure continue this discussion. Kate Holterhoff invites the viewer into private domestic spaces while Ying Fang Shen opens the doors to a public bath or spa.

More brilliant in person, the work of Kate Holterhoff presents the wonderfully expressive qualities of painting. Her Self-Portrait fittingly portrayed in bold strokes of color shows her standing and confidently accepting the gaze. This boldness in her style however does not overshadow the intimacy shared with her subjects. Similar to well-known artist, Mary Cassatt, Holterhoff invites her viewer into domestic spaces finding friends and family. Oftentimes paintings like The Ladies at the Party, 2006 are welcoming. Here the artist seems to borrow directly from Cassatt’s Tea Party the subject of leisure and friendship. Holterhoff’s nudes are equally inviting in their beauty. Mallory is an absolutely beautiful modern “Venus” figure.

Though other times, Holterhoff’s intimate portrayals can force the viewer into an unwilling voyeur. Christy done in 2005 places the viewer in what seems to be an uncomfortable role. We find ourselves looking down at Christy as if reprimanding her. Here intimacy calls on the viewer to be a critic not of the painting, but of the subject. Continuing with the Impressionists, I look to Degas who also worked with unusual perspectives. He too allowed the viewer an uncomfortably dominant gaze.

The work of Ying Fang Shen instead dominates the viewer. Like Holterhoff, she borrows from a long artistic tradition; here, Chinese hanging scrolls. These large drawings of men bathing (there are woman too) at a public bath monumentalize the male nude not often seen in an Eastern painting tradition despite the ancient cultural tradition of the Asian bath houses. Because of this, Ying Fang Shen forces this art historian to travel both east and west through various periods of art to find an historical context for her work. It’s a great trip. What I find is an interesting hybrid of subject and style. The focus on the male body seen in the ancient west presented in a traditional eastern medium. In this way, the works make public in the west what we often deemed private.