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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I happen to have read Clark's artist's statement, as well as her thesis, in which she addresses both the seemingly phallic nature of some of the pieces, as well as her reason for using flowers.
I think that she uses flowers exactly because they ARE expected; but these flowers, rather than being phallic, are powerful. You dismiss the validity of this work too soon- the answers to your questions actually lie in your questions...

Kathy said...

"rather than being phallic?" They are phallic. And they are white. Are these the characteristics that make them powerful?

After speaking with Clark, I'm not sure I dismiss her discussion as much as the visual language she has adopted.

This work seems to volley between feminine/flower and masculine/phallic, thus employing stereotypical labels....labels she is attempting to challenge.

Sarah Davis said...

I realize this post is a bit dated, but I stumbled upon this while looking for a web link to share with another artist friend and I have to respond - I shared a studio with Gayle for a year in the MFA program.

And to add pretext to the following post: I do apologize that it sounds bitchy - I'm just passionate ;)

At what length did you discuss this with her?

First of all, of course they are phallic - flowers are naturally so and most art-educated people understand this, going back to O'Keeffe and further back to ancient history. Gayle's later work has consistently been phallic - didn't you see the larger-than-life sperm in the Manifest Masters show? To me, the phallic quality of her work perpetuates the sense of what she is trying to communicate - sexuality and the stereotype that women are and must be beautiful, sexual objects that make you want to look and even touch them (Gayle has spoken frequently about the sensualness of tactile experiences and for me, her work elicits that urge).

Second, she decided upon white because that is often the color thought of as pure (also a social stereotype - wedding dresses...that's why mine was silver ;) ), but it also allows the form to speak for itself. IMO, if it had been dolled up in colors, they would have been over-the-top (and not in a good way). This way, the color not only adds to the context, but it does no distract from the form.

Third, her work certainly does volley between the feminine/flower and masculine/phallic - which is how she is challenging the labels. She is presenting these works to us in such a way that, at first glance, we instantly recognize that they are flowers - albeit abstractions (which is also purposeful - if they were exact replicas of flowers then we would stand to completely miss the point; since they are only alluding to flowers we may have seen, then it allows us to more quickly realize that they must contain greater meaning).

I could go on, but I realize that this must be too old of a post that you probably won't even realize there is a new comment... (lol at myself)

Anyway, if you really wanted to understand Gayle's work, you should have tried to actually have a dialogue with her, not just listen to her artist talk or read her statement, or however it was you came by her information...was this for a school project? If so, please do a bit more research before posting about someone's work - not appreciating someone's work is one thing, but not taking the time to really understand where it is coming from and then commenting on your misperceptions is quite another.

Sarah Davis said...

I just took the time to read your profile - I still stand by what I said (though I do apologize for the disrespect about the research part - I honestly believed you to be a student) and will add that I did find it ironic that you cited O'Keeffe for (and praised) Jennifer Acus-Smith's work and pointedly bashed Gayle's for her choice of depiction...

After briefly looking at her site, I definitely appreciate Jennifer's work - I especially love her portrait treatments and compositional references.

However, as you stated, O'Keeffe's influence in her work is impossible to ignore - she has basically repeated the same exact head-on perspective that O'Keeffe adopted. While also referencing O'Keeffe, Gayle put a definite and purposeful twist on it rather than copying/altering...which she could have done if she had wanted, so it was a definite decision she considered and made.

Perhaps it is just me, but I am more impressed with a work that comes at me from another angle (pun not intended, but it works ;) ) than just rehashing what has been done.