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Women on art: What does 'woman artist' mean?
"Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou," opening at Seattle Art Museum on Oct. 11, 2012, features renowned artists from around the world. The Seattle Times talks with a trio of local artists about their work and how, or whether, being female has an influence on their work.
Special to The Seattle Times
Banners at Seattle Art Museum announce that "women are taking over," getting us primed for the big exhibition titled "Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou," which debuts Thursday.
In some ways that is true. One hundred and thirty significant works of art by 75 female artists have arrived from Paris to take over the special exhibition galleries.
And, in a bold move inspired by the Pompidou show, SAM is radically changing its own installation of modern and contemporary art, a display that's been in place since the big remodel in 2007.
The third-floor galleries have been emptied of works by men, and through Feb. 17, 2013, they will be filled with work from SAM's permanent collection, local private collections and a solo show with new work by Victoria Haven.
We'll get to see art by such heavy hitters as Louise Bourgeois, Imogen Cunningham, Eva Hesse, Yayoi Kusama and Georgia O'Keeffe.
On the other hand, women artists aren't just arriving. They're already here. Seattle is home to an extraordinary number of successful, interesting female artists. I invited three of them, each at a different career stage, to talk about whether being a woman affects their work, and the significance of major museum exhibitions of art made exclusively by women.
Media: Painting, mixed-media sculpture
Education: Master of fine arts, printmaking, University of Washington
Last show: "Provenance: In Honor of Arlene Schnitzer," Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon
Q: You were in graduate school in the early 1970s, during a time when feminism and civil-rights efforts were breaking down barriers within art and in society at large. Did any of that impact your emergence as an artist?
A: It really informed a lot of what I was already inclined to do. It gave me freedom to explore subjects that were close to me, especially familial relationships.
After grad school, I worked in the Women's Studies department and I was very influenced by that extant of that world. My first piece out of grad school was funded by a grant that I'd gotten — (art critic and curator) Lucy Lippard was one of the jurors — and I did a piece called "Women, Body and Space, A Personal Ritual." It opened up too much emotional territory for me and I decided that it was not a direction I wanted to go.
Q: After turning to figurative painting, you then focused on beading and embellishing, craft methods that might be considered "feminine." You have used these methods to transform trophy heads, markers of masculinity. Is this a deliberate juxtaposition?
A: I think it comes out in the hunting trophies. The classic emblems of a hunter, which is something that is as far away from my upbringing as you could get.
And then the embroidery, beading and sewing feminizes them. But that's just a beginning. I knew what I was doing, but I didn't have an agenda. There was just a foreignness to hunting that I was interested in.
At the same time, I was interested in Native American culture and indigenous ways of survival. It wasn't just contemporary maleness, it was cultural history, going all the way back to the cave paintings.
I'm still interested in that in some of my new paintings. I'm interested not only in male/female contrasts but cultural contrasts, the dynamics of misunderstanding, in how we see the other culture and how the other culture sees us.
Q: What do you think about a major art exhibition in 2012 comprised entirely of artists who are women?
A: People have told me that my career or my subject matter have suffered because I'm a woman, making comments like, "Men won't buy dolls." I don't pay attention to that, but I do think women still need to be shown — separately and together. Because, historically, women have been treated the way they have — which was not to be seen — and because there are places in the world where women still can't be seen, there is still a need to show women's work.
Media: Mixed media including painting, drawing, sculpture
Education: MFA, Goldsmiths College/University of London
Last solo exhibit: "Hit the North" at Greg Kucera Gallery
Q: Catharina Manchanda (curator of modern and contemporary art, who organized "Elles: SAM" along with Patricia Junker) asked you to create new work for "Elles: SAM." How did you respond to being positioned among these well-known artists who are all women?
A: The way Catharina described it made me feel like a kid in a candy store. We walked through the galleries and she said, "And the Joan Mitchells would be here, and then Agnes Martin and Jo Baer, and then the Frankenthalers will be in this room. And then Sherrie Levine and Jenny Holzer and Adrian Piper." And everyone that she said, they were all artists that I look to.
Q: You've created a new body of work for this show. What are we going to see?
A: The only piece that's not brand-new is "Mix Tape" (a large-scale wall painting of the label for a mix tape). It was carved out of the wall of my old studio and it has been transformed into a manifestation of what the whole show has been conceived as: a series of portable monuments that address ideas of progression and belonging and permanence.
They're about a very specific relation to studio spaces I've had — a progression across Seattle — I'm in my 11th studio! But the title "Proposed Land Use Action" has a double meaning. It refers to my geographical position in my urban landscape, but also my position in the landscape of art making.
Q: Your work is often formal and minimal; gender issues don't seem to be overtly present. Can you point to ways that being a woman affects your work?
A: With "Mix Tape," all of my relationships around this tape happened to be relationships with guys — friends who made the tape for me in 1986 — and at the time most of those bands were four or five guys.
They're sort of my muses. I've thought about it as a kind of role reversal. But also that wondering about how you belong, or fit into a landscape of relationships, is embedded in that piece. For me it (gender) is overt in that piece but it may not be as overt in other pieces.
Being given this position in this continuum, this art-making legacy, has brought up questions about how I fit in with the other women in this show. But, also, I'm always butting heads and overlapping and configuring my relationship with the forefathers of modernism. Maybe my job is just to make my work the best way that I can and add to the conversation in that way.
Media: Paintings, drawings, video
Education: Bachelor of arts, literature, Oral Roberts University
Last exhibition: "Can't Get There From Here" at Lawrimore Project
Q: As an emerging artist, what are your thoughts on being a woman in the art world today? Is it something you think about?
A: I honestly don't think about it at all. I'm a little frustrated by all the frenzy around being a woman artist. It feels like it's ghettoizing women all over again. People ask me if I'm a feminist — I don't consider myself a feminist artist but anyone who has common sense these days is a feminist. It's about human decency.
Q: But you do seem to be interested in issues related to being a woman, mother-daughter images, motifs about the female body.
A: It's a paradox for me. I'm not setting out to do anything for my gender as an artist. I'm just compelled to make art. But my work does have something to do with gender, these pictures of vaginas and women. The female body comes up a lot in my work. I'm a pastor's kid and I grew up really wanting to be a boy.
When I first menstruated, it was a heartbreak. If I had grown up in a liberal environment, who knows, it might have been different, but I didn't know how to deal with those feelings of being a girl.
I still have an uneasy relationship with my body. I had an eating disorder for 10 years. A lot of what I do is trying to reconcile having this body; it's painful and a struggle.
Q: One of the ideas that "Elles" explores is how traditional ways of approaching art history can be disrupted. Does that relate to your own work?
A: I have an adaptive approach and I recycle history all the time. I start from literature or art or performances. Earlier this year, I was obsessed with the Vienna Actionists and I wanted to do my own adaptations of their performances that involved a female but I wanted to be in the active role. In almost all of their performances, the female was the object, being penetrated, and acted upon. I wanted to be the protagonist.