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Originally published October 10, 2012 at 1:51 PM | Page modified October 10, 2012 at 4:21 PM

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SAM's 'Elles' frames female artists in a new way

Art historian and writer Gayle Clemans reviews "Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris," on view at Seattle Art Museum from Oct. 11, 2012. to Jan. 13, 2013.

Special to The Seattle Times

Exhibition review

'Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris'

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, through Jan. 13, 2013, Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle. With related programming at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the Olympic Sculpture Park and at sites across Seattle (206-654-3100 or seattleartmuseum.org/elles).
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How often do you think about your gender? Does being a woman or man affect your work? These questions are at the heart of a big new show titled "Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris," now on view at Seattle Art Museum.

The topical exhibition is a distilled version of one mounted by the Pompidou — Paris' repository of modern and contemporary art — in 2009. It comprises 130 works of art by 75 women artists.

You could argue that our gender affects everything we do, whether overtly or unconsciously. This may be particularly true for modern and contemporary artists, many of whom regularly engage in self-expression.

On the other hand, it is tricky business to view complex artistic forces solely through a gendered lens. Co-curators Cécile Debray, from the Pompidou, and Marisa Sanchez, from SAM, handle this problem deftly, mainly choosing works of art, or art movements, where gender matters. The exhibition follows a loose chronological structure that is interrupted by cross-era thematic groupings like "Muses against the Museum."

The portions of art from the past 50 years are satisfying, with plenty of belligerent, humorous or intimate works by major artists like Carolee Schneemann, Cindy Sherman and Mona Hatoum. The show is well-stocked with video and photography, experimental areas in which, according to Debray, "women played an important role because these fields were less occupied by the establishment."

Anyone planning on visiting with children should pay attention to warning signs outside the galleries — you'll encounter graphic nudity and visceral provocation, as in a powerful video by Sigalit Landau, in which the artist hula-hoops with barbed wire.

Unfortunately, the exhibition falls short in the first galleries, where early art is sparely hung and even a wonderful gathering of works by Sonia Delaunay don't make a loud enough announcement that this is an important show.

I am not bemoaning the fact that so many modern artists are not here; this is a selection thrice over — a selection of works from the original 2009 show, which revolved around selections from the Pompidou's collection. And every museum collection is a selective representation of a wider whole.

These empty-seeming spots could indicate the transparent nature of the show, which is about female artists, yes, but also about the way art history is framed and the practices of one institution, the Centre Pompidou, which radically reinstalled its permanent collection of modern and contemporary art — one of the most extensive in the world — to focus on female artists.

During a walk-through of the show at SAM earlier this week, Alain Seban, director of the Centre Pompidou, told me that the original "Elles" exhibition at the Pompidou affected the institution in a number of ways, saying, "With a temporary show, you can borrow what you need from other collections, but when you're working with the permanent collection, there are strong points and weaknesses and sometimes things are simply missing. With 'Elles' we shifted the focus of our acquisition policy towards female artists to fill a few gaps in the collection. Feminist, activist art — artists like Hannah Wilke and Orlan — is now more present in the collection. And because our collection has encyclopedic depth in other areas, it was a unique occasion to try and write new narratives, to offer new readings of the history of 20th-century art."

SAM has drawn inspiration from this bold, self-reflective approach, and reinstalled its own modern and contemporary art galleries with works by women from SAM's permanent collection and borrowed from local collections. Here again, there are hits and misses. The long wall of big, colorful, gestural abstract paintings by Joan Mitchell offers a striking welcome to the third floor. Catharina Manchanda, who organized this re-installation along with Patricia Junker, points out that these paintings provide a nice conceptual bridge with the show from Paris. In the late 1950s, Mitchell, an American artist, moved to France where her work is well-known.

Works by the obsessive Yayoi Kusama and the conceptual-leaning, Seattle-based artist Victoria Haven hang nicely as individual shows and the room with gloriously paint-stained canvases by Helen Frankenthaler is stunning. In other galleries, however, it feels like everything is pushed up against the walls or that we are waiting for more works to show up.

Overall, between "Elles: SAM" and "Elles: Pompidou," there is enough accumulation of works across three floors of the museum to give the sense that women — as the museum's marketing slogan claims — have taken over, and an ambitious array of related programming by other cultural organizations across the city makes this feel like a significant event. It is also simply a thrill to see key works from the Pompidou, like Suzanne Valadon's "The Blue Room," of 1923.

For many museum visitors, some of these names may be unfamiliar, a fact which supports the continued need for shows like this. But this is not a tidy, feminized re-telling of the flow of art historical movements. It is, instead, a revelation, in fits and starts, of the varied positions — hidden, forthright, peripheral and integral — occupied by women artists.

Art historian Gayle Clemans teaches at Cornish College of the Arts and regularly writes about visual arts for The Seattle Times.

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