Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Through the Prism of Gender"

A thought-provoking piece in the New York Times about women in art caught my attention last month. You can read the whole article on-line. Written by Hilarie M. Sheets, it begins,
"At the peak of her career in 1976, Georgia O'Keeffe refused to lend her work to a pivotal exhibition in Los Angeles, 'Women Artists: 1550 to 1950'. It was one of a wave of all-female shows - some 150 - that decade to spotlight artists largely ignored by major museums and galleries. But O'Keeffe, the most famous female artist of her day, saw herself in a different category - 'one of the best painters,' period.

Georgia O'Keeffe

"The feminist art historian Linda Nochlin borrowed an O'Keeffe painting elsewhere and put her in the show anyway. Yet despite these exhibitions, neither O'Keeffe nor any other woman would break into "Janson's History of Art," the leading textbook, until 1987, and equality remained elusive. 
"While some artists are ambivalent about being viewed through the lens of gender, the all-women's group show, which fell out of favor in the '80s and '90s, is flourishing again...." 

The article goes on to list a number of current shows focusing on the work of women, which are seen by some as a corrective measure, making up for centuries of being overlooked by the mainstream. Also discussed is the price gap: good art by women is relatively under-priced, and so considered to be a buying opportunity.

Currently, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art is running "Her Story Today", focusing on the work of six contemporary painters, all women, from Quebec and Canada.

The issue of ghettoization is raised in the article, and parallels are drawn to shows that focus on African-American art. Washington DC is home to both the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian.

I think that the public financing of these gender- or minority-specific museums is justified by the lack of representation in the mainstream. If women taxpayers are required to fund institutions which allow them less than ten percent of the floorspace, why should there not be a remedial "catching-up"? Those who argue that the quality of the art on display should trump issues of equal representation might reflect on the degree to which cultural bias determines our ideas of "quality".  The article in the New York Times quotes Janice Sands, the executive director of Pen and Brush, a 122-year-old nonprofit New York gallery that showcases only work by emerging female artists and writers:
"Our conclusion is that showing work by women exclusively is a way to get right at the heart of the stereotype that there's just not enough good work by women. People come into our gallery where there is no obvious indication that all the work is by women. They read the information cards. They're surprised. They buy."
It is to be hoped that with curators more conscious than ever about inclusion of minorities in their shows and collections, corrective measures will some day not be necessary. Parallels can be drawn to "affirmative action", a similarly controversial topic.

Tendency, Lorraine Pritchard

One woman painter who has recently caught my eye is Montrealer Lorraine Pritchard.  I want to learn more about her, not because she's a woman but because I really like her take on abstract expressionism.

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