Last Thursday I attended the opening exhibition party for “King Woman” at Pen & Brush. This exhibition, featuring 25 emerging and existing female-identifying artists, spanned the two floors of the gallery on East 22nd Street. After taking in the paintings, photographs, and sculptures on the ground floor, I descended the industrial staircase to a lower level filled with more artwork (and a bustling bar serving both mimosas and chocolate chip sea salt cookies). It was incredible to see so many people at the opening- easily 300 or more. I have attended openings with significantly fewer visitors, perhaps due to the ease in which people may purchase art online. It is a testament to Pen & Brush’s importance as an institution that there were hundreds of people there to support, discuss, and buy the works of art.
Pen & Brush was founded in 1894 by an incredible painter named Janet C. Lewis who was frustrated by the exclusivity of the male-dominated literary and artistic scenes in New York City. For the past 123 years, Pen & Brush has served as both an incubator and and a platform for emerging and existing female talent.
It is only natural, then, that “King Woman” was curated by Mashona Tifrere. In 2016, Tifrere founded ArtLeadHER, an organization that mentors female artists. In the exhibition catalogue Tifrere writes, “[These artists show] that women can be more than Goddess or Queen: that they are capable of being the pinnacle of power and strength. That they are capable of being King.” She goes on to explain that the featured artists celebrate their gender, but are not confined by it. This point hits home for many women- haven’t we all been told at some point that we were pretty smart… for a girl? The artists in “King Woman” are talented, smart, creative, emotional, and powerful women. They celebrate their womanhood. Simultaneously, they are kings, and their gender is just one aspect of their rule.
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I got the chance to speak more about this dual identity with Stephanie Hirsch. When asked about the tendency of female artists to become “pigeon-holed into a feminist camp” Hirsch explained how she was able to celebrate her womanhood without being labeled. “I think the stereotype of a feminist is inherently changing,” she wrote, “but I still think it has some pretty harsh connotations. I do not need to be harsh to get my message across. I use beautiful imagery and strong words as a juxtaposition. A woman can be beautiful and stand tall and proud in her peaceful power.” Hirsch’s work is not an expression of feminist discourse but a celebration of all aspects of femininity. It also delves into a variety of other themes, such as self-growth and spiritual exploration.
Indestructible (2016) epitomizes Hirsch’s perspective.
With Indestructible, Hirsch has constructed a beaded garden wonderland. Leaves and flowers decorate the surface of the canvas, sprouting vibrant petals of red, purple, blue, and yellow. They sparkle in the light as one’s eyes travel the canvas, making the experience of consuming Indestructible dynamic and ever-changing. The artist also includes the figure of a snake and that of a skull (the latter in the center bottom portion of the canvas). As Hirsch notes in the exhibition catalogue, gardens often symbolize personal growth. The combination of symbols indicating both life and death highlights this metaphor. As one develops physically, intellectually and emotionally, his spirit blossoms like a flower. However, there is temptation all around, shown here in the guise of a snake, a symbol established in Genesis. In the first book of the Bible, the snake tempts Eve to eat a forbidden apple which leads to man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The snake is now synonymous with treachery and temptation. Secondly, the small beaded skull symbolizes the inevitability of death. Though the snake and the skull serve as contemporary memento mori (reminders of death), the overall message of Indestructible is not to live in fear of mortality. If anything, Indestructible reminds the viewer of the inevitability of the circle of life. Yes, life bears death, but death will surely give way for more life.
The presence of the superimposed title over the garden imagery underlines this concept. Flowers, snakes, and skulls are all ephemeral objects, but something here is indestructible. Hirsch writes that gardens within our souls experience a rotation of light and darkness. She emphasizes the fact that it is impossible for life to ever stay the same– one must come to terms with this and accept life for what it is. Perhaps the soul, then, is what is indestructible. The very existence of the garden- though its appearance may change- is everlasting.
And so, Indestructible reflects themes of self-growth and the life cycle. It references the female experience through the allusion to Adam & Eve, and perhaps the femininity of a garden scene, but its purpose is greater. The use of beads as a medium allow for the multiplicity of associations Indestructible bears. “I use beading intentionally for its literal and figurative depth,” wrote Hirsch, “and [for its] illumination to higher consciousness.”
You can read more about Stephanie Hirsch on her website, here.
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I also really enjoyed the artwork of Azi Amiri, who I had the good fortune of talking to at the opening. Amiri is an Iranian artist whose work explores the expression and perception of Muslim identity. She focuses especially on how Muslim women are dehumanized in society. Take a look at the work she exhibited at “King Woman,” I Am A Dreamer (2012).
And here are several details of the work:
For I Am A Dreamer, Amiri wrote to her friends in Iran and asked them to send her photographs of themselves wearing a hijab. She then removed the faces and bodies from the images, leaving behind colorful hijabs wrapped around invisible faces. Each hijab is positioned differently and made of different colorful fabrics. As Amiri explained to me, women express their individuality through their hijab. She also described the rebellious way with which many women in Iran position their hijab, so that some of their hair is visible. According to Amiri, “The way you wear a scarf is the statement you make in a way that shows on which side of the game you are standing. Depending on how tightly you wear the scarf or how much hair you are revealing, you may affirm how much you approve the force behind the mandatory hijab.” Thus, choosing to reveal a lot of hair is a statement against the mandatory nature of the hijab. The women in I Am A Dreamer exist along a “spectrum of believers and non-believers,” revealing varying amounts of their hair. In this way Amiri used the hijab to communicate the diversity of Muslim women.
Amiri also asked her friends to send a sentence, beginning with “I,” about themselves. Some of Amiri’s responses were simple and light-hearted (I am slowly falling asleep at the keyboard zzzzzzzz.) Others were poignant reinforcements of identity (I am confident enough to follow my heart.) These sentences reflect genuine human thoughts that are not exclusive to Muslim women. By including these universal thoughts beside images of Muslim identity, Amiri informs the viewer of the humanity and diversity of Muslim women. It is an important service she undertakes, as Muslim women are often dehumanized and de-individualized.
The effect of the work is powerful. It does not feel like an attack on the viewer for having preconceived prejudices. The colors are soft, the images are arranged in a balanced grid, and the words are written in a genial typeface. But the calmness with which Amiri communicates is precisely what gets through to even the densest of viewers. She pulls us in with the grid’s hypnotic nature and then hits us with the realization of our prejudices. In this way Amiri adeptly handles both the political and physical material of her work in order to communicate with her viewers.
You can read more about Azi Amiri’s work on her website, here. You will notice that she works in a wide range of styles, which I found fascinating. She works in printmaking, painting, drawing, sculpture, video, and digital mediums. Says Amiri, “Mediums are different containers for your thoughts and ideas… Those times that I just want to touch and feel the softness, whiteness, and smooth surface of a paper, I am not going to use anything else.”
If you’d like to work with Amiri, check out her art-making workshops at the Met. On November 4th she will be leading a free printmaking workshop at the World Culture Festival. Check it out!
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When I descended the stairwell to the lower level I was instantly drawn to Lynn Spoor’s Flower Path (2017). It was lit so beautifully the colors seemed to jump off the canvas. Take a look at this mesmerizing piece below:
I looked at Flower Path before reading its title. The swaths of blue swept downwards with a palette knife reminded me of waterfalls and distorted reflections. I felt as if I were staring into the water beside a meadow, taking in the contents of the meadow through their reflections alone. Gone are the specificities of form. They are replaced by color, rippling through water with the aid of light.
When I spoke to Spoor, she was pleased to hear that Flower Path had conjured up such strong nature imagery. She then explained that she is from the Netherlands. Born in Beverwijk and residing now in IJmuiden, Spoor is surrounded by the colorful Dutch countryside. Her upbringing was marked by rainbow-colored tulips. On the surface, Flower Path is an abstract depiction of Dutch flora.
But there is much more at play here. Spoor has mixed acrylic paint with metallic silver and gold to create a dynamic surface texture. When hit with light, the metallic components of Flower Path glow, illuminating the entire painting. However, this is an effect which is felt rather than seen. I cannot pinpoint where exactly the patches of silver and gold have been added. They have been blended too well into the work as a whole. As a result, the glimmering canvas bears a mysterious quality. There is something at work here the viewer cannot understand which renders the work incandescent- perhaps it is divine.
The replacement of form with color is integral to the communication of Spoor’s emotional message. As it is written in the exhibition catalogue, “Reflecting [Spoor’s] energy and state of mind when painting, color will take precedence over shape, departing from the distraction of realism.” I sympathize with the notion that form can be distracting. Spoor’s colors are so rich in feeling; so liberated by the freedom with which they brush over the canvas. To contain them to rigid forms would rid them of their emotional volume.
Furthermore, the richness of Spoor’s colors and their freedom on the canvas reflect her desire to evoke positivity. “Today, it is a reflection of re-capturing and appreciating purity through [my] colors, brushstrokes and textures,” Spoor writes. “It is returning purity back into a world that has lost its way.” This idea is built off the underlying assumption that art can impact people’s feelings and actions. As a strong proponent for the ability of art to transform the viewer, I believe that Spoor’s vibrant canvases do have the capability to return positivity to a wayward society. It is impossible not to feel an overwhelming sense of light and happiness when gazing upon Flower Path. This is the sort of immense feeling needed to heal a broken world.
You can read more about Lynn Spoor on her website, here. You’re bound to come away from it feeling lighter and more at peace.
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I also took great interest in the paintings of Renee Phillips. I had a full conversation with the woman standing next to me about how tangible Phillips’ canvases are. They make you want to dive into them and roll around in rivers of pastel-colored paint. Take a look at Meditation XXXII (2017) and I’m sure you’ll experience the same urge:
Here are two close-up images of Meditation XXXII, if you weren’t already enticed. Note the clarity of color and variety of texture and depth:
Phillips was inspired to create the Meditations series during the pregnancy of her first child. I love the way Phillips described this experience in the exhibition catalogue, and I will quote it here:
“During pregnancy a profound internal shift was occurring. I found myself at the threshold of change; shedding old adolescent beliefs and habitual behavior. Raw emotion introduced clarity in thought and perspective; my once hard exterior was realized to be a facade, and a softness emerged that was grounded in true strength, authenticity, and love.”
I love this passage because it so clearly manifested itself in Phillip’s work. The nature of the enamel paint in Meditation XXXII is dynamic. It feels as if we have frozen time just as a wash of paint were being poured carefully over the canvas. It pools in places, following the laws of gravity and matter. The dynamism of the work reflects the spiritual and emotional growth Phillip’s underwent during a formative period. On the canvas, Phillips performs her own transformation. Furthermore, she performs the disruption of her old way of life. Layers of paint pile on top of one another, reflecting the build-up of experiences that have led to her present self.
I felt a very strong feminine energy exuding from Meditation XXXII. I started to see reconfigured female anatomy- was I imagining this? I questioned Phillips on the matter, and she told me that she uses her entire body to pour the enamel paint on her canvases. She referred to this movement as a sort of guiding “dance.” Thus, “the subconscious undercurrent of feminine energy in [that dance]” is what provided Meditation XXXII its intense feminist associations.
Additionally, Phillips ought to add “scientist” to her CV. When I asked about the extraordinary quality of her colors and textures, she revealed the scientific manner in which she studies paint before beginning her art-making dance. She spends hours taking notes on how paint dries depending on viscosity and temperature. Writes Phillips, “These studies help me further investigate time, gravy, and movement for each color so I know how to manipulate the paint on larger works.” She describes the experience as “peaceful and contemplative.”
The combination of dance, science, and painting in the creation of something beautiful exemplifies the power of the interdisciplinary. I am very passionate about incorporating art in the classroom, especially in conjunction with math and science. It was lovely to see a work incorporate a concept so near and dear to my heart.
You can read more about Renee Phillips on her website, here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with another work from the “Meditations” series. Meditation IX (2017) is too beautiful to leave out.
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In the 1970s, Jane Olin was living in California, where male photographers like Ansel Adams were gaining recognition for their vistas of the western American landscape. Olin and her fellow female photographers fought to be included in gallery shows due to their supposed inferiority. Rather than cave to the “limits and rules” imposed by male photographers as the status quo, Olin formed a salon to support her fellow female photographers. In this environment, they thrived, breaking boundaries of photography and slowly securing themselves a place in the Monterey Bay art scene.
Today, Olin’s work reflects her personal experience fighting for recognition. It is deeply personal, and I am so pleased I got to hear her story to supplement my viewing experience.
Greta: A Woman’s Journey of Self Discovery (2017) is composed of four silver gelatin prints. Take a look:
There is a very tangible tension to Greta. I believe it is a product of the figures’ evocative gestures and their intentional blurring. Greta is photographed in four installments. One version of Greta imagines her standing in a box, holding a square object in one hand. Another shows her recoiling slightly from the camera. A third is a nude torso. The last shows Greta clasping her mouth and wrist. It is only natural to question the purpose of these poses. And yet, the slight blurring of each image prevents the viewer from making full contact with each photograph. We are left in a constant state of curiosity, desperate to make sense of the emotional content spilling out of each work. We want to know who Greta is and how she feels.
I asked Olin about the figures’ gestures and blurry surface quality. She responded that Greta is a demonstration of women’s marginalization. Women have been trying to overcome their subordination for thousands of years. We are in a state of constant movement, as we try to move forward, and perhaps fall short of our ambitions due to external conditions. The soft, out of focus quality of the photographs represents this constant motion. This metaphor is complicated by the fact that the viewer does not know if the figures are coming in or out of focus. Is Greta moving towards her hopes and dreams, or is she in the process of being stifled? Olin asks, “Is Greta holding her hand over her mouth or is she finally pulling her hand away?”
The images represent various moments along Greta’s journey to find her voice in a world that asks her to be silent. The figure of a nude, standing tall with her shoulders back and her breasts pushed unabashedly forward, is delightfully positive. Her definitive gaze, meeting that of the viewer, is determined. Meanwhile, her position in a box demonstrates her mobility, and her recoiling from the camera reveals her instinctive response to fear.
Olin discovered the soft, out of focus quality that is central to Greta purely by accident. She neglected to refocus her enlarger in the dark room and her prints came out slightly blurry. “It felt mysterious to me,” said Olin, “I felt a visceral acknowledgment that this was how I wanted to print this body of work. I went back and reprinted the images that I had already printed in this way. This printing method underscored how I feel about the process of empowerment and self-realization.”
This August, “Salon Jane” will exhibit the work of its six members at the Monterey Museum of Art. I am hoping to be there and see more of Olin’s evocative photographs. In the meantime, I will have to appease myself with her website, which you can explore here.
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Lastly, I want to take some time to discuss Kharis Kennedy’s deeply moving Glove Scarf by Dolce & Gabbana (2017). Take a look:
My eye goes first to the white gloves entangled around the figure’s face. Due to the red and brown markings on her neck, I assumed that the gloves were strangling her. When I asked Kennedy about this, she responded ambiguously. “I am interested in the physicality and energy inherent in not only our bodies,” she wrote, “but also in objects. I wanted it to be unclear whether her neck, a place of physical vulnerability, is being actively injured, or if her covering of [her injury] is incidental.” I love this response. It pinpoints what is so uncanny about this painting. The neck is an instinctively vulnerable body part- did you just touch your neck protectively? I did. Kennedy pairs this association with a seemingly innocent object- a pair of gloves. Suddenly, the gloves take on this monstrous image. Are there invisible hands inside, strangling her? Who on earth would strangle someone with gloves? Who would strangle her in the first place? The mind is a whirlwind of associations and anxiety regarding the personification of a pair of gloves.
My next thought when looking at Glove Scarf by Dolce & Gabbana was to consider the title of the piece. What could the name-dropping of this designer have to do with our protagonist? (Notice how I said “our.” In about .3 seconds I established a connection with this figure.) Kennedy’s art often explores “how clothing/fashion can be used as both a signifier of class and as a public expression of one’s inner world.” It is typical of Kennedy to satirize how fashion is used to construct both group and individual identities. With this in mind, the gloves bear additional associations. Perhaps Kennedy is suggesting that our protagonist is a victim of the stylistic trends that dictate her race, gender, and/or class? On the other hand, the nonchalant draping of these gloves around her neck, and their transformation into a scarf, could represent the proudness with which she has constructed her own individual identity. Her wide-legged seated position and upturned chin suggest this approach. Her stance is not unlike the many men who frequent the subway with each leg sprawled to the side. (Do they lack spatial awareness or just social awareness? Jury is still out). Our protagonist sits this way intentionally, to claim her own power. Both are appropriate readings, though I prefer the second. In an exhibition entitled “King Woman,” I think it’s most appropriate.
When I asked Kennedy about the possible reference, she responded that the connection was not intentional. However, her exploration of the female gaze situates Glove Scarf in the same vein as these past works. There remains a key difference that identifies Kennedy’s work as the most contemporary- her agency. Olympia’s agency in Manet’s titular painting is often debated. While her razor-sharp gaze zeroes in on the viewer, her obvious occupation as a courtesan suggests only an illusion of self-sufficiency. Kennedy’s protagonist is also in a state of undress for ambiguous reasons. However, as Kennedy writes, “What is known is that she accepts her vulnerable state and through acceptance remains empowered.”
I feel this truth in her petulant upturned chin, her refusal to make direct eye contact, and her wide-legged stance. Her independence manifests itself in black stiletto heels and red underwear- markers of both seduction and power. The black cat- her spirit animal, as Kennedy says, looks out at the viewer. We haven’t been given the chance to turn away before the black cat crosses our path; She is in control.
You can read more about Kharis Kennedy on her website, here.
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I hope you enjoyed this analysis of several key works in “King Woman.” It has been wonderful delving into the works of these six artists. Their artwork touched me and the way they discussed their artwork compelled me to share their artwork with you. If you’ve been as moved by this series as I have been, please follow up on the artists exhibited in King Woman. The following are the remaining (incredible) artists, whose work contributed to the triumph that is King Woman.
Ingrid Baars, Hunter Clarke, Donna Festa, Carole Feuerman, Lola Flash, Kit Kang, Meredith Marsone, Lacey McKinney, Yvonne Michiels, Reisha Perlmutter, Trixie Pitts, A.V. Rockwell, Victoria Selbach, Swoon, Taïra, Roos van der Vliet, Elizabeth Waggelt, and Lynnie Z.
Thanks to all of the artists who shared their art and their words with me. Thank-you also to Dawn Delikat, Lani Doktori, and Janice Sands at Pen & Brush for sharing the story of Pen & Brush with me.
Until next time!