Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nothing Like a Dame: Some Women Artists from the Pizzuti Collection

To the incomparable benefit of the public, Ron Pizzuti will begin to exhibit his famous collection of contemporary art in a dedicated building now being prepared in the Short North district of Columbus, Ohio. The building is scheduled for a fall, 2012 opening.

Linda Gall, Centerpiece with Marine Decoration, acrylic on panel,
16" x 20." Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection.
The Collection's director and curator, Rebecca Ibel, has organized a show in Pizzuti's 2 Miranova building to create anticipation for the fall event. Teasers: Selected works from the Pizzuti Collection by Women Artists is appetizing as a Julia Child cake, full of richness and very little mundane filler. Her choice of works makes us wonder, above all, what "women's art" may be. Isn't it futile to speak of such a category at all? The show's work ranges from nude self-portraiture (Joan Semmel) to political statement (Margarita Cabrera) to severely disciplined abstraction (Pia Fries): It would require a philosopher of great subtlety to wring a conclusion about women from that line-up. As it would require one to draw a conclusion about men from a selection of work by Cy Twombly, Edgar J. Brown, and Gilbert and George.

Women's work often reflects their ideas about gender identity and their roles in society. So does men's, even if its only by their imagery of women. Ibel throws both sex and gender in our faces with her double entendre title, "Teasers." In the context of a show by women artists, "teasers" is fraught with the idea of women—girls, chicks, babes, ball-busters—focused on coy relationships to men. Nothing here could be less true.

Moyna Flannigan, Bunny No.5, 2010.
Courtesy, the Pizzuti Collection

Moyna Flannigan's ink on paper "Bunnies," numbers 5 and 11, are as close as we come to teasers in the demeaned sense. These are chilling bunnies of discontent. Their sadness lies not only in disaffected facial expressions, but in shrunken bodies, in their meager builds (even artificially enhanced) and postures folded in on themselves. Their shadows are silent commentaries on the figures. Bunny No. 5, with her enlarged breasts and wasp waist is reflected by a meager, shapeless shadow whose ears never even ascend before drooping. Is the shadow her ego? Bunny No. 11 crouches as if stalked by her big, black shadow, with its pumped-up version of her tiny breasts, outsized phallic ears, and a flat head that does no more than support them. Perhaps she is supposed to be a teaser that she isn't and cringes before an attributed image that she can't shake.

Moyna Flannigan, Bunny No. 11, 2010,
Courtesy, the Pizzuti Collection
I had to visit Flannigan's website to get a sense of what the artist is all about since the two drawings in this show don't offer much for a second look. Their simplicity relates to the body of her work: The Bunnies are characters in a great cast of women she draws and paints. The individuals exist in diaspora, gathering only on a website or as they happen to be hung together or reproduced in a collection. I'm not sure what the interest of any single drawing can be, since each depends heavily on the totality of Flannigan's work for its fullest significance. A viewer may like the artist's ideas globally without finding this or that particular work to be of lasting interest on its own artistic merits.

Glenda Leon, Listening to the Stars, 10-7/8" x 13-3/8."
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
Cuban Glenda Leon's drawings from her series of "Acoustic Drawings" are among the few works in Teasers that picture a female form. Even though the young woman's unexceptional dress in coat and boots appears to relay no sexual or social statement, the linear simplicity of Leon's style suggests a feminine outlook. I wince even at myself by saying this because I'm blurring the line between "feminine" and "childlike," as I believe Leon—consciously or unconsciously—invites us to do. (Are masculine points-of-view ever "childlike" without being "mentally defective?") So the feminine sensibility is defined not so much by the presence of a female figure as by the childlike—or, maybe, adolescent—renderings of heart, stars, and boyfriend; by the internal emotional connections left to the imagination of the viewer. And of course we assume them to be emotional: Just look at the little red heart, just look at the stars!
Glenda Leon, Love (She Listens).
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
As her Scots colleague's drawings do, Leon's leaves us wanting more to look at. Are these drawings wry, minimalist  commentaries on the projected image of the feminine? Are they meditations on silence and space? I don't think there's enough on the page (either mark or significantly composed space) to tell. Again, a trip to a critical essay is needed to place these in sufficient context to give them interest (try her website.) Individual pieces don't really stand alone; they are part of a dispersed work we could title,The Ideas of Glenda Leon. These drawings are fragments, their significance being accretive and cerebral.

Joan Semmel, Transformation, 60" x 48,"
oil on canvas. Courtesy, the Pizzuti Collection
In contrast to Flannigan's and Leon's drawings we have Joan Semmel's robust, life-sized dual self-portrait. There's nothing girlish or gamine about this authoritative image of a woman. The nudity is secondary to the expression on the blue-eyed face to the left. Semmel has painted an older and a younger self. The older face rests on the shoulder of the younger figure like a boulder on a ledge. In fact the nudity strikes me similarly: It is lapidary—geological—like a wind-carved Southwestern landscape, the sort that Georgia O'Keefe could have painted with red sand stone against a thin blue sky.

Semmel portrays not someone who has grown, but a woman whose exposure to life's elements has released her essence, like a sculpture released from ancient stone. Like the turquoise ring she wears, she's a geological beauty, enduring and responsive to the sanding events—to the inevitabilities—that have shaped her. The portrait is womanly in its lack of compromise or embarrassment. With landscape so strongly implied, the aging woman's self-possession is compared to the slow transformation of stone. Her age is strength, not the disintegration and weakness of failing flesh.

Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, 50"x50"x18"
Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection.
Although we see the female figure represented literally by Flannigan, Leon, and Semmel, a dazzling abstract sculpture by Indian artist Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, strikes me as being more evocative of a woman's body than anything else in the show. The power of this work lies not only in the way it allows us to create a flesh and blood woman in our imaginations from a pattern of hardwares (polythene sheeting, copper wire, rope, metal eyelets, etc.), but also in the way the materials selected help us relate that woman to her traditional position in society.

Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, detail.
Photo by the author.
The translucent sac is formed from cells of plastic attached by metal grommets and tied with red thread that dangles like tiny trickles of blood. Running through the center of the sculpture is a deep red, heavy, twisted cotton rope with many offshoots. To some it will suggest a root system; for menstruating women, a soaked tampon's cord. Within this translucent sac, it strikes me as a circulatory system, branching through the soft body of an organ—a uterus perhaps.
Ranjani Shettar, Thousand Room House, detail.
Photo by the author.

The title, "Thousand Room House," is a brilliant metaphor for a woman's body. It works as a description of any cellular organism. It also describes the multitude of emotional and real activities women traditionally engage in. It can even refer specifically to the fertile womb.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing of all about this most feminine sculpture is its beauty. From common materials Shettar has created a generative vessel of luminous allure and mystery. It does not give up all its secrets, which remain veiled by its very nature. Approachable but impenetrable; fragile in appearance by sturdy in construction; magical and common: Thousand Room House is a dense, coherent, and haunting work of art.

Sarah Cain, Secret Magic Plan, mixed media, 64-3/4" x55-3/4."
courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection
Detail of Secret Magic Plan. Note seam in
paper. Photo by the author.
Detail. Note overlaps
of paper. Photo by the author.
While I don't take Sarah Cain's Secret Magic Plan to be figurative, her large mixed-media work on paper is constructed from many collaged layers. It shares with Shettar's sculpture the motif of disguise, despite the viewer's illusion of nakedness in Shettar's body, and of ingenuousness in Cain's zippy presentation. She has vertically mounted a rectangular scarf (a magician's scarf?) on the left, as a pillar of her composition. Less visible are the many seams where layers of cut paper intersect or overlap one another while the eye is distracted from them by flights of color and gesture, by the persistence of lines boldly drawn in bright colors. Cain also introduces women's ornamentation with the scarf and the two necklaces strung between them. Ornaments are another form of the invisible visible: They allow women to hide themselves in plain sight by means of distraction. 
Necklaces of beads, shells, bells; scarf, left. Photo by the author.
Cover-up, then, when it's not a political topic, is a feminine one. It touches on power and vulnerability that attach to one's appearance and to the independence lent by psychic and real privacy women can earn for themselves by artful strategy. Women's freedoms aren't merely a matter of their performing magic, but of doing so in secret, from (like Shettar) what simple scraps and materials come to hand.

Square Painting by Allison Miller seems not only to be a woman's work, but a commentary on women's work by a woman artist. This light-as-air oil-on-canvas suggests to me a tension that female artists sometimes feel between the materials in which women have traditionally raised their labor to art—especially in the textiles suggested here—and the materials with which men have dominated Western art history.

Allison Miller, Square Painting, 48" x 60." Courtesy of the Pizzuti Collection. 
Artists like Miller, working in revered fine art materials like oil and encaustic, are sometimes aware of their personal connections to women who sewed, knitted, cooked and constructed out of necessity, but who found means of fine personal expressions in their common stuff. By the same token, female artists sometimes struggle with the issue of defining artistic excellence in materials that have historically been the province of men. Such gender-coded battles are lightly waged in Square Painting—rather, they are considered, for this is a musing work filled with the non-combative questions implied by juxtapositions. 

Detail showing "matting" corner. Photo by the author.

"Handkerchief linen" texture.
Photo by the author.

Emphasizing it's rectangular shape (and the point that Miller's painting is not itself square), a diaphanous, woven shawl is draped across the picture in space that is and isn't real. On the left, the shawl is finished with a contrasting border; on the right, the border is folded over itself. The "square" at center, top is also a textile, an uncanny representation of lightweight handkerchief linen, with each thread represented, as in the shawl. The painting seems related to folk art in the simultaneous impulses to spatial freedom and representational literalness. 

Log cabin quilt

Detail by the author.
The central (non)square seems to draw from both the worlds of handicraft and fine art. Its design reminds me of an Amish pieced quilt, the "log cabin" design built around a center block. On the other hand, Miller has painted in four corner that one might see in the matting of an elegantly framed print. Within the same image, the two worlds of experience fuse. Similarly, the black structure half-seen through the shawl represents nothing literally, so is available for overlapping interpretations—as an artist's easel surely, but also as a hand-loom or a quilting frame. 

Miller's "squares" seem to denote no more than series of right angles, which can be as flexible as the interstices of a loosely woven summer fabric. The Greek key pattern—based on squares that never close—is a stable form despite its openness. Still, its flow gives it the alternate name of "meander," as Miller allows hers lavishly to do, looming and receding on either side of the painting (and the shawl). 

I think Square Painting has to do with the absence of the four-square in life and with what we accept in its place. I think it looks at the convergence of opposites—white and black, closed and open, veiled and exposed, and, ultimately, feminine and masculine—and how they form an inconclusive but balanced and workable world. Miller presents what I think is a complex and subtle vision that we can virtually watch being worked out on the canvas. Are her process and its outcome things only a woman could negotiate?

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