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How Many Feminist Artists Does It Take to Define Feminist Art?

At the "She/Folk" exhibition in Brooklyn, 11 female artists explore the distinction between "feminine" and "feminist."
September 24, 2015, 6:20pm
All photos courtesy of Idio Gallery

Running parallel to another all-women art show, Girls At Night On The Internet, that featured popular digital artists like Petra Collins, Grace Miceli, and Molly Soda, She/Folk's concerns lie primarily in the physical. And while the former was a loud celebration of tropes of femininity, girlishness, and feminism, the She/Folk group show at East Williamsburg's Idio Gallery was more subtle. She/Folk is notably heavy on textiles, but it wouldn't exactly be accurate to say that the show's explicit goal was to reclaim "women's work." Instead, the women of She/Folk—which is both the show's name and the curator Nico Mazza's tangential collective that she founded with Arianne Keegan—all have complicated relationships when it comes to identifying as female artists, and with what, exactly, the term "feminist art" means for their work.

Read More: Feminist Ceramicist Michelle Erickson Makes Pottery Political

In addition to the work, Idio Gallery also hosted a panel "on art and feminism," moderated by Jacqueline Mabey. Mabey started the campaign Art+Feminism, which throws Wikipedia edit-a-thons to combat bias and give female artists the recognition they deserve. The panel opened up by quoting a tweet from the performance artist Ann Hirsch: "no1 wants to be in the 'feminist art ghetto' except for me bcus i don't think it's a ghetto. i think it's a pretty nice place to be [sic]." Hirsch tweeted that statement two years ago—around the time we took part in another Bushwick, female-only group show—which I only remember verbatim because I previously blogged about it. Based on my rambling Tumblr entry from 2013, it seems that the question of "What does a women's group show mean?" has yet to be answered. And throughout the night of the panel, it became apparent that the emerging artists of She/Folk didn't have the answer to that question either, though they are actively working through it.

Sculptures by Dot Vile

The exhibition highlighted work from Dot Vile, Dana James, Madeline Gallucci, Juliet Martin, Juli Elin Toro, Claire Durand-Gasselin, Nico Mazza, Megan Karson, Lucy Kerr, Elizabeth Bick, and Montana Simone. For some of the artists in She/Folk, this was their first group show featuring only women, and they expressed that they had rarely given thought to identifying themselves as feminists, but they had felt the effects of discrimination in the art world.

"As a female in the art world, I don't always feel like I'm being treated differently, but it's kind of like the subjective doesn't match the objective," Dana James, who works with watercolors to evoke abstract landscapes, admitted on the panel. "Just by seeing everything that results in the auctions, or how many women have solo shows compared to men, or the fact that there's only been one female artist, Georgia O'Keeffe, to sell on the level of a male artist at $44 million, or whatever, you know that you're somehow being treated differently. You may not always feel like it, but it's definitely there. It's almost like a blind spot. There's no way to control how men view you and your work."

"Birthday Sex," Juli Elin Toro; "Why Am I So Lazy?", Juliet Martin

Juliet Martin—who exhibited gorgeous textile sculptures that hung from the gallery's ceiling—explained her transition from working digitally to working with fiber, and she said that shift coincided with an increased reluctancy to specifically describe herself as a female artist. "In the mid-90s, I was doing a lot of web-based art pieces. I wasn't doing anything with fiber at all. I was doing all this programming and computing, etc., and I was dealing with being a woman in this male-dominated art field. I was kicking and screaming and fighting to be recognized in that field," Martin said. "Now that I do fiber I'm in the opposite place. I don't want to be looked at as a female artist who's just working with fiber. It's not that I don't want to be recognized as a female artist, but I don't want that to be what defines me."

"Eulogy," Dana James

With its preoccupation with identity and defining what, exactly, made each of their works feminist, the panel felt at times like a succession of stabs in the dark. The beginning of the talk was punctuated by the long silent pause that came after the moderator asked her initial question; no one wanted to be the first answer it. This was matched, in awkwardness, by the aura that materialized when a man jumped at the chance to ask the first question during the audience Q&A period, in response to Elizabeth Bick's portraits of Hispanic, working-class women who "looked like saints." (The white photographer who earned her MFA at the Yale School of Art stopped them on the streets of Bushwick and asked them to pose themselves for a picture with their eyes closed, looking toward the sun.) "Just to play devil's advocate," he began, "but what is the feeling you have of walking the line between being empowering and being racist and classist?"

Photo by Elizabeth Bick

Unfortunately, the entire time I was watching the panel of mostly white women, my eyes wandered to the portraits on the gallery wall and wondered the same thing. Though a valid question (the panel's flyer promoted it as a talk on "feminism, intersectionality, and representation," but there were no black women present. The second half of the evening, however, featured a conversation with two women of color, artist Sam Vernon and M.I.A collaborator Kiran Ghandi.) it never feels good to be on the side of white man "playing devil's advocate."

"It's complicated," Blick relented, "but I tried to represent the women in an aesthetically beautiful way."

It's not that I don't want to be recognized as a female artist, but I don't want that to be what defines me.

Sculptor Dot Vile created the most striking pieces in the gallery, for their sheer size. She had two giant sculptures both upstairs and downstairs, made of nylon fabric and large, salvaged objects. Her piece downstairs approximated a large womb, with fabric stretched around a curved daybed frame. Another, pictured above, was a balancing act between a wooden palette covered in textiles and a stack of cinderblocks. Vile's mother was a stay-at-home mom, and her father worked in construction; her work takes inspiration from her childhood and family life. Her work, she explained, attempts to explore the inherent femininity and masculinity of materials. Her hobby, and frequent source of objects for her sculptures, is watching construction sites. "I'm interested in how cloth is feminine without even trying to be," she said.

Lucy Kerr after her performance

Another question that was brought up during the Q&A was the distinction, and conflation, between what is feminine and what is feminist. "It doesn't mean you're doing feminist work if you're doing something feminine, especially since feminism right now is focused on blurring gender barriers," one audience member said. "It seems like everyone is talking about [what is feminine] as if it were the same thing [as what is feminist]. Does anyone have a comment on that?"

"I think to say that a work is feminist, to me, makes me think of activism, or something more direct than art," performance artist Lucy Kerr answered. On She/Folk's opening night, she performed a piece that explored feminine and masculine gestures utilizing a pile of mulch. "I don't think that they're the same thing in any way. Feminist work is a decision."

"We've been talking a lot about how to represent feminism in our work," Vile added, "and I think we're all just trying to understand how to represent feminism within the constructs of these gender identities."

She/Folk is on view at Idio Gallery in Brooklyn until October 4th. On Saturday, they're hosting a night of music to benefit Planned Parenthood.