Empowered Women

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Installation view of SEED, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, June 21 – August 10, 2018. Wangechi Mutu in foreground. Photo: Christopher Stach

“Seed” at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York brings together 29 emerging to seasoned artists whose work embraces female archetypes — the goddess, warrior, mystic, sage, lover, maiden, and matriarch.  The layout allows works to “talk to each other” and the selection avoids or confronts stereotypes.  Curated by Yvonne Force, one theme is “the complexity and resonance of a long association between the natural world, sexuality and fertility, and spirituality and mysticism.”

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Baseera Khan, Seat #6 & 4, 2018, prayer rugs, artist’s underwear, textiles, upholstery foam, wood support 45 x 28 x 3 1/2 inches, each, 114.3 x 71.1 x 8.9 cm. Courtesy of the artist and OSMOS, New York

I was most provoked – in a positive way – by Seat # 6 & 4, 2018 — two curving wall tablets by Baseera Khan. Chevron, crescent, turret, and star shapes; prayer rugs, the artist’s underwear, and textiles are collaged onto two padded wood tablets (each 45 x 28 x 3 ½”) mounted together like the Ten Commandments. The artist’s striped and lace pink underwear becomes flat curving shapes and hues interacting with blue and green Islamic symbols and artifacts in a dialogue that invites an intimate discussion of women’s roles in Islam and Islamic women’s roles in the world.

Another mixed media work that took me by surprise was Ruby Sky Stiler’s Untitled, 2016. This mixed media head at first seems like a pattern-oriented pink female upper torso; up close, the intricate black and white mosaic background chevrons, stripes, and curves have depth from materials and processes I could not identify. The pink female is likewise an assembly of intriguing shapes, letters, and symbols.

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Summer Wheat, Foragers, 2018, acrylic on aluminum mesh, 68 x 96 inches, 172.7 x 243.8 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Andrew Edlin Gallery.

The new kinds of sculptural depth in Khan’s and Stiler’s works is also in works including Summer Wheat’s Foragers, 2018 (68 x 96”) in which acrylic paint is pushed through aluminum mesh to create uneven raised dotted surfaces. The main shapes — a central female with nearby child, owl, serpent, masked or veiled eyes, and boogeymen — are both abstract and figurative. The muted palette is mostly white, black, blue, and brown. The title and scene remind me of parables by Bruegel and Bosch. Morgan Blair’s 2018 tour de force shapes on shapes inter-mix textures and colors that seem to rise off the canvas; this  work’s super-long title begins 27 Undoctored Photos of Betsy DeVos’ Radioactive Gingerbread Learnin’ Supercenter…

Four sculptures near the gallery entrance set the show’s mood. Yoko Ono’s DOORS, 2011, is a single 100”-tall distressed white wood door with no walls around it. The plural title suggests doors opening. In one gallery, Rachel Feinstein’s Ballerina, 2018 dominates the room. This 85 ½”-tall winged nude is the artist’s version of The Winged Victory of Samothrace, the imposing Hellenist sculpture c. 190 A.D. towering above a key stairway at the Louvre. Instead of standing above viewers, Feinstein’s form dances with us; her “clothes” are colors; Ballerina symbolizes both women’s histories as art and their present victories in life and art.

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Installation view of SEED, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, June 21 – August 10, 2018. Feinstein’s Ballerina in foreground.
Photo: Christopher Stach

Wangechi Mutu’s 2016 red soil and paper pulp bumpy globes Small Pox and Small Pox II are mounted on slim metal spikes on slender wood armatures. Like Ono’s Doors, the art addresses a concept that affects us all: deadly viruses we can’t see. Smallpox is supposed to be eradicated, but vials containing it still exist.

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Vanessa German, sometimes i want to kill you #2, 2016, mixed-media assemblage, 76 x 24 x 16 inches, 193 x 61 x 40.6 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Pavel Zoubok Gallery, NY

Vanessa German’s fetish doll in the same gallery is titled sometimes I want to kill you #2, 2016. The black body is adorned with shells, buttons, teeth, cloth, yarn, keys, and signs. The black hands hold a knife and a watermelon slice. Atop the head is a metal bird taking off.

Three thread or fabric works were quite different from each other. Sarah Zapata’s Difference and Disorder I, 2018 (natural and synthetic fiber, hand-coiled rope, handwoven fabric) is a 31 ½”-tall basket with pockets, three filled with pillow forms and long ponytails. I was wowed by the website of this Brooklyn-based artist: http://sarah-zapata.com/. It’s a good idea to look up all the artists’ websites after you see this show (which features no Kasmin Gallery artists)!  Sophia Narrett’s Stuck, 2016 is an embroidery thread and fabric tapestry 62” long – a vignette of a women’s community with big houses in the background and women in nature engaged in various exchanges. Hein Koh’s Big Mother of Pearl, 2017 is a giant (60 x 36”) mauve and rhinestone-studded black velvet seashell opening to reveal its pearly eye.

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Hein Koh, Big Mother of Pearl, 2017, acrylic, Aqua-Resin, fiberfill, fiberglass, glitter, Hydrocal, hinestones, spandex, string, styrofoam, velvet, 16-31 (adjustable) x 60 x 36 inches, 40.6-78.7 (adjustable) x 152.4 x 91.4 cm. Courtesy of Hein Koh.

The craft of these three works – and the whole show – is notable.  Diverse painting techniques included Cecily Brown’s loose, brushy curves in all directions facing Emily Marie Miller’s more invisibly-brushed oil –a ghostly Yin figure on a dark ground; nearby, Ambera Wellmann’s In Teeth, 2018, is an alluring intimate close-up with some Baconian distorted features. Lisa Yuskavage’s A No Man’s Land 2, 2013, a dark-toned monoprint with pastel hand additions, was special.

One drawback of a big theme show is the problem of stereotypes, even in creative depictions of “the hero,” “the slut,” and “wounded women.” This show encourages viewers to decide for themselves why and by whom women get called – or call themselves — witches, exhibitionists, or victims. Germaine Greer called herself a witch later in life; she fought some abusive labels yet left others in place, saying, “…There is no point growing old unless you can be a witch, and accumulate spiritual power in place of the political and economic power that has been denied you as a woman” (The Change). What we call ourselves and others is up to each of us. Add your comments below!

By Jan Garden Castro

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