Women’s Works: Exploring the Place of Female Artists and Authors within the Art and Literary Scenes

by Meredith Sherrill

The Women’s Works exhibit, on display at the Kalamazoo College A.M.Todd Rare Book Room from April 2 to Jun 7, 2012, showcases a variety of works by women authors, illustrators, and artists. The show consists primarily of small printed works, texts, book illustrations, and prints. Featured authors include Maya Angelou, Emily Dickinson, Mary Shelley, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The exhibit also features the work of artists including Kiki Smith, Julie Mehretu, and Käthe Kollwitz.

Women’s Works exhibition advertisement

While the exhibit achieves its purpose (to expose Kalamazoo College students and the greater Kalamazoo community to the work of these artists and authors) and displays interesting pieces (including a print by Kalamazoo College alumna Julie Mehretu) the show also raises interesting questions about the possible drawbacks or implications of an all-women’s art exhibit.

An all-women’s exhibit may seem to question the quality of “women’s art” compared to “men’s art.” As far back as 1908, women authors working under male pseudonyms, such as Mary Fanton Roberts, argued that all women’s exhibitions were outdated and that the work of female artist should be subjected the same criticism as the work of male artists. [1] In “Women Artists and ‘Women’s Art’,” written in 1983, author Madlyn Millner Kahr claims that the question of whether or not to segregate art based on the gender of the artist is still relevant. She argues that “no acceptable argument [has been] put forth for the evaluation of women’s art by special standards,” but rather the question has becomes one of how gender segregation benefits contemporary women artists. [2]

While the Women’s Works exhibit by no means provides a complete solution to the questions regarding how to present women’s art and women artists, it does address gender inequalities within the art world in two ways. First, the Women’s Works exhibit provides exposure to female artists and “women’s art,” which as a whole have been traditionally underrepresented. Second, the title of the show, Women’s Works, seems to remind the viewer of both the legitimacy and success of female artists. The term “women’s work” is often synonymous with domestic work.  Traditional “women’s work” included lace making, sewing, quilting, knitting, or embroidery. [3] It did not include painting, sculpting, or any other form of “male” art. In contrast to traditional ideas, the Women’s Works exhibition displays the work of highly regarded female authors, illustrators, and artists. Titling the collection of works by these recognized female artists Women’s Works asserts the place of women within the art world and proclaims that “women’s work” is no longer just domestic work.

One issue that the Women’s Works exhibit does not address is the potential to interpret all the works within a women-only show as pieces that deal with “women’s issues” or with feminism. Julie Mehretu, whose Sapphic Strophe 3 (2011), as well as prints within the “Poetry of Sappho” are on display in Women’s Works, is an example of an artist who may be misrepresented at an all-women’s show.  Mehretu uses a system of ‘mapping’ that references abstraction, illustration, and appropriation to create what she refers to as “psychogeographies.” [4] Within her paintings and drawings she addresses issues of globalization, location, and identity by exploring the “multifaceted layers that impact the formation of personal and communal identity.” [5] While Mehretu’s is concerned with identity, her work primarily addresses cultural and ancestral identity rather than gender identity.

Julie Mehretu, Sapphic Strophe 3, 2011, relief print. Part of an extra suite of four prints by Mehretu to accompany Poetry of Sappho, in Greek with English translation by John Daley with Page duBois. Image from The Arion Press website. www.arionpress.com/catalog/093.html. Accessed May 26, 2012.

Unlike Mehretu, Kiki Smith, whose work is also on display in Women’s Works, identifies as a feminist artist. Within the exhibit, Smith’s prints can be seen illustrations of poems by Emily Dickinson and the ballad “I Love My Love” by Helen Adam. To accompany “I Love My Love,” Smith produced prints of her own hair that were then printed alongside the text. Smith’s work seems appropriate for a women-only exhibition, as her work has frequently dealt with gender stereotypes and inequalities between the genders. Smith’s sculptures, such as Pee Body (1992) and Train (1993) created images of female bodies that are imperfect and uncontrollable by forcing the audience to acknowledge their biological functions of urination (Pee Body) and menstruation (Train). These figures resist the depiction of female forms in art as the “idealized objects of male desire.” [6] By challenging the traditional depiction of women, Smith “reclaims the female body from patriarchy and refigures it as the site of women’s lived experience.” [7]

Detail of I Love My Love by Helen Adam, with photo-offset lithograph by Kiki Smith, 2009. Image from The Arion Press website. www.arionpress.com/catalog/087.html. Accessed May 26, 2012.

Therefore, while Women’s Works succeeds in provides an opportunity to appreciate both the work of Mehretu and Smith, Smith’s work may be better suited to an all women’s show due to it’s content. Regardless of which artist’s work is being exhibited, as an all-women show Women’s Works still raises interesting questions about the place of women artists within the contemporary act scene.  Yet, by providing exposure to the work of women authors and artists, as well as by questioning the meaning of the phrase “women’s work,” the exhibit reminds the viewer of the contributions of female artists and authors to the fine art and literary scenes.

Notes:

[1] Madlyn Millner Kahr, “Women Artists and ‘Women’s Art’,” Women’s Art Journal 3, no. 2. (1983): 28.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] Ibid., 28.

[4] Catherine de Zegher, Julie Mehretu: Drawings, (New York, Rizzoli International Publications, 2007), 32.

[5] Ibid., 23.

[6] Helaine Posner, Kiki Smith, with an interview by David Frankel (Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1998), 20.

[7] Ibid.

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