ALEX ADAM GALLERY | OCTOBER 9 – NOVEMBER 23, 2014
A so-called “branded feminism” is appearing in the art and commercial worlds at large, a slick gloss that co-opts feminist rhetoric to largely patriarchal and neoliberal capitalist ends. It is argued that the far reach of brand power is necessary to develop a populist feminism and that a critique of branded feminism is elitist or anti-populist and denies a much-needed reach to the movement. Yet the commodification of the feminist movement at large threatens to neutralize its call for progress as it is increasingly “bought and sold” to regressive ends. The institutionalization of feminist art as a marketable trend or spectacular event obfuscates the gender inequalities of the patriarchal art world still felt by women today.
In the art world in particular, the hype surrounding highly visible “branded feminist” art works-cum-events makes it easy to overlook the work many women continue to do on the ground rather than in the like-mongering blogosphere. The long history of feminist collaboration in art continues in studios and workshops, a grassroots feminism that quietly and often invisibly resists the rise of such branded feminism. In these communities we can find art that both denies a co-optation by commercial powers and remains inclusionary rather than elitist. A grassroots feminism can point us away from the hype and into a feminist microcosm.
One such group has produced an exhibition at a gallery in Harlem that can only be described as refreshingly subtle. She Depicting Her: A Woman’s Perspective at the Alex Adam Gallery on 120th Street emerged from a project by five portraitists to take one another as their subjects. The artists (Eleanor Adam, Liz Adams-Jones, Janet Cook, Leah Lopez, and Orly Shiv) are connected by their mutual affiliation with the Art Students League, where all studied. The results of their project suggest an intensity of exchange that turns the traditionally objectifying relationship of sitter and artist into one of feedback and mirroring which challenges the dominance of the objectifying male gaze in art.
Hung on the first floor of a turn-of-the-century brownstone (the gallery doubles as an artist commune and residence), the exhibition clusters the walls with portraits. The five distinct and individual styles of the show are juxtaposed against each other, yet at the same time a collective portrait of each woman emerges as both subject and artist. One senses the presence of these women as they face each other across the gallery. The portraits gaze at each other within the exhibition just as they did from in front of and behind the easel.
This sense of exchange is key to the show and the project, which began not as an explicit challenge to the male gaze but as a desire to collaborate and create. The word “man” was never present in the planning process of the show. The artists all agreed that the relationship between sitter and artist during the portrait sessions was one between equals, a mutual exchange drastically different from posing for a man. They found it was easier to pose for a woman, more relaxing, and each artist felt the difference of being an active agent in the process rather than the object of a gaze. “The model became the artist,” Leah Lopez said, “It was an empathetic process—I felt feedback.” Her baroque portraits, “Nightcap” (2014) and “Eleanor in Red” (2014), suggest as much in their emotional vibrancy.
This feedback between artists became a closed circuit of exchange, a self-made space which is not outside or isolated from culture at large. By looking inward towards their own circle, the artists created a space which resists entry from a male presence. The intensity of this inward-looking process is felt in the direct gazes of the sitters, a common thread through the works. Liz Adams-Jones’s “Leah” (2013)confronts the viewer with a large-scale close up of Lopez’s face, the scale symbolic of Adams-Jones’s statement that “These women are powerful, larger than life.” The female gaze challenges the assumption of female portraitists as mere “hobbyists,” a stereotype these artists often encounter as part of the art world’s everyday gender inequality.
There is a deep quality to many of the portraits when the artists draw out individual strengths: resoluteness and confidence in straight-backed and frontal poses, tenderness and availability in open eyes and emotive expressions. In this exhibition strength does not have to mean male physical prowess. Feminism, the artists say, is showing how valuable and essential this spectrum of strengths in women is to society. Eleanor Adam finds substance in graphite and charcoal, focusing on the faces and hands of her sitters where she locates their emotional and creative essence. “We are doing this in a world that has been overshadowed by easier tropes of feminism,” she says, and all of the artists describe drawing strength from their shared female experience. The work of Orly Shiv makes this strength visible in the hand-worked surfaces of her sculptures, showing that the female hand is as strong as the male while pushing against the legacy of Rodin and male sculptors as (sexual) masters of the medium.
A portrait of Adam by Janet Cook, affectionately titled “Winky”(2013), stands out. The sitter looks out at us from behind a tousled head of hair, edges blurred and color fragmented around her. In this image of fundamental relationship and exchange, the line between artist and sitter, object and subject, is also blurred. Through this exhibition’s grassroots take on feminism we see what it looks like for the male gaze to simply be forgotten. Viewing “Winky,” it is easy to forget who is in front of the easel or who is standing in front of the mirror, thus gaining insight into the kind of looking that resists any brand.
CHRISTOPHER GREEN is a writer based in New York and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center.