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Two new exhibits at the BMoCA stress the roles of women in art.

Under the guidance of Cydney Payton, the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art has become a center for shows in which women artists figure prominently. Muscle: Power of the View, in the West Gallery, is the latest example. It will be followed by Elbows and Tea Leaves: Front Range Women in the Visual Arts.

Muscle was put together by guest curator Mark Addison, who is well-known locally as a prominent art collector and benefactor. Many of the contemporary prints in the collection of the University of Colorado at Boulder were donated by Addison and his wife, Polly. In recent years, he has also been an adjunct art-history professor at CU. He receives a nominal salary for his teaching duties, which he donates back to the school.

Addison has shaped this show to include what seem like dozens of stylistic approaches ranging from conceptual art, abstraction of various stripes, political imagery and traditional representational approaches. A dizzying array of mediums includes sculpture, painting, printmaking, photography and drawing. Many pieces are quite nice, but because of this artistic pluralism, the show is visually confusing. As a result, it's hard to say what Addison intends the viewer to come away with. His message could be that anything goes in contemporary art. But we already knew that.

"Fold 20," by Linda Bessemer, acrylic painting.
"Fold 20," by Linda Bessemer, acrylic painting.
Untitled sculptures by Matt Mullican.
Untitled sculptures by Matt Mullican.

Looking more carefully at Muscle and taking note of the labels that accompany each piece, we begin to realize, however, that Addison isn't exploring art per se as much as he is looking at the war of the sexes in the art world.

There's no question about it: The world of art and art history has been dominated by men and has excluded or dismissed female artists. Prior to the twentieth century, few women became professional artists. Only a handful were admitted to art schools, and fewer still were regarded with anything other than condescension. That all began to change with the rise of the contemporary feminist movement in the 1960s. By the 1970s, women not only burned their bras, but they also pried open the doors of male-dominated institutions in the United States, including art schools, galleries and museums.

Today, women may still be underrepresented in the collections of the nation's museums, but the formal barriers to their participation as full-fledged artists have all but disappeared. This has partly been facilitated by the prominent place that women like BMoCA director Payton now play in the administration of exhibition venues. The women who run museums or organize shows have made an effort to include other women in their exhibits.

Of course, Addison is a man, and an older one at that. And for a man to put together a show on women artists can be a risky business, or, in the case of this show -- risqué business.

Proving that curators rush in where angels fear to tread, Addison starts the show with four large pieces, each featuring a female nude. These nudes, the type that some feminists would regard as being evidence of the sexual exploitation of women by artists, were all created by men. In this way, Addison seems to cast the entire exhibit in the context of women as sexual objects. It's disturbing in an exhibit that otherwise is made up of the work of more than two dozen women artists, several of whom are well-known internationally. Or perhaps Addison's intention is to make the viewer aware of the disparity between men's views of women's bodies and the products of women's minds.

Muscle's political content is something that obviously made Payton uncomfortable. In the didactic panel mounted at the back, she has written about the show using language that distances her from its content. She explains that it should be understood as an illustration of the fact that BMoCA provides "a forum to explore any intellectual terrain or creative path that curators, artists or viewers might choose."

In the front is a fairly conventional pencil drawing of a nude called "Seated Woman Model, Hands Behind Back," from 1971 by Philip Pearlstein. With the increasing importance of representational imagery in contemporary art, it's easy to forget how courageous Pearlstein was when he created this piece. At the time, he was one of the chief proponents of the new figuration movement of the 1960s and '70s, an era when minimalism and pop art were in their heyday. Pearlstein, unlike his many aesthetic progenies who would come along in the '80s and '90s, actually knew how to draw the old-fashioned way.

The drawing on the other side is also the work of a pioneer of the new figuration, Alfred Leslie. In an approach similar to Pearlstein's, Leslie uses tried-and-true drawing skill and technique for "Jeanette," a charcoal on paper from 1972. His subject matter, however -- a pregnant woman rather than barroom nude -- gives the drawing a contemporary edge.

The two paintings, hung towards the corners, bracket the drawings even though they are stylistically different from them. The paintings, both from the late '80s, are from a time when recognizable imagery, including the anal-retentive attention to detail seen in both "Phyllis" by Gregory Gillespie and "Diana X" by William Beckman, was all the rage.

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