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.
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.
Addison's decision to juxtapose traditional female nudes by male artists with the pluralistic approach embraced by the women in the rest of Muscle appears to set up a straw man: tradition-bound men contrasted to radical and experimental women. It's really not like that in the art world, though, since in addition to the categories identified by Addison there are others, including traditional artists who are women and lunatic-fringe artists who are men. In a way, the four nudes seem to be a part of a different show, with the much larger women's section being totally distinct.
Turning away from the wall of nudes, Addison has placed "Sysiphe Sport," a 1997 granite, leather and metal sculpture on a stand. He views this sculpture by Czech artist Jana Sterbak as the centerpiece of the show. The sculpture is a gray granite boulder to which Sterbak has attached leather straps with buckles. The straps are the sort seen on backpacks. In fact, she turns the rock's natural shape and varied color into a metaphor for a backpack.
Addison uses the implication of the burden of the granite backpack to express what he calls "the eternal burden of life which women carry." His observations of this sort, often with political messages or art historical tidbits, have been placed on cards hung next to each piece.
Proceeding to the north half of the gallery, we come upon another sculpture, "White Basket," by Annabeth Rosen, from 1994. It's a pierced ceramic bowl in the form of a crown. Beyond is a striking color photograph, "The Sisters," by Tina Barney, from 1989. The subjects are two well-dressed older woman both looking at some unknown object below the bottom of the frame.
Immediately to the left of the photo is one of the real standouts in the show, "Untitled Red," a 1994 oil-on-canvas by Spanish artist Angela de la Cruz. The painting is a small vertical in which de la Cruz has pulled the canvas away from the stretcher bars, which are revealed in the top half of the painting. On the lower half, the canvas, which is entirely painted in a rich tomato red, is stretched conventionally at the bottom and gathered at the top. In this way, the artist questions the flatness inherent in painting. Interestingly, however, she uses a monochrome, an approach popular with minimalists and color field painters, the greatest champions of flatness.
Further down the wall is another artist who is questioning flatness while using a flat painting style. "Fold 20," by Linda Bessemer, is a 1999 acrylic on a flexible sheet that has been hung from a wall-mounted rod like a towel from a towel rack. One side of the sheet is visible at the top, and the other side is visible at the bottom. The upper part is painted yellow with vertical stripes in red and green; the bottom a bluish black with horizontal stripes in vibrant colors.
In the south half of the gallery is a large, multi-panel painting from 1993 by Jennifer Bartlett, titled "Alphabet Four." Bartlett uses enamel on steel tiles. Sixteen of the tiles have been arranged in a four-by-four grid, with a single tile hung below on the left. The shapes and lines look crisp and clean from a distance, but up close, each form is made from a gestural daub of pigment. The painting, an abstract, looks like a map, but on the lone tile hung below the grid, Bartlett has painted -- inexplicably -- an expressive portrait of a cuddly rabbit.
Heading back to the front of the West Gallery, viewers see an elegant conceptual piece crammed with biting political commentary. "Golden Yella Girl" consists of three toned-silver prints combined with type by Carrie Mae Weems. The title, paired with the three identical photos of a little African-American girl, raises the issue of racism within the black community, a consistent theme for Weems, one of the country's most famous African-American artists. The piece refers to light-skinned blacks, but the little girl in the picture is dark-skinned.
More personal and less political is "Self-Portrait With Swimming Coach Charlie Sava," an enamel-on-canvas from 1974 by the famous Bay Area figural abstractionist Joan Brown. The painting incorporates many abstract devices, including the serpentine black line on the blue-green color field that provides the painting's background. It's obviously meant to symbolize the pool. In the foreground, Brown has placed herself next to and slightly in front of her much larger coach. Their faces and torsos are cartoonish yet painterly in the gestural simplification Brown uses to convey them.
To put it bluntly, Muscle lacks tone. But even if the underlying concept, whatever that may be, fails, there's still a lot of good work on display.
Addison's other show, A World View: Works by Matt Mullican, in the East Gallery, is as cogent as Muscle is confusing. Admittedly, it's easier to make sense in a solo show than a group show, especially since Mullican's work in prints, sculpture and painting are all manifestations of the same idea. Mullican uses a simple set of shapes, mostly circles, spheres, squares and cubes, and from these he creates an idiosyncratic iconography for things like heaven, hell, life and death. Fortunately, a guide to this iconography is available in the gallery.
The artist's hard-edged abstractions, which have been shown extensively in Europe, are very obviously based on the universal signs seen in multilingual Europe, like the circle with a line through it, meaning "do not enter." He is also obviously influenced by the postmodern semiotic movement. Originally relevant to linguistics, semiotic theory focuses on the meaning of symbols. It became an important current in contemporary art theory in the 1980s.
In this show, a pair of portfolios has been placed in each of the side galleries; on the north is an untitled series of screen prints and etchings, and on the south is a newer series from 1998.
In the large back space of the East Gallery is the impressive acrylic and oil stick on canvas, "Untitled, Volume IV From the New Edinburgh Encyclopedia." The painting is a mammoth, four-panel assemblage in which photo screen prints of the wood engravings from the nineteenth- century volume mentioned in the title are arranged and contained within color rectangles of white, red, green, blue and yellow.
Filling the rest of the room are five sculptures (called "objects" by Mullican) made of painted aluminum. These simple polychromed sculptures from 1990 -- the oldest things in the show -- are absolutely fabulous. They are the three-dimensional corollaries of the iconographic forms seen in the prints.
The two shows couldn't be more different from one another. But there is one thing they have in common -- they're risky and just the latest episodes in Payton's long-running experimental program at BMoCA.
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