Feminism is as urgent as ever at Ice Cube Gallery and Pirate: Contemporary Art

When I first heard about a pair of shows at Ice Cube Gallery and another at Pirate: Contemporary Art that were going to deal with feminism, I honestly thought, "Gosh, hasn't that battle been won? Aren't women now regarded by one and all as having full equality?" Then, of course, there came upon the land Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his chosen running mate, Paul Ryan. The two men have made it clear that they would like to yank women back to the status they had in the '50s (the 1850s): barefoot and absolutely, positively — and unalterably — pregnant. So let me say to the ladies at Ice Cube and Pirate: "I was wrong. Apparently, the subject of feminist art is as urgent and relevant now as it was back in the '70s, when it first appeared." And that's why I went to check out these shows.

Ice Cube has moveable walls, and for this pairing of a duet and a group show, the place has been divided up the middle. To the left is Swank [fool], which pairs paintings and installations by Theresa Anderson with installations by Rebecca Vaughan.

I've been of two minds when it comes to Anderson's work. On the one hand, her neo-neo-expressionist paintings, which combine crudely detailed representational subjects, including figures and other recognizable elements, with writing and other non-art kind of mark-making, are typically sensational. On the other, her installations are often something of a mess, looking more like cluttered rooms than works of art. But that's apparently changing with Swank [fool], because it not only features a nice selection of very strong paintings, but a knockout installation as well.

In the painting "mr. ranger/sensitive soil preparations and Aubusson rugs," Anderson uses a composition of a woman with her legs spread apart that was taken from a fashion photo (which first was taken from a Picasso). The face is a smear of rouge and powder, and she is wearing tight red pants and green high-heeled boots. But she also sprouts a pair of antlers. The use of antlers is also seen in "flat broke, Who's your thug now?" in which the central figure looks something like Bullwinkle in drag. A real strength of these paintings — aside from the absurd subjects — is Anderson's painterly ability, which includes lots of slashes, smudges and drips.

The marvelous installation, "race car driver with better utensils," is a tent-like shape made of alternating bars of black and white vinyl. In addition to being visually striking, the piece has the quality of being both insubstantial, a result of its being made of soft materials, and monumental, because it makes such a big statement. And as simple as it is — the opposite of most of the Anderson installations that I've seen — it really works.

Vaughan, meanwhile, is represented by two related installations that look to me like conceptual versions of the reclining female figure, though the artist intended them to be critiques on historical costumes, in particular those associated with the French court of the eighteenth century. "A Feather for Freud's Pillow" is made up of an inverted and partly unfolded attic ladder over which a gauzy veil has been draped. The position of the folding ladder, with part of it flat on the floor and the rest in an inverted V-shape, suggests a woman propped up on a chaise longue, a common Old Master composition.

This same formal aspect is seen in the other Vaughan installation, "Corpse Eater," which, despite the ominous title, is actually pretty lyrical. In it, Vaughan has cast a hive-shaped lattice in translucent pink resin. The details have been molded from a fussy ceiling medallion, and she has based the overall shape of it on old French wigs. This lattice element has been placed on the floor, right up against a collapsible aluminum bench. On the opposite end of this bench, Vaughan has draped a ruffled skirt of silver lamé that flows onto the floor.

Truth be told, there's little noticeable feminist content in Swank [fool] aside from the references to the female figure and to women's fashion. Then again, we're in the post-feminist era, and references are more subtle now, which makes direct feminist hits — like painting with menstrual blood — a little recherché.

There's also subtle feminist subtext in the group show at Ice Cube, Continued From the Other Side, which is made up of pieces by the members of the collective Pink Collar Glam and is installed in the space opposite Swank [fool]. The name of the collective refers to women in the workplace.

The group is dominated by emerging artists who are friends and who mostly connected initially at the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design. These twenty-somethings invited established artist Margaret Neumann to join them as a mentor and honored guest. Neumann, whom curator Simon Zalkind describes as being "the grandmother of postmodern in Denver," is known for her idiosyncratic and precariously balanced compositions that seem to explore the deep reaches of her psyche in dark and moody palettes. A good example is "One mans ceiling is another mans floor," in which the silhouette of a man fills the bottom half, while a faint outline of the same figure fills the top. In oil on canvas, it sets the perfect tone for the rest of the show.

The collective members included here are Nancy Slyter, represented by three small, retro representational paintings in mixed mediums; Holly Johnson, with a pair of ink-and-charcoal drawings on wrinkled sheets of paper; and Jennifer Harrington, with three small oil sketches of household objects. Of special interest is "contemplating a dark room," an inkjet print on watercolor paper by Christine Buchsbaum that depicts an interior overgrown with plants. The piece is visually rich and elegant.

Pink Collar Glam is presenting another show right now over at Pirate: Contemporary Art called Continued From the Other Side (part 2). It includes work by Slyter, Johnson, Harrington and Buchsbaum, as well as Neumann. There are also two other guest entries — one from Anderson and one from Kristen Hatgi. The Anderson, "domestic failures," is an installation made up of a couple of panels of wood leaning against the wall, the top one covered with glue and spattered with paint. Propped up next to this construction is an industrial-style fluorescent ceiling lamp that rakes the surface of the wood with light, creating a glowing effect. Like the tent piece at Ice Cube, this installation works because of its simplicity; I hope these pieces indicate a new direction in Anderson's approach to the medium.

Swank [fool] and Continued From the Other Side at Ice Cube both close this Saturday, and you'll have just one extra day to catch Pink Collar Glam's other show at Pirate, since it closes on Sunday.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia