The process of jurying a national art competition most often results in a juror, or jurors, viewing a myriad of images online. While studying each image on a monitor, the juror is able to read the artist’s description of the size, the year the work was created, the medium, as well as a brief explanation of intent.
When I was asked by Ellington White Contemporary Gallery to be the juror for a feminist art competition, I particularly looked forward to seeing works by contemporary female artists whose works related to the exhibition title: Feminist Insight: Continuing Her Story.
The results can be viewed during a visit to the Rosenthal Gallery on the campus of Fayetteville State University. One hundred and ninety-six (196) works were studied to be included in the exhibition while knowing the gallery can accommodate 40 to 50 works of art depending on size and location in the space.
In selecting works for the exhibit, first and foremost, each work must communicate an essence of what the artist is trying to convey in a particular style, using material that emphasizes meaning, and the work is well-crafted. While viewing so many individual artists, an overall theme begins to emerge.
As a result, 46 entries were selected for the exhibition. The majority of works in the exhibit explore or reveal themes still with us since the second wave of feminist art in the late 60s and 70s: body identity, violence against women, a deep-rooted and historical connection to textiles to express meaning, and the recontextualization of everyday objects to create new meaning.
In the process of deciding which works will be a part of the exhibit, many strong works of art are eliminated simply because they will not fit the overall aesthetics of the larger group of works selected. Although it may vary, visitors should unknowingly sense or experience an underlying cohesiveness of a body of work by many different artists when they visit Feminist Insight: Continuing Her Story.
When the actual works selected for the exhibition start to arrive at the gallery, either shipped in boxes or hand delivered by artists driving in from various parts of the region, another layer of the exhibition is revealed. What can look good on a monitor, can be even more powerful or disappointing in actuality. For the most part, over 90% of the works in the exhibit are more powerful than the images on the monitor when you experience their physicality and their presence.
After the exhibit was hung, I had time to experience all the selections as an experience. Although there are beautiful works in the exhibit, I realized the majority of the work expresses a continued sense of unrest or dislocation for women in contemporary culture. This unsettling truth makes sense in today’s third and fourth wave of the feminist movement which questions, reclaims and redefines the notion of self and challenges traditional power structures in the postmodern cultural shift that is taking place.
“I am Creation” by Joyce Morrow Jones took first place in the competition. The 20”x18”x18” mixed media sculpture, made from a clay body, beads, metal wire, and dried grasses, immediately evokes a sense of time and multiculturalism in its relationship to women and their history. For each of us, our experiences, and even knowledge, influences how we respond or bring meaning to a work of art after it has left the artist’s studio.
For me, “I am Creation,” and the material Jones used to create the sculpture immediately related to the earliest Gods — women. Most often known as Earth Goddesses, it was the Greeks who dethroned the woman Goddess from being the most significant and put Zeus at the top of the God hierarchy.
Second place went to Jeanne Ciravolo for work titled “Woman.” An actual dish towel hangs on the gallery wall with threads sewn into the higher section of the surface to create a face. In an irregular amorphic pattern, the strings hang independently of the design off the surface of the worn striped material. On the bottom right section, she has sewn parts of what looks like to be a red plastic mesh bag, the type one might purchase at the store with potatoes or onions in it.
Understanding the traditional hierarchy for what we value in art is a construction perpetuated by the politics of art, whoever is in power, and who has access to education. Ciravolo recontextualizes everyday objects which are very familiar to the role of women throughout history, as well as today, and elevates them to an ‘object of art’ — she has created a new meaning of a dish towel, as a political object for us to interpret. When we compare a dish towel to a sculpture or painting, Ciravolo is in full feminist mode — we are to examine what a work of art is and especially when women were historically restricted from studying art, much less making it.
“Untitled (Stepfamily)” by Rebecca Chappelear, earned third place with her large 30”x40” photograph of a young woman. We cannot see her face since the photograph ends below her head, she wears a tight T-shirt. The close-up view blurs the background of a figure sitting, arms crossed in an ordinary room, if anything the environment seems familiar. As we scan the image, we soon discover the subtle hand mark left on her upper arm. It is at that moment we become mesmerized: the familiar becomes unfamiliar, then it reverses, and we experience the unfamiliar becoming familiar. We are caught in a type of circular looking which leads to the circle of violence against women that was relevant in the second and third phases of the feminist movement.
So many exceptional works in the exhibit, visitors will have their own opinion about which artists should have earned awards. But a juror also has to make choices. Honorable mentions went to the following artists:
“Emergent,” by Beverly Henderson, is a life-size portrait in clay and stone; “Diabla Leon” is a large relief print by Linda Behar; and “Somniferous Bliss” by Johanna Hoge is an 11”x14” ink drawing with embroidery.
I invite visitors to the Rosenthal Gallery to experience the depth of the collective voice in Feminist Insight: Continuing Her Story. The exhibit will be up until April 22 for visitors to discover the many ways in which the artists are expressing diverse views about power, gender, self, inclusivity, and intersectionality.