(Click thumbnails to see larger images)

NANDIPHA MNTAMBO [group-exhibition] at 21c Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, November 2016 – June 2017

Gleaming acrylic fingernails glued into patterned, reptilian forms that emerge from the wall; barnacles and ceramic teeth encrusted in life-size human figures in decay; cement seeping through lace and paint; haunting words about the present overlaid on imagery of the past: surface tension abounds in this exploration of contemporary feminist art from the 21c collection. The second exhibition organized in honor of 21c’s tenth anniversary, The Future is Female expands upon the themes of A Global Gathering—portraiture, politics, and the environment—through radical transformations of materials, myths, and art-making.

The inventive use of language, whether printed, projected, or recorded animates works by Carrie Mae Weems, Jenny Holzer, Nina Katchadourian, and Michele Pred, introducing unexpected voices into both art and history that resonate as private and public at once. Weems and Holzer use text to interrogate power through self-expression, creating new narratives for cultural and political resistance. Projected as video onto institutional buildings in Berlin, Holzer’s poems about her fears as a parent become the collective concern of all who “fear those in power,” and Weems’s inclusion of her own image in her meditation on the parallels between Native and African American history renders her “sorrow song” both personal and universal. Describing the genesis of The Hampton Project, Weems observed, “Women are the weepers of history.” With her back to the viewer, the artist resists being marginalized, claiming center stage to reveal layers of personal, historical, and cultural loss, creating a self-portrait that portrays multitudes.

Using scarves, a sweater, and toilet seat covers to create outrageous costumes in homage to David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, Katchadourian and her double sing along to the rock stars’ hit song “Under Pressure” in an airplane bathroom, simultaneously voicing the frustrations of everyday life while inserting her artistic identity into the male-dominated traditions of both portraiture and pop culture. Pred’s hot pink hand mirrors combine the symbol for the female gender with captions that render the viewer “Feminist,” “Equal,” or “Powerful,” offering a passive yet potent transformation of the audience-subject’s self-image.

Mirror images also appear in Nandipha Mntambo’s double self-portrait, sculpted in cowhide and posed as a hybrid, inhabiting a human and bovine body at once; in Gaela Erwin’s pastel likeness of her mother, whose close resemblance to the artist suggests this could be dual portrait, a potential encounter with age and mortality. The anonymous figures in Sanell Aggenbach’s Rumours and in Hanna Liden’s Eternal Flame reflect inevitable aspects of the human condition: we will all be Aggenbach’s subject weeping gold threads of pain, and Liden’s grim reaper spares none, waving a fiery flag over melting ice floes.

Ecological disaster is addressed through mythic ritual in Vibha Galhotra’s multi-media series, ABSUR-CITY-PITY-DITY, which exposes the rapid environmental changes underway in India’s Yamuna River, one of the world’s most contaminated waterways. A hypnotic film, Manthan, invokes a Hindu legend in which the gods churn the ocean to obtain the nectar of immortality. As the camera moves along the banks of the sewage-filled river, performers attempt to cleanse the water. The sprawling city and polluted landscape are reflected in the water’s surface, offering a reminder that the future of humanity is tied to the health of the environment. The fragility of the Yamuna and its communities is evoked in Galhotra’s hanging Map, an overhead view of the riverscape hand-woven in glass and bugle beads and reflected on the wall, creating ephemeral echoes of the topographical patterns receding from view.

The prevalence of craft-based practices such as weaving, sewing, embroidery, and applique in 21st-century art is a legacy of the feminist art of the 1970s. The Second Wave Women’s Liberation movement engendered unprecedented cultural change, shifting art-making out of the isolated studio and hallowed institutions into both more intimate domestic and broader public spheres, where art could range in scale from the handheld to the monumental. Artists like Judy Chicago, Mira Schor, Martha Rosler, Adrian Piper, Howardina Pindell, and others merged art and activism, elevating everyday materials, methods, and experiences to challenge conventional notions about how and why and where art is created and consumed. Noted feminist writer Lucy Lippard explains that the art of the Second Wave “at its most provocative and constructive questions all the precepts of art as we know it. The goal of feminism is to change the character of art.” The ensuing transformation ushered in generations of artists addressing identity, the body, and the affirmation of personal experience. In 2007, New York Times critic Holland Cotter said, “Most of what we call postmodern art has feminist art at its source.”

Over the last three decades, Kiki Smith has created a pantheon of female icons, such as Ballerina (Stretching Left); the artist intentionally focuses on the figure, she says, because “the body is a receptacle for knowledge, belief, storytelling.” Judy Chicago’s monumental ceramic sculpture The Dinner Party (1974-79)—with place settings emblazoned with floral designs that reference the female body—gave Georgia O’Keefe and 998 other notable women throughout history recognition for their accomplishments. Thirty years later, E.V. Day’s Waterlily enlarges one of O’Keefe’s signature subjects—the flower—into a lush, far larger than life-size vision that evokes the body—a portrait of the floral and the female, showcasing its beauty and its power.

Female identity and experience is often the subject of Frances Goodman’s multi-media investigations, including Medusa, a many-tentacled wall sculpture titled after the mythological Greek monster with a woman’s form and face, but a head full of writhing snakes in place of hair. Medusa’s weapon was her stare: she turned her victims to stone with one look into their eyes. Goodman’s appropriation of the myth subverts the convention of the “male gaze,” the theory first posited by writer Laura Mulvey in a 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” that women are represented as objects to be seen in art, men as seeing. Makeup, jewelry, and other forms of self-adornment have long served as women’s weapons to make themselves seen (in competition with others) and as armature under which to hide (masking or protecting the real, vulnerable self). For this three-dimensional investigation into female representation and consumerism, Goodman utilized thousands of the acrylic nails designed for use as bodily decoration after she heard a dropped fake nail described as the ultimate female calling card—a weapon of seduction.

Goodman’s labor-intensive technique and use of an inexpensive, commercially produced object designed for self-adornment connects her work to that of 70s feminist artists: As curator Tami Katz Freiman writes, “Goodman thus joins a respectable lineage of women artists who brought elements previously relegated to the inferior margins of kitsch and decoration center stage. Her art…elevates what was once relegated to world of women as folklore or bourgeois pastime and endows it with new meaning and content…the use of acrylic fingernails—a popular consumer product, a cosmetic prosthetic that blurs the boundaries of the body and presents an illusory substitute for ‘the natural,’ the seemingly innocent ornamental pattern appears as a parable for the web of affinities between flesh, body, nature, culture, ornamentation, beautification, seduction, and consumerism.”

Cultural critique is also embedded in Alison Saar’s Hades D.W.P., inspired by both Classical mythology and grim reality. Five glass jars, each filled with water to varying levels, are lit and tagged with lines of poetry, their surfaces etched with figures that float between life and death. Labels identify the water sources as the five rivers of the underworld, which according to Greek mythology, guide the dead to the afterlife. Saar first presented this found and transformed assemblage in “Silt, Soot. Smut,” an exhibit inspired by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which displaced over 200,000 African Americans. The aged ladles that hang from the shelf indicate the water is meant for drinking, though its colors suggest toxicity, alluding to the recent poisoning of drinking water in Flint, Michigan. Saar combines familiar, domestic, and personal objects, imagery, and writing to connect past and present adversities resulting from the intersection of environmental destruction and social inequality.

The dual power of water to destroy and preserve is evident in Monica Cook’s Phosphene, a life-sized sculpture of a couple crashing through layers of glass that may have been a car windshield. Their lengthy submersion is apparent: barnacles and sea flora are growing in crevices and extremities; outer layers of bleached skin are eroding to expose an interior hybridity; the woman’s arm turns to bone as it enters the glass, and her lover’s skeletal torso hangs towards the floor of their watery grave. The fate of the body is central to the subject of Cook’s work, and its excretions materially present: urine and blood are embedded within, alongside ceramic teeth, seagrass, train model turf, a plastic skeleton, and more.

The green, white, and translucent sparkle of the sculpture recall phosphorus, the tiny twinkling lights that appear in the ocean at night. Phosphenes, a related phenomenon, appear to the human eye when closed or unseeing, as bright flashes produced spontaneously from within the human body. In titling the piece Phosphene, the artist affirms the bodily and the ephemeral as sources of inspiration and insight. Reflecting the influence of feminist art, Cook’s work utilizes materials high and low to realize a vision of what the body knows: that beauty and decay, life and death, creation and destruction are inexorable, and inextricably linked. Today, the feminist gaze looks in, out, backwards, and forwards, asserting presence in the present, crafting the herstories that will shape art and life in the future.

Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director