Feminist and… Mattress Factory, September 7, 2012 through May 26, 2013

The Mattress Factory: Feminist and…

It may be that the ellipsis within the title of the Mattress Factory’s newest exhibition, Feminist and…, are its most effective descriptor. The show features the work of six female artists across the spectrum of age and culture engaging in issues not necessarily considered unique to women.   As the statements of guest curator Dr. Hilary Robinson make clear, Feminist and… is meant to highlight the fact that feminism is an influence on one’s worldview rather than a historical, self-contained art movement. In this sense, the show looks beyond the confines of “feminism” as an isolated descriptor.

The installations resulting from this mindset are stunning in the diversity of their subject matter. Particularly notable is Carrie Mae Weems’ Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts, an installation wherein a video is projected between the red curtains of a false stage using the Pepper’s ghost technique. Ethereal characters are pulled out of the past to remind viewers that they will never be gone, and that the stories of race, class, and gender struggles still need to be told. Another highlight is Written Room by Parastou Forouhar, which consists of nonsense Farsi script splayed across every plane of the room, while inscribed ping-pong balls litter the floor. Western viewers are forced to regard the text as ornamental, and the balls encourage what might already be problematically instinctive – to play with this imagery without considering it seriously. Both installations utilize wonderfully the engaging, physical immediacy of the installation as a medium.

Unfortunately, a fair portion of the artists in residence fail to make strong choices in their work. Julia Cahill’s Breasts in the Press, the most overtly feminist work of the show, consists of a tiny two channel video projection onto the breasts of a ridiculously endowed copy of the Venus de Milo. One channel is Cahill singing a parody of the Black Eyed Peas’ “My Humps”. The lyrics’ attempt at camp falters in its heavy-handedness. The other channel shows Cahill creating prints of her breasts. The connection is not elaborated upon. Cahill creates an arresting spectacle, but fails to capitalize on it.

Another example is Loraine Leeson’s Active Energy: Pittsburgh. The installation centers on six screens, each displaying facts and interviews concerning dementia. Multiple videos run simultaneously, fostering a disorienting hall-of-mirrors effect that makes it difficult to parse what is being said.  The literature in the hall outside of Active Energy make understanding it no easier – pamphlets concerning Alzheimer’s disease sit right next to brochures on green energy for no apparent reason. It is telling that some viewers were not even aware Active Energy was part of the exhibition.

Feminist and… has an interesting premise, but the effectiveness of the exhibition as a whole is only mixed. Since there are so few installations, the fact that two of them suffer from questionable execution prevents the show from reaching its full potential. The ellipsis in the title, meant to represent an unrecognized potential, could also represent an unfortunate uncertainty.

The Artists Formerly Known as ‘Feminism’

‘Feminist And…’ at the Mattress Factory brings together six female artists from around the world born in six consecutive decades. Guest curator Hilary Robinson, a professor of art criticism and theory at Carnegie Mellon University, states the artists – Julia Cahill, Ayanah Moor, Parastou Forohar, Carrie Mae Weems, Loraine Leeson, and Betsy Damon – are all informed by feminism, and were brought together for that reason.

Ayanah Moore whose work often discusses the topics of race and women in society has worked with silkscreening texts on newspaper in the past, like ‘Good News’, which transformed the words of a black woman describing how to measure a black man’s worth into a piece about what she’d desire in a woman. Using the same materials, ‘by and about’ presents the words of black musicians, writers, and poets in a burgundy color covering the walls.

Julia Cahill has the most blatantly feminist piece. Borrowing from two of her earlier ideas ‘The Breast Press’, where Cahill presses her paint-covered breasts upon paper after paper in a factory like manner, and ‘Flaunt Your Contraceptives’, in which she transformed a pop song sung by a contemporary female artist who acts as a ‘false beacon of feminism’ into a feminist call to action. In ‘Breasts in the Press’, Cahill rewrites and sings ‘My Humps’ by the Black Eyed Peas into a pro-feminist piece about how the media treats breasts, and projects a video performance on a new interpretation of the Venus de Milo, using her newly found larger breasts as a screen.

Betsy Damon is the eldest exhibiting in ‘Feminist And…’. She’s a self-proclaimed conceptual-humanist artist, who now advocates for more clean-water-conscious communities through her both her art and her organization Keepers of the Waters, founded in 1991. Her visually stunning ‘Water Rules-Life’may be the least feminist of the pieces, interestingly enough, though she was heavily involved in the early women’s movement of the 70s. She has created a room filled end to end with a water formation replicating that of the Pittsburgh area, with stepping-stones through the middle to allow passage from one end of the room to the other.

The contrast between Cahill and Damon exemplifies the point the exhibit expresses. As the youngest, Cahill is the most bluntly feminist. And simply because Damon has worked hard to promote gender equality doesn’t mean that her art must be labeled as feminist. In fact, with the exception of Cahill’s piece, the strongest bits of feminism in the entire space are the preconceived notions of those viewing the exhibit. Simply because Robinson gathered individuals who are educated in and understand the feminist movement doesn’t necessarily mean that these artists are gathered to shove feminism ideals down your throat. The small tie between the artists of the label ‘feminist’ is not nearly enough to make the pieces feel categorically consistent. As evidenced by this lack of cohesion, the title ‘Feminist And…’ suggests that the label of feminism shouldn’t have to stick to these individuals and their work.  → Leave a comment

Feminist And…

Feminist And…

“Feminist And…” now on view at the Mattress Factory, maintains that feminism is multifaceted, relevant, and that many aspects of life are influenced by feminist thought.  Curator Hilary Robinson discharges the idea that ‘Feminism’ is an art movement, asserting that it should not be constrained to feminist theory of the seventies[1].  This exhibition highlights why feminism is not simply the efforts of the notorious Margaret Sanger of the early 20th century or the liberation movement of the 60s.  Feminism, like every other school of thought, evolves. It can be applied to or by the current times, and will be implemented by each era as is deemed appropriate.  Fittingly, “Feminist And…” includes six artists, each from a different generation, Julia Cahill being the youngest in her 20s, and Carrie Mae Weems the oldest, in her 70s.

Lincoln, Lonnie and Me- A Story in 5 Parts, an 18 minute video projection by the artist Carrie Mae Weems, addresses the generational significance of feminist and racist thought, how it changes, and the characters necessary to understand its evolution. Through ‘acts’ characters perform for the audience, projected as holograms in front of a theater whose seated capacity is six.

In a pitch black room, Jackie Kennedy, a classic icon of the American woman, scrambles over the backseat of the car in her Chanel suit, her newly dead husband’s head lolling on the seat.  The black and white footage, slowed to about half it’s normal speed, focuses on Jackie, her struggle and panic that ensues as she tries to escape an unseen threat.  Red velvet curtains drape down to a black stage, over which the holographic jackie is repeatedly trying to get away.

A naked woman lies down, posing for the camera or an unknown viewer.  A modern Olympia. What separates her from Manet’s masterpiece is her lack of surroundings.  Instead she lies in blackness and holds up a light.  She was preceded by a woman decked in playboy leotard and bunny ears standing and looking over her shoulder at the camera, shifting her weight heavily from foot to foot as Neil Diamond’s voice hung down over the audience; “Don’t you know/ Girl, you’ll be a woman soon/ Please, come take my hand / Girl, you’ll be a woman soon/ Soon you’ll need a man.”

The title of the exhibition is succinct, the ellipse holding a place for everything that is “and.”  Feminism is not confined. Although there are certainly defined forms of feminist thought, these are not limited to the common perception of feminism as the fight for political and reproductive rights for women.  Now, when ‘the personal is the political’[2], when there is a long and treacherous history of feminist thought and fight, now more than ever is understanding feminism and its multifaceted applications necessary.  → Leave a comment

Feminist and . . .

Feminist and . . .

Spread out over three levels of the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh’s North Side, Feminist and . . . features “work by six women artists from throughout the world whose artistic practice shows that feminism is not a single-issue set of politics,” all curated by Guest Curator Hilary Robinson, Ph.D. Each piece functions as a compelling work well enough on its own, but, taken together as a whole, the show fails to weave a coherent thread through these disparate artists. This may be intentional, a demonstration that feminism itself cannot be contained beneath a single umbrella/theoretical framework. However, such an interpretation still requires an underlying understanding to bind the word “Feminism” to its meaning, to distinguish it from every other descriptor. In other words, if the word “Feminism” can apply to everything, it ceases to mean anything. Nevertheless, the exhibition succeeds in spurring the viewer to reconsider his or her own idea of what it means to be a “Feminist,” and while the show offers no clear-cut designation, the viewer leaves with his or her preconceptions shaken up, which is never a bad thing.

The first place one is likely to start is the top floor, and if one does, Parastou Forouhar’s Written Room, just across from the elevator, will most certainly ensnare one. Comprising Farsi and crisp scribblings that glide along the floor and up the walls like missiles of incoherence just on the verge of some transcendent revelation, the show envelops the viewer in an aura of awe and quiet suspense. As the exhibit spans several rooms, the viewer must constantly shift his or her gaze, consumed with the hope that if he or she own only follows these letters to their ultimate culmination this vexing, jumbled mess will suddenly reveal its meaning. The artist’s status as an immigrant – Parastou hales from Iran – may inform this striving for o-so-close and yet o-so-elusive comprehension. The piece also includes Ping-Pong balls scattered about, scribbled with vague letters, as if a beer-pong/frat-party massacre had occurred just moments before. Free to roll around, the Ping-Pong-balls further support the diasporic-evocations of the exhibit.

The show features several other respectable works – Carrie Mae Weems’ Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 5 Parts in particular leaves a strong impression – the most enthralling work comes from Betsy Damon, whose exhibit, Water Rules-Life, resides in the basement and resembles a Zen-garden. Water dribbles softly from pipes into a large, placid “pond,” with rocks arranged throughout like stepping stones. Along one side, sandbags lie piled up, as if in preparation of a flood. Around the corner, by the entrance, speakers thrum. A mirrored diagram of the Zen-garden – both function as vague “maps” of the Pittsburgh’s three rivers – with marbles subbing in for “water” compels the viewer to reconsider his or her understanding of water. This “reconsideration” of something so essential to life may also mirror the message of the exhibit itself; that is, women are so essential to life that it is impossible to consider one without the other. An understanding of feminism, then, is essential to understanding our reality.  → Leave a comment

Feminist And… At The Mattress Factory

In today’s stereotype-plagued world, most people hear the word ‘feminist’ and immediately have preconceptions about the person underneath the label.  Guest-curated by Carnegie Mellon professor Hilary Robinson, the exhibit Feminist and… at the Mattress Factory aims to erase these preconceptions by presenting the work of six female artists, each born in different generations and hailing from all around the world.

On the third floor, the viewer is struck by the sheer beauty of Parastou Forouhar’s piece.  Born in Tehran and based in Berlin, Forouhar’s work deals with the women’s rights movement, scenes of torture and violence, and critiques fundamental Islam.  Elegant black script in Farsi arches gracefully over the white walls and floor of the room, appearing mysterious to non-Farsi speakers, although it translates to nonsense. Dozens of ping-pong balls with Farsi scribbled on them rolled underfoot, and although I enjoyed watching the balls move across the floor, the smudged quality of the writing detracted from the strength of the wall piece. Forouhar’s writing dares the viewer to apply labels and project meaning onto it, just as the title of the entire exhibition does.  Ayanah Moor’s piece by and about also utilizes text to invoke issues involving her own identity.  Three walls of a room are covered with earthy, rust colored text printed upon newspaper spreads.  The text consisted of several phrases from sources such as poetry by Nikki Giovanni and commentary on Billie Holliday, repeating across the room.  Though visually striking, I struggled to connect the material in Moor’s text with that of the newspapers displayed on the tables throughout the room, before realizing that this lack of connection was significant itself.  Moor’s work addresses a wide range of issues, including gender identity and popular media. I saw the newspapers as symbols for the media, devoid of the identity Moor had printed onto them.  The piece that most directly addresses feminism is Julia Cahill’s Breasts in the Press, featuring a giant replica of the Venus de Milo with huge breasts, upon which two films are projected.  Though inventive and humorous, Cahill’s work seems overly didactic in its message when compared with the other, more subtle works.

Though the diversity of all of the work lent power to the exhibit as a whole, Loraine Leeson’s Active Energy seemed completely disconnected. The piece consisted of video projections, an interactive webcam, and informational pamphlets centered around two themes: dementia and the rising cost of caring for the elderly, and alternative fuel sources.  Leeson is the director of cSpace, an online platform for community collaboration and support.  Though both of the topics addressed are components of her past work, their relation to each other is left unclear.  Leeson makes a jump from one topic to the other without building a bridge for visitors to follow, leaving them lost.

The exhibit is successful in that the work is just as diverse and varied as the backgrounds and identities of the artists themselves.  The wide variety of issues presented by their work offers visitors original voices and perspectives, shattering any preconceptions they may have previously held.  → Leave a comment

Feminist And…

Given a different title, visitors to Feminist And… at the Mattress Factory might never have described the exhibition as feminist. Artists Ayanah Moor, Julia Cahill, Betsy Damon, Loraine Leeson, Parastou Forouhar, and Carrie Mae Weems sidestep the stereotyped tenants of feminism and build work from a frame of mind that was established during the women’s movement and endures today.

Julia Cahill’s Breasts in the Press is perhaps the most outspokenly ‘feminist’ piece of the show, contesting the objectification of the female image. A classical sculpture’s cosmetically enlarged breasts serve as the screen for a music video featuring the artist performing of her version of the Black Eyed Peas song My Humps. Wittily didactic, the artist coats her own breasts with ink, making them into a stamp as she sings about media objectification of female mammary glands that are lacking the respect they deserve.

The beat pulsing from Cahill’s piece bleeds into the pensive mental space of Ayanah Moor’s by and about. Newspaper, curled with rust-colored inks, layered like shingles on a rooftop. Quotes from African American poets, musicians and activist women are removed from their context and cloak the pages of the New York Times. The text is quiet, with phrases like “Endness blackness for my love,” evoking longing over the endless march of newsprint.

Text also covers the walls and floor of Parastou Forouhar’s Written Room, yet it evokes an entirely different experience. Elegant Farsi script becomes a skin over the blank white space, and ping-pong balls similarly decorated in black script skitter across the floor like frightened mice. The spherical shape emphasizes the un-graspable nature of Farsi script for westerners. Its aura of the exotic and ornamental distances the audience, but its surface is deceptive. Where one expects to find deep meaning in the text, it turns out that the phrases are nonsense, gobbledygook. In a lecture regarding her work, Forouhar stated, “For me, the beauty lies in the absence of meaning. Memory of my mother tongue, which has lost its function for me living in exile. The meaning cannot be grasped.” For Forouhar, art is about having the possibility to change the rules of the game, challenging the gaze of the audience.

The other works in this exhibition also transform and challenge: Leeson’s work with dementia patients vocalizes their personal experiences through projected installation, Weems tells layered stories about memory where spectral images are sewn together with fog and snow, and Damon builds a stream in the basement to open conversation about the need for responsibility in water usage.

‘Feminist art’ has been boxed in as one of the -isms; bounded to the past as a movement that has come and gone. However, this show testifies to the currency of feminism as a worldview, a tool for critical analysis that is alive and well today that forms the underpinnings of the work of many socially engaged artists. Gender is not a label, but a force that flows through anything and everything.  → Leave a comment

Feminist and…

If you consider Feminist Art an outdated movement that is confined to the shrine of a museum, you are mixing up two distinct developments: Feminist Art, and Feminist Art of the 60s and the 70s. While the art movement of forty years ago marks a historical high point in the development and acknowledgement of art that advocated for women’s rights and recognized their involvement in society, Feminist Art goes beyond this historical moment. Today, it continues to address in its practice urgent socio-political issues. The exhibition “Feminist and…,” curated by Hilary Robinson and currently on display at the Mattress Factory, demonstrates how contemporary feminist artists keenly engage with varied social problems that intersect with and affect the lives of every woman, as well as every human being.

For the six participating artists—Ayanah Moor, Julia Cahill, Parastou Forouhar, Carrie Mae Weems, Loraine Leeson, and Betsy Damon, Feminism is an integral part of their identity, as well as their approach to their work.

In Writing Room, Persian calligraphy covers the entire surface of the space. Billowing strokes of black ink roar up against the grey wall, and extend down to the floor where hundreds of ping-pong balls are inscribed with similar patterns, interfering with the movement of visitors. At the same moment, visitors come to confront the bewilderment engineered by the Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar. While visitors attempt to assign it meaning, the script remains locked within its irreducible pictorial graphicness and indissoluble representation.

Forouhar started the Writing Room project in 1999, a year after her parents’ death in a chain of political assassinations in Iran. She continued showing the work in Germany, Turkey, South Korea, and Italy in the following decade. Working as a political fighter who feels exiled from her native country, Forouhar’s installations and graphic works express a critical attitude toward Iranian politics. Her background and the Writing Room project are extremely relevant to the Pittsburgh Northside neighborhood where the Mattress Factory stands. The Northside is home to the City of Asylum, one of Mattress Factory’s partner organizations, which provides sanctuary to writers under immediate threat of extreme persecution or death in their home countries.

Equally relevant to local politics, Betsy Damon’s sculptural landscape installed in the basement “Water Rules—Life” shows an underground water pathway simulating the topological formation of the three rivers of Pittsburgh, which highlights the significance of water in the heavily polluted city. The ecologist-artist Betsy Damon created large-scale projects to help clean urban waterways and raise awareness around the globe about water; “Water Rules” is her response to the environmental situation of this city. The installation opens with a narrow, dimly lighted entrance, from which the visitor gets a view of a misty world. Walking on the rocks raised up from a shallow river to reach the opposite end of the installation, one tends to meditate on the texture, the form, and the energy of water, and perhaps to start visualizing the connection between water and one’s own life.

Elegant and provocative, “Feminist and…” presents us with a trajectory of diverse feminist works engaging in international and local politics that most viewers should find compelling.  → Leave a comment



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