Reconciling the Future of a Medium
Customs House Museum | August 4–October 1
WORDS Audrey Molloy
At the back of the bar hangs an expansive gold-framed mirror. Its surface illuminates an indelible assortment of colored-glass bottles that have crowded at its edge. In its reflection, the gaze of a young woman seated alone at the bar is revealed. She sits with her back to us, hand poised mid-gesture above a drawing, her gaze considering at once both her own visage and her irrevocable encounter with us, the viewers.
The painting, The Purity of Imagination and Color (2014) by Leslie Adams, is one of forty paintings featured in the premiere exhibition of Women Painting Women: In Earnest at the Customs House Museum in Clarksville, August 4 through October 1. Curated by Alia El-Bermani in association with Diane Feissel, Co- Founders and Curators of Women Painting Women, and Terri Jordan, Curator of Exhibits at the Customs House, the exhibition features the work of thirty current female artists whose provocations on the tradition of the medium are specific to the experiential and emotional veracity of contemporary women, as artists and immanent subjects.
“We are trying to promote the work of contemporary living female artists that primarily paint the female form and, specifically, not in a sexualized mode.”
“Women have been painted since paintings have been made—from cave paintings forward women have appeared as major subjects in Western art history, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve seen a very broad representation of what women are,” said El-Bermani. “It’s been primarily women as object of desire—and we’re so much more than that.”
How does she envision herself? This is the latent inquiry posited by Adams’s reflective portrait of the young woman seated at the bar. Can a contemporary portrait of woman be exacted bereft of its original convention? It is a compelling question which has guided, and implicitly been answered by, over a dozen international exhibitions of Women Painting Women since its inception in 2009.
Manifest as a matter of discourse between founders and painters Sadie Jernigan Valeri, Alia El-Bermani, and Diane Feissel following their encounter with a Sotheby’s auction and exhibition entitled Women in Art, but which did not include a single female artist, their conversation has continued to facilitate a contemporary imaging of women through art as social practice, curatorial-conceptual methodology, and a blog of the same name.
“We are trying to promote the work of contemporary living female artists that primarily paint the female form and, specifically, not in a sexualized mode,” said El-Bermani. “How do women see themselves, not just through the male gaze? It’s beyond just our sexuality and our sexual available-ness.”
In the current socio-political climate wherein delineations on gender can be increasingly complex, and connoted with extremist typecasts of any overarching inclination, there is a certain stigma that can be associated when an exhibition specifies itself through gender. It is a systemic inclination to assume an exhibition of women artists is, or hould be, overtly yonic or subjectively concerned with gender. However, El- Bermani is acutely aware of this—perhaps because it is a social condition not dissimilar from the historicized role of the woman as subject. She says, “By saying “women painting women” we’re not only saying that the subject is women, but that the painting itself is important, the work. It creates more of a thematic than a gendered exhibition.”
Following nearly a decade of Women Painting Women, the premiere of In Earnest at the Customs House Museum denotes a marked—and somewhat politically fortuitous—acceleration of its intent.
Where previous exhibitions had been curated primarily by hosting galleries, and as such, ostensibly concerned with “sellable” artworks, In Earnest is the culmination of curatorial efforts by El-Bermani and Feissel which began nearly three years ago. A compelling and masterful exhibition of contemporary painting, this show is a fervent display of works whose content has been considered exclusively for its subjective intent, not its potential commercial viability.
“In Women Painting Women: In Earnest, we wanted to show works that have deeper content, that are coming from the heart of the artist,” said El-Bermani. “Sometimes those ideas and feelings can be kind of harsh and not pretty and not easily sellable. But as soon as you take that price tag off a work, you can say so much more—it just gives the artist more freedom.”
Demonstrably, a number of the works on exhibit are on loan from private collections, but a majority of the paintings are for sale. In this regard, In Earnest proffers viewers a unique opportunity to consider high- caliber works by a diverse group of contemporary female painters disparate from commercial oversight.
Situationally politicized by current events and market-specific tendencies, Women Painting Women: In Earnest is an inspiriting and unadulterated exhibition of precisely what it has defined itself to represent. It is an evocative reconciling for the future of a medium unburdened by gender, market, or opportunity, and whose import is underscored by the prodigiously talented artists it represents.
Following its premiere at the Customs House Museum (August 4 through October 1), Women Painting Women will travel to the J. Wayne Stark Galleries at Texas A&M, where it will be on exhibit through the end of the year.