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Illustrating Feminism, What's In The Works

tbarryfigu's picture

 When I close my eyes and think “feminism,” I don’t think as a feminist; That is to say, I don’t close my eyes and think as I did before. Instead, I see color, texture, and light. I see the physical materialization of a movement, of a driving and ever-present force. The struggle to make sense of these colors and textures is one that I feel significantly shapes my definition of the summation of values held by feminists all over the world. I find that I cannot separate thoughts of past and current female oppression from the bright flashes of red gritty paint that manifest themselves in my mind’s eye. I cannot read a text about identity and womanhood without sculpting the female identity in my thoughts.

Thus, to define feminism for myself and apply its definition to my own person, I must first understand the significance of the feminist image as viewed by others. To accomplish this, I have combined studies of feminist-inspired art and artists with four personal explorations of its definition through visual media. Artists Sarah Lindberg (’10), Gail Chavenelle (’67), and Elizabeth Catanese (’05) have been recruited as participants in light of their willingness to illustrate feminism through painting and sculpture. Though I originally enlisted the help of such feminist artists as Kaaren Paterson and Carol Chesek of the Summit Art Center in Summit, New Jersey, I felt that the incorporation of four Bryn Mawr women would bring an interesting dynamic to the collective perspective of feminism as a concrete, definable essence. Together, our art pieces will work to break the simplified definition of the feminist as one who simply strives for male and female equality. Together, we will speak of the multi-faceted nature of the feminist identity and illustrate the implications of perspective, personal testimony, history, and experience. Together, we will bring into being the soul of the feminist cause and embody, through art, the goals of women continuously striving for more than is allotted to them.

Linda Nochlin, in “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists?” expresses the realization that “those who have privileges inevitably hold on to them, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.” When applied to the current gender roles of this and many other countries, this statement works to highlight the rift between the perceived superiority of the male sex and the sub-dominance of the female. It simultaneously states the impossibility of equality and implies a power struggle upon the powerful by the powerless. Thus, from a feminist viewpoint, one must fight for more than they desire in order to achieve their true goals. Women, collectively, must overshoot their priorities in order to ensure landing within the realm of success. However, the idea of feminist “success” continues to remain unclear to me, as each feminist works for goals that pertain to their own well-being in society. Will the feminist cause be achieved when women and men receive equal pay-benefits, when the gender lines are blurred, when women are exonerated as the superior sex? Is every small step away from a male-dominated society enough to satiate the desire for an ever-present equality? Will we ever have enough as women? Must the male sex bow to our power in order for our feminist goals to come to fruition?

These are the questions which have inspired me as I’ve begun to lay out the design for my art piece, which I have decided will take the form of a multi-canvas painting. I am currently toying with a few images and debating the possibility of a marriage between them all. Primarily, I am enticed by the idea of feminism as a layered being, an essence forced into costume, much like a woman who dresses provocatively to bend the will of a man in her favor. Feminism must manipulate the ideals of a static society in order to achieve success. It must incorporate feminine wiles. It must play “the game of men” in order to promote the rules of women. I imagine a female of full size pasting paper-doll outfit cut-outs to her body: she is exposed to the world and hidden only slightly by the gender roles which others use to design her. She is indefinable. No costume can fit her because she cannot be contained by any one role. She is a mother, a worker, a fighter, a rebel. The more roles assigned to her (and thus, the more paper-doll outfits pasted) the larger and more naked she becomes. She defies efforts to cover her up, and though she attracts the male gaze in her nudity, she does so with intent. She is not a function of male-superiority. She is the giver of life, the possessor of breasts and vagina. She is proud of this and object to none. She is slightly transparent, though for no symbolic reason, and through her chest you see a human heart. Her heart, too, is in the shape of a woman, folded into a fetal-position and beating inside of her chest. She is painted red because defiance manifests itself in the red, gritty nature I described earlier. This woman is basic and acidic at the same time, though never neutral. A smaller second canvas will be methodically attached to the first, revealing a close-up of the heart. This will served to illustrate the idea that her identity is more than outwardly physical: woman-hood pulses in her veins.

A second image comes to mind as adapted from a mask which has been featured in my family’s Halloween decorations for years. It is a half-man half-woman face revealing a woman’s delicate cheek and eye makeup upon a snow-white background and half of a man’s shapely mustache and eyebrow backgrounded by pale beige skin. The mask speaks to the ideologies of gender roles in our society: they are clear cut, opposite, and contrasting. Yet, the two faces are made into one. Only one person can wear the mask. How will the wearer embody this character? Will they enact the feminine or the masculine? Does the mask illustrate identity crisis, base humanness, transgendered-ness, does it call for equality? Over the course of my research, I have looked into feminist writings of identity-studies focusing mainly on equality. A reference was made to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in protest of war and related hate-crimes in Montreal from which they derived the song “Give Peace a Chance.” In reading further, I learned of an additional occasion during which the couple traveled to Asia and hosted an interview from underneath a bed sheet. Under the sheet, they said, no one could tell what color skin they had or how much money they made. If everyone lived under a sheet, equality would be possible. Though simplistic in nature, this thought process transforms the sense of sight into the most significant determinant of inequality. In nature too, an animal’s external appearance often speaks to its dominance within a community or population. This strong emphasis upon sight seems fitting for a visual exploration of feminism and equality. Thus, the combination of this and the mask visuals within my mind produced the idea of a painting in which two hands are holding up a sheet, as would be seen from the first person perspective. Underneath it would be a great number of individuals, standing side by side and extending infinitely into the background, dressed in typical gender-determined outfits. Each face would be covered by a mask similar to the one described above. The overarching effect would be the inability to differentiate one human-being from another. However, this idea is much too simplistic to accommodate my musings of the definition of feminism. It is a one-dimensional, flat illustration of everything I already know about the feminist cause and a statement to the abundance of things I have yet to learn about it. Even so, the inclusion of one of its aspects into the formerly described painting of the woman may work to enhance the image of the feminist I aim to create.

The last of many depictions which I have considered is one focusing on the feminist woman (and not just the woman) as an object of the gaze or stare. The canvas would be divided horizontally into halves by contrasting color assignments, but would maintain fluidity through theme. The top half of the painting’s space would be entirely covered by a detailed eye of many colors, featuring a naked woman cradled in its pupil. She is not captured there but rests comfortably: she is used to her fixed position within this spot despite being held there, assumingly, without the ability to leave. The colors will be generally soothing, multiple shades of blue, green, browns, and blacks. The bottom half of the painting will likewise show an eye, except more abstract and with red and orange colors fading from the center to the limits of the eyelids. The same woman will be observed stretching the walls of the pupil, pushing its assumed limits with her arms and legs, demanding the attention of the owner. She will be clothed by an eyelash, which will conceal her womanly features while wrapping around her body. This juxtaposition of roles is indicative of the struggle feminists face in avoiding the gaze of objectivity and fighting for the gaze which grants activists the notice required to promote their cause successfully. The lids of the eye will be slightly descended in the bottom half of the painting, as if in the process of being closed. The woman is fighting to prevent this from coming to pass, just as many feminists fight to keep the feminist agenda on the forefront of the female mind.

I have yet to make any definite decisions about my painting and continue to research the different windows of observation I will use to form the foundation of my feminist critique. Upon proposing the project’s outline to the three participating artists, I asked them to think about feminism in much the same way as I described it within my introductory paragraph: a burst of color, a textured object of a tangible appearance. It bothers me then, that I cannot abide by my own expectations in producing a solely sensory painting. I find myself wanting to paint the female experience, wanting to show women struggling and fighting. However, this is difficult as the woman’s movement and the events which have been born from it are vast and incapable of consolidation or compartmentalization.
In the coming weeks, I intend to do more readings pertaining to feminist artists of color and activism with regards to the female figure and the subjection of sexuality as is embodied by our form. Additionally, I intend to read further explanations of the methods used to run feminist critiques of literature. I feel that critical feminist studies of writings are undertaken through the utilization and implementation of windows of observation similar to those which I intend to consider and thus, feel I can learn from critiques conducted in the same manner. As of yet, each participating artist has been asked to complete their piece by December 10th, with digital pictures being taken and shown to the class either online in forums beginning the 11th or during lecture.


gail's picture

Other Artists

Please use any/all of the sculptures on the web. 

I, like you, exploded out of the limits.  I began with the Feminist sculpture for your project but then...flow...

Please post or link the collection of what other artists ( an yours please) created.

Thank you, again, for letting me be a part of your project.

Anne Dalke's picture

windows of observation

Delicious, tbarryfigu--I can't wait to see your representations (am only sorry you won't be able to pursue all the windows of observation you sketch out here) and those of the BMC artists who have agreed to work with you. Gail's sculptures of Feminism, already available on the web, have only whetted my appetite for more..

A few associations that arise for me, as I read what's in the works for you right now:

  • can our desire be satiated? Will we ever have enough? This makes me think of Freud, and Lacan, and all the writings on existentialism that define being human as always exceeding what we are...if this is so, then satiation in not in the cards! --but what is is an image of the self, always growing beyond what she is in the moment

  • your debating the possibility of a marriage between all the images puts me in mind of the play EMaciolek will be writing as her finale for this course: she's surveyed feminist drama through several decades, and is now going to write a play, with a representative from each of the other plays present in hers, and then let 'em loose in a conversation about feminism though the ages. Would be most interesting if you were representing visually what she's trying to do dramatically.

  • your saying that "she cannot be contained" put me in mind of Thunder Perfect Mind. Do you know this text? It's been the focus of Anne McGuire (Haverford Religion Dept.) for years; it's a poem from the 4th century that was discovered among the Gnostic manuscripts @ Nag Hammadi. It's an extended, riddling monologue, a series of paradoxical statements set forth in parallel strophes that echo Greek identity riddles. Might also function as a neat verbal analogue to what you are doing.

  • Your image of two hands holding up a sheet put me in mind of the Isak Dineson short story The Blank Page, in which, "on the morning after the wedding of a daughter of the house...the Chamberlain or High Steward from a balcony of the palace would hang out the sheet of the night and would solemnly proclaim: Virginem eam tenemus -- "we declare her to have been a virgin." Such a sheet was never afterwards washed or again lain on." Hm...guess that belong more appropriately among the images that Gail is making for Nora's project on menstruation.....
What actually interests me most is your saying that you were bothered that you can't abide by your own expectations, or the instructions you gave the other artists. How could you possibly know ahead of time where your creative process would take you? What makes you think the others will be able to stay with the limits you set?

Very much looking forward to seeing where this all comes out...


Ann Dixon's picture

Lydia's paper

Did you check out Lydia's paper about self-portrait? This might give you some ideas about how to express the movement you want. Good luck!