Illinois Women Artists: The New Millennium

at the Illinois Art Gallery, through July 30

By Janina A. Ciezadlo

Just a little over 100 years ago, Pierre-Auguste Renoir declared, “I consider women writers, lawyers and politicians…as monsters and nothing but five-legged calves. The woman artist is merely ridiculous, but I am in favor of the female singer and dancer.” It may be much easier now for women to be acknowledged as artists, but art by women is still a controversial subject. “Illinois Women Artists: The New Millennium” is a show of 50 works–paintings, graphics, and small sculptures–chosen by the Illinois Committee for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Running first in Chicago, the exhibition will travel to the Washington, D.C., museum in September and return to Illinois to make various stops around the state through August 2001. The selection process was complicated, spanning the state and ending overseas with a critic in Scotland who has no political or aesthetic ties to Illinois.

Still, it’s been difficult for artists and viewers to reach any kind of consensus on this exhibit. I’ve heard some people comment that a show segregating women will ghettoize their art and result in a diminution of quality. Others worry that people won’t attend an exhibit restricted to works by women. Some have argued that a greater effort should have been made to include black, Asian, Native American, and Latina artists. Others believe that an exhibit of women’s art needs to address such issues as women’s working conditions–an opinion voiced by Elizabeth Cady Stanton not long before Renoir made his observation, when she faulted an exhibition of women’s art at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

Because the mission of this show was, in the words of one of the benefactors of the national museum, to “recognize and honor women artists” rather than provide a forum for issues, many of the debates one might find in a women’s studies class or at a women’s gallery are absent. Women have struggled in all areas of life against attitudes like those Renoir expressed, yet any dialogue about that struggle is overshadowed here by a genteel feminine world. As a result the works that make any kind of point about our times stand out.

People who are trying to find their place in history often set out to rewrite it, as Chicagoan Mary Ellen Croteau does in her mock-Renaissance The Annunciation. Her Virgin Mary wears the traditional blue robes but stands with one hand on her hip like an annoyed mother; she seems to be gesturing at the archangel Gabriel to get out. Though he has wings, he also wears glasses and looks like a salesman or a doctor (the figure is actually a portrait of Randall Terry, the antiabortion activist). Slightly crouched over, he seems to be making a pitch: one hand is raised skyward, pointing toward God in the standard iconography of the Renaissance, while the other is open and displays a fetus.

Retrieving the image of Mary, traditionally revered for acquiescing to a demand many would now find outrageous, Croteau paints her as an assertive woman; in a reversal of the traditional iconographic body language, the angel cajoles Mary, who stands erect, full of self-assurance. Croteau invites us to see that Mary’s compliance provided a role for female obedience that’s been harmful to women for centuries. (However, the same church that promotes such images has also advised women not to reduce their bodies to commodities.) Cleanly rendered in the clear reds and blues of the Renaissance, Croteau’s painting underscores the contradictions of that era–the rational, illusionistic spaces and the often not-so-rational ideas they support. Croteau’s painting may seem confrontational, but Renaissance artists also took liberties with the figures in this drama, portraying them as aristocratic Italians. In effect the painting asks, What if women had been required to take responsibility for the past 2,000 years instead of being provided with sacred models of agreement? In another sense, however, Croteau’s Annunciation is uncontroversial, since Democratic and Republican leaders alike in Illinois are pro-choice.

Croteau’s Annunciation was originally part of a provocative, witty suite of works that addressed crucial moments in the history of art and of women’s subjugation. In Branks, Chicagoan Rebecca Wolfram addresses another historical instance of women’s subjugation: her women are wearing branks, a device that looks like a metal cage locked over a woman’s head. A metal piece with serrated edges goes into the wearer’s mouth like a bit, so that if she speaks the contraption shreds her tongue. The branks were used as a punishment for “gossips” in England and America up until the 18th century. Wolfram’s two women are being led on leashes by naked men–but like Croteau’s unctuous angel, these men are stooped, with thin limbs and weak, protruding stomachs. Meanwhile the women are stately, wearing the branks as if they were not humiliating or confining but ennobling.

A friend of mine called Wolfram’s use of color “alchemical,” as if all the impurities had been burned off and only the essentials remained. In her quest for meaning, Wolfram paints only in black, cream, and red, using an inflected line that reminds me of Käthe Kollwitz’s or van Gogh’s drawings: like their figures, hers are drawn in poses that capture the suffering inflicted on them. The figures move in a dreamlike space broken up into rectilinear but not perspectival zones, almost like a map; these ambiguous, disturbing “built” spaces look like basements or industrial areas. In the upper righthand corner is a muzzled dog, and just behind the couples is a crouched figure imprisoned in an odd cream-colored rectangle. Part of the painting is bordered by what looks like a picket fence–usually a sign of domestic tranquility but here an ironic comment on lamentations over the loss of past values. Wolfram’s Branks makes one wonder whether less visible but institutionalized punishments for speaking out still exist, but Wolfram preserves the sense of mystery in her piece by not pushing the point.

Helene Smith-Romer of Chicago pays homage in her work to Hannah Höch, the great German collage artist. Höch and Raoul Hausmann, fellow dadaists in the teens, dealt more directly with images from popular culture than the expressionists, whose paintings were valorized at the time but were soon on their way to the backwaters of museums. Smith-Romer translates Höch’s work–or rather she assembles digital montages under Höch’s influence. Get G is a figure composed of fragments of other figures: the nose and mouth are from one face, cut in a triangle shape, while the eyes are from another; one eye is upside down. The neck is a torn shape with part of a face on it. The bust appears to be an orange peel, and though one arm ends in a hand, the other ends in another face. This lucid, anarchic, and humorous piece criticizes the way popular culture not only reproduces images but recycles its own materials again and again.

Hung alongside Smith-Romer’s work is Chicagoan Claire Prussian’s digital collage Room With Doll. Her piece is reminiscent of Richard Hamilton’s famous 1956 photocollage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?, not only because it depicts a room with a doll-like figure but because it hints that people are controlled by outside forces (market forces in Hamilton’s case). In Prussian’s work we look through the window of a high rise at a King Kong-size woman outside; a large, graceful feminine hand rests on the windowsill, as if about to manipulate us, the residents of this dollhouse. The surface and tone of the piece are coherent and sensual despite the mix of styles–digital reproduction allows seamless, gracefully incorporated visual quotations.

It’s not easy to put the works in the exhibit into groups. There are a fair number of extremely competent still lifes and some traditionally beautiful landscapes. I imagine (though it’s not true) that these still lifes and landscapes all came from artists beyond the city. Only one artist depicts the loss of green space and the degradation of Illinois’ farmland by suburban sprawl: Sleepy Hollow resident Kathleen Eaton’s excellent The Mall lies in the tradition of Roger Brown and George Tooker. A night scene of a residential street, it records the sameness of suburban architecture, with little bay windows and dormers meant to break up the mere repetition of cubes, though they’ve only made the units of repetition smaller and more random. Eaton uses murky noncolors with the exception of an overly warm yellow orange light coming from open garage doors and blue light from TV screens in all the houses. Eaton captures the feudal relationship between people in the homes and their economic base by placing the mall of the title at the top of a gentle rise, looking like a mother ship with a great lighted door and parking-lot lights piercing the gloom.

By excluding photography, video, and installation (though the show does include a couple of small assemblages), the organizers have made cultural commentary less likely, since those media are often used for that purpose. (The committee promises that “next time” different parameters will be set.) Otherwise the jurors have chosen pieces that are diverse in terms of subject and style; in fact, the exhibit might be faulted for a sort of Noah’s ark quality: two abstract paintings, two from one part of the state, two from another. I’m sure the organizers wanted a more pluralistic group but didn’t know how to go about calling different artists to the table. All the works are of high quality, but this very reliance on technical execution may be linked to the show’s conservative selections. After all, what’s different is often frightening because we don’t know how to evaluate it. There are few raw or shocking images here, few pieces that take risks or show any evidence of a spirited or desperate search.

Nevertheless, difficult subjects are not absent, though they might be in the area of private life. Two images deal directly with sickness: one is a deftly drawn, disconcertingly jagged etching by Sigrid Wonsil of Streamwood, Last Illness, the other an oil pastel on paper by Chicagoan Hollis Sigler, one of a group of works about the battle she and her relatives have waged with breast cancer. This small painting about an often fatal illness is refreshingly nonpedantic and full of light and color, reminiscent of the hymnals and prayer books of the mystic Hildegard von Bingen: the luminosity of the colors seems metaphysical. Although the images are representational, they have no weight; the illumination seems to come from inside the objects. A small blue bed sits on a red stagelike platform in front of a window looking out on orange, yellow, and brown hills; black tree stumps look like the remnants of burned trees. A gracious squadron of winged hands bearing bags of blood is flying in front of the window, and a banner floating over the bed reads: “The blood was a gift that others had given to reinforce me.” Piles of gifts flank the bed, and the scene is surrounded by an alternately red and blue double frame with a design that looks like blood cells.

Portraits of women are burdened with the project of taking a position–consciously or unconsciously–on the male gaze. Several portraits and self-portraits here gain their momentum from an acceptance of the female self apart from female cultural icons. And the studio setting of a self-portrait is of course appropriate to a process of introspection. Chicagoan Riva Lehrer, who paints her face and feet on two different panels separated by three feet of wall space, offers a frank, uningratiating gaze to the world–and protects most of her body from intrusive examination. Davida Schulman of Northbrook portrays herself honestly as a large woman in contemplation. Another studio self-portrait by Elinor Spiess-Ferris of Chicago in the difficult but luminous medium of gouache is dark and fantastic. Reminiscent of the work of Latina artist Remedios Varo, it includes corpulent female devils and the image of an artist floating, palette in hand, in a grove of bare trees. Erin Palmer of Carbondale offers a simple, nearly life-size grisaille (an oil restricted to shades of gray) with a great deal of presence, not only because she handles space and the figure well but because of the grace and seriousness of her stance in the image. With honesty and self-assurance, the painter presents herself to herself as well as to the spectator.

The only representation of a woman of color is a portrait of two women–one black, one white–by Chicago artist Nancy Hild, who introduces public issues by depicting a private moment. Somber and enigmatic, this painting renders in obsessive detail everyday objects and feminine gestures alive with meaning. Seen in profile and facing each other, the two women share an even, reciprocating gaze while resting their hands on a barred rock hen. The connection between the two is somehow mediated by the hen, though we don’t know how. The painting–acrylic worked to a silken gloss–is entitled Grace.