In the art world, as in the real world, women are often underrepresented. Only around 5 percent of the artwork in major U.S. museums is by female artists, even though, according to a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts survey, 51 percent of visual artists are women. And on average, they earn 81 cents for every dollar a male artist makes. In light of this bleak picture of gender parity, “Woman As Warrior,” a group show at Bridgeport’s Zhou B Art Center, seems to be a step in the right direction.
In a press release, curators Sergio Gomez (Zhou B’s director of exhibitions) and Didi Menendez (editor in chief of Poets & Artists magazine) write that “Woman As Warrior” is dedicated “to the woman who symbolizes a hero among champions.”
“We were thinking about what’s happening around the world,” Gomez told me. “We thought this show would be a good celebration of seeing women as warriors.”
More than half of the featured artists are women. The works on display—mostly paintings and photographs, but also a few sculptures and a video—depict women in a variety of contexts. In a photo series by Paola Estrella, a woman tousles a wedding dress, and several hold children or pose in their studios.
Yet on the whole, “Woman As Warrior” isn’t very impressive. Many pieces, in particular the paintings, feel uninspired, with the artists interpreting the theme too literally. A color photograph by Debra Livingston shows a lady dressed as Wonder Woman with a raven balanced on her raised fist. In Alia El-Bermani’s painting Hear Me, a young woman viewed in profile opens her mouth wide; “roar” has been buzzed into the side of her hair. She’s one of several figures pictured screaming. At this point the notion that women who are vocal or angry are also strong, let alone heroic, is obvious and tired.
Some works are more imaginative. Natalie Holland’s Light Warriors is a masterful oil painting of a woman gazing down at what appear to be her two sons. She holds the boys close, at once looking poised and protective; the figures’ brown skin is set against a rich blue background. Similarly impressive, Marco Gallotta’s Diandra and Rain portrays a woman holding a baby. The figures, cut out from a photograph, are centered and take up much of the space. Gallotta paints black lines that radiate away from the subjects; the lady and her child are in color, which makes them pop out from the background.
Many of the pieces in “Woman As Warrior” exist in the much-maligned realm of contemporary figurative realism, representational work that aims to portray reality and not “the ideal.” After World War II, figurative painting largely fell out of favor in the art world, with abstraction taking its place. As a result, it’s easy for figurative art to feel out of touch with contemporary taste, although there are a growing number of artists who refute that presumption, such as Kehinde Wiley and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.
“Woman as Warrior” largely doesn’t measure up to the lofty ideals that Gomez and Menendez set out for it, despite their best efforts. It’s the latest in a series at Zhou B that the curators have been collaborating on for the past several years. Each centers around a specific theme; artists are invited to participate and have about a year to create pieces that relate to the subject matter.
The opening took place during Zhou B’s monthly Third Friday event, during which the artists in the building open their studios to the public. I arrived just as the festivities were getting under way, and the multilevel building was already filling with visitors of all demographics: families with small children, a couple on a date, several groups of friends. They all appeared to enjoy the work.
“There’s something for every viewer,” Gomez says. “This is something that our center would like to do: collaborate and bring work to Chicago and make it available for our community.”
Abstract painting and conceptual art are often difficult for general audiences to approach. Figurative work tends to be an easier introduction to art appreciation. From this perspective, the rapt viewers at Zhou B, looking at pieces about women, largely by women, indicate that “Woman As Warrior” is in some way a success. v