Lorna Room’s group exhibition Girlband investigates the intersections between gender and painterly abstraction within a somewhat dated binary frame of reference. Besides sharing a similar sense of materiality, Girlband’s artists, Jenn Smith, Kaveri Raina, Miri Phelps, Sarah Bastress, Risa Recio, Jaclyn Mednicov, Erina Shibata and Katie Kirk do not have practices that neatly converge through any shared, uniform experience of gender. Many utilize unexpected materials (beer bottle foil, concrete, plants, etc.) and forms (representative assemblage) simultaneously coupling a postmodern sense of play with the personal and political. As all the artists note in the show’s program, they have all been labeled as “female abstract painters.” Using this descriptive catchall implies that gender collectively reads as a quantifier; a female abstract painter differs from an abstract painter as a girl band differs from a band. Girlband’s artists set out to question this collective label because, unexamined, this proposition is reductive and solipsistic. Yet they are concurrently accurate in depicting the historical trace of privilege left behind by a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied masculinity (i.e., a girl band has the potential to create community and subvert discriminatory power). The show’s thematic focal point attempts to exist within this dissonance, asking if a generalized femme experience explicates each artist’s practice.
Using artist Shirley Kaneda’s 1991 essay, Painting and Its Others In the Realm of the Feminine1 as a point of departure, Girlband offers visitors Kaneda’s propositions of feminine, masculine and hermaphroditic characteristics as a means by which to situate the works in the show. Kaneda creates a dichotomy between masculine and feminine aesthetics defining these schemas through differing responses to the sublime and alienation, while a hermaphroditic schema exists between the two, sharing traits of both paradigms. Kaneda’s framework appears to gender Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian dichotomy; the masculine wants to understand the sublime while the feminine locates it within the realm of the senses. While this binary provides space for ambiguity, defining such exploration is a frustrating endeavor as there is only space for a superficial relational critique. It is, however, somewhat useful to consider when historicizing the practice of abstract painting. A binary understanding of gender partially shaped the discourse of Modernist abstraction. Prominent examples include the pressure to feminize Georgia O’Keefe’s corporeal imagery or ascribe masculine virility to Jackson Pollock’s action painting. Today, confining artists to such strident narratives of unchanging bodies and genders is shortsighted within an age of intersectionality.
The works shown in Girlband are difficult to place within Kaneda’s framework. Miri Phelps’ abstract sculpture, Crash My Playa, composed of play-dough, steel, mink, dead plants, banjo strings, and Modelo foil; is a biting homage to the complexity of the American countryside and her own childhood. According to Phelps, Crash charts the rising mentions of Mexico in popular American country music. The title refers to an infamous country music resort and concert experience in Mexico created by country musician Luke Bryan. Notably, the only overt, material tie to Mexico is commercial residue: the Modelo foil. The foil’s inclusion speaks to the casual colonialist attitudes that gird American consumption. (i.e., Understanding another culture through songs created by predominantly white American men and signified by beer disseminated by a Belgian brewing conglomerate.) Phelps’ sculpture is also intensely personal; the mink was her grandmother’s and the plants her own. When applying Kaneda’s binary criteria to Crash, neither masculine or feminine traits are a sufficient means of examination. While one could assert that the tactile inclusion of the mink and dying plants gestures towards a sensorial feminine, Crash’s overt political commentary on cultural consumption could also be considered a masculine desire to understand one’s place within imperial and colonial socioeconomic systems. Neither lends a sophisticated understanding of the subjects which Phelps’ examines.
In contrast to Crash, the materiality of Jaclyn Mednicov’s Flowers series, (bubblewrap) and (concrete), presents an opportunity for Kaneda’s paradigm to be constructively applied. Both of Mednicov’s pieces feature the silhouetted skeletons of prairie flowers captured in windblown destruction; delicate petals are frozen violently adrift and bare stems bend from unseen forces. The plastic packaging that encases Flowers (bubblewrap) presents qualities that Kaneda terms as feminine. It is yielding and malleable allowing the flowers a range of potential movement. There is an undeniable brutality to this movement, a tense self-conscious moment before the flowers are taken by the wind. Kaneda, however, categorizes such moments of introspection as masculine; a desire to look inward and understand the chaos of the world.
Flowers (concrete) generates an overwhelming sense of paralysis, the flowers suspended in cement are there for examination, capturing a moment. There is a stillness that allows for an appreciation of floral physiology; adrift petals have points of origin, and plant biology takes on a geometric aesthetic. The precariousness of Flowers (bubblewrap), where flowering stems seem to long to break away from the softness of the bubblewrap creates heightened tension. Flowers (concrete) inverts the relationship between masculine and feminine. Though concrete does not yield, it offers a stillness to Mednicov’s flowers. This stillness allows for a range of tactile emotions and sensations; Kaneda’s feminine.
Girlband does not provide a neat resolution to any of the questions the show raises. There is still the question of what lies beyond a gender binary. Using this lens to understanding these practices limits conversation. However, being categorized like this is an issue that these artists have faced and must address. All of Girlband’s artists maintain practices that cannot be neatly understood within a dated schema. This willingness to push beyond stasis places these artists within their own girl band.
Girlband at Lorna Room runs until November 30th.