Transcending the Landscape of the Mind

March 21st, 2013  |  Published in March 2013

Transcending the Landscape of the Mind, an Exhibition Review of March on Women at Harvest Gallery

By Cate Yellig

The exhibition, March on Women, currently on view at Harvest Gallery in Over-the-Rhine includes twenty-two female artists from Greater Cincinnati. Many are recognizable names like Kay Hurley, Alice Pixley Young, Paige Wideman, and Jennifer Grote and rounding out the roster are emerging artists such as Ruthie Allen Lincoln and Melissa Sammarco.

The United States is one of four countries recognizing March as Women’s History Month, which celebrates the contributions women have made in history and contemporary society. The title of the exhibition, March On Women, is a double entendre playing on March as the time in which an exhibition of female artists takes place while simultaneously announcing the rallying cry of, “march on women!”

Attorney and newly independent curator Alissa Sammarco Maggenheim draws upon issues she champions in her professional life and transfers them into a curatorial vision expressing a passion for equality. She celebrates the broad range of talented female artists working in the Cincinnati area. The curatorial statement connects ideas of conflict, physicality, emotion, and spirituality to a metaphorical understanding of the landscape of the mind.

Representing a diverse array of cultures, ethnicities, and creative practices the only commonality among the artists lie solely in the fact that they are women. There were, however, two noticeable trends which created aesthetic harmony between artists and artwork within the exhibition.

The first include artists working in the mode of landscape painting. The outstanding example among them is Lisa Molyneaux’s Standing Alone, a painting that calls out to the viewer and requires a moment of contemplation and reflection. In the center of the composition, a tree stands alone against a cloud filled sky. The only other suggestion of life is the smattering of pointillist dots of amaranth colored flowers sprinkled among the landscape.

Molyneaux’s aggressive use of paint and formidable brushwork suggest nature should be viewed as a harsh environment, one that can be cold and distant. Considering artists like Robert S. Duncanson or John Henry Twachtman, Molyneaux’s technique comes across as well versed in the history of landscape painting yet she presents herself as a force to be reckoned with as a post-modern artist whose adversarial technique flies in the face of tradition, unsettling with its grasp of the duality between woman and nature. Arguably this painting is one of the best in the exhibit as it walks the line between both the worlds.

Additionally, Kay Hurley lends two black and white pastel drawings on paper. Standing out as stark skeletons of a landscape, these are a haunting contrast for an artist so recognized for the beauty of her color. The small black and white drawings, aptly titled Grazing – a cow in a field, and Sacred Space – a small pastoral dwelling seemingly enveloped by the night, are profound for their intense use of black, a poignant reminder of nature without her makeup. The hazy, ephemeral quality of the pastel creates a mystical atmosphere suggestive of the profound sense of connection one encounters when pondering the essence of nature. In these works Kay is metaphorically grazing, preparing the ground work for future artwork and literally presenting herself as a painter without makeup.

Noticeably absent from this group are works by Bukang Kim, Deborah Morrisey-McGoff, or Valerie Shesko, female artists living and working in Cincinnati and recognized as some of the finest examples of landscape painters in the world.

The second grouping in the exhibition looks beyond the traditional forms of landscape and moves in a pluralistic direction of modern and post-modern process and execution. Kindred, a wall sculpture by Paige Wideman, is a playful assemblage of found wood, iron, and mixed media, where simplified forms create an asymmetrical yet harmonious composition of earthy and rustic elements. Wideman’s appreciation of an object’s history can be seen in how she refashions a new story for the object from a collective past.

The grid, a quintessential concept of modern practice is explored in Edification, no. 1 – 6 by Jennifer Grote. Six wooden panels, placed in two columns of three rows, physically create the sense of a grid. Layering modular shapes and various shades of wood in structured compositions creates an intriguing interplay of form and space, which explores the tactile quality of materials and faintly references the profound historical implications of the grid.

Focusing on the emotive qualities of form, color, and expression many of the artists in the exhibition incorporate abstraction as a primary means of communication. Full of rhythm and motion, the works Sunday Morning by Darcie Bhatnagar and Copper Study by Ruthie Allen Lincoln use music as a primary source of inspiration. Their intriguing lyrical interpretations play across the canvases in symphonies of colors and tangible sounds.

In a far corner of the gallery, a lovely pairing of work by Alice Pixley Young and Celene Hawkins presents abstraction in a more subtle way. Hawkins’, Not Quite Perfect by Nature, is a steel sculpture of green branches rising silently into the viewer’s field of vision. The organic flow of the metal gives the sense of a tree blowing in the wind or a coral fan flowing with the sea’s tide. Juxtaposed against Honeycomb by Alice Pixley Young we see the interplay of essence and form with patterns of honeycomb emerging from a Mylar background.

Once we visualize the common threads interwoven among the artists and artworks of the show, we see the fabric of the curator’s idea; women are equally capable of thinking abstractly or conceptually as men. This was a hard fought argument made by Academics during the 1970s, one that eventually spilled over into all disciplines including medicine and law. Recognizing the contribution of women artists while conceptualizing the mind as a landscape, Maggenheim drives home the point that women can do this.

To say that women have not historically received equal accolades for their creative output is an understatement. The early twentieth century was dominated by artists like Picasso, and Pollock, viewed the world over as triumphant art giants while equally recognized for being purveyors of the male gaze and notorious for their dastardly treatment of their female counter-parts.

Abstract expressionist Lee Krasner and Color Field painter Helen Frankenthaler only received recognition when the voices of feminists’ during the 1970s resounded in the writings of Linda Nochlin, who sought to answer the question, “Why have there been no great female artists?” And, Griselda Pollock who challenged institutions and museums that excluded women’s creative contributions during the post-modern era ultimately culminating in the feminist interventions of the 1980s.

Focusing on the microcosm of Cincinnati’s art scene, women clearly have made great strides in obtaining positions of leadership in the arts since the 1980s, which presents a counter argument to the curatorial impetus for March on Women. A regional survey of both non-profit and for-profit institutions, organizations, and businesses reveals a preponderance of females in leadership roles including Raphaela Platow, Contemporary Arts Center; Deborah Emont Scott, Taft Museum of Art; Katie Brass, The Carnegie; Mary McCullough-Hudson, Artswave; Tamara Harkavey, Artworks; Ruth Dickey, Clifton Cultural Arts Center; Ellen Muse-Lindeman, Kennedy Heights Art Center; in Marta Hewitt, Marta Hewitt Gallery; Barry Sandler-Lundsberg, Cincinnati Art Galleries; Phyllis Weston, Phyllis Weston Gallery; Litsa Spanos, Art Design Consultants; Sylvia Rombis, Malton Gallery, Mary Ran; Mary Ran Gallery, Laura miller (equal partner), Miller Gallery.

When curating an immense undertaking such as this, where one takes a noble interest (equality) and seeks out artists to fit within the context of a broadly defined category (women artists) it often leads to a lack of unity within the exhibition and presents challenges to curatorial clarity. Yes, the curatorial statement was ambiguous and lacked an historical and contextual argument for why an exhibition focused solely on female artists is relevant in our contemporary discourse on the role of women in arts.

But is this really even necessary? Why can’t a show be purely a celebration of women and their creativity, without having the lofty rhetoric of post-modernism and all the intense inquiry that goes with it? A common topic in conversation, many wonder if the term curator is being too loosely used.

These are thoughts I have pondered as a former commercial art dealer who at times, in my own career, have referred to myself as a curator. Is that a farce? Am I really a curator when I pick a topic and randomly select artists? Then I think of the true curators in the area like Julie Aronson, Cyndi Amnaeus, Kristen Spangenberg, Anita Ellis, or Lynne Ambrosini, these women have Ph.Ds and write catalogues on their exhibitions which took years of academic inquiry and intense research…and it dawns on me, that I am literally and figuratively marching on the accomplishments of these women.

March on Women uses “landscape of the mind” as a metaphor for creativity, which is an idea that will always transcend gender. More noble purpose than vision we are fortunate to find ourselves living in a democracy, where we actually have the right to speak our opinions and voice them out loud. Women fought long and hard for that right and we need people like Alissa Maggenheim to remind us of its importance every day. To inspire women to embrace that right so we never forget how far we have come and never return to the point where that right is taken away.

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