Points of View – “The League of Extraordinary Ladies”
Written by MFA student Aj Cooke, Points of View explores local gallery exhibitions in order to spark an open and accessible exchange of ideas and nurture collective intelligence about the art being created and displayed in our community.
The League of Extraordinary Ladies
Glitter Milk Gallery
September 24 – October 12
Artwork claiming to empower women in our current society? Sign me up!
This was my thought as I rode the Rapid bus to Glitter Milk Gallery, where “The League of Extraordinary Ladies” was on display during ArtPrize 2014.
The gallery’s statement, which explains that the exhibition celebrates “self-made communities amongst women, and the almost cartoonish characters that women utilize in order to express themselves,” leaves a lot of room for interpretation, but I was still excited at the notion of an exhibition centered on female artists for the specific purpose of talking about women. The intimate one-room gallery was full of art objects like shadow box assemblages and custom made vests, created by artists Laurie Langford and ALB, respectively.
Langford’s mixed media boxes touched on easy to read symbolism (too easy?) of the female as domestic and commoditized in our society, portrayed here by Barbie dolls, mannequins, an array of objects found in and about the home, as well as religious imagery such as angels and the sacred female figure. “The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” for example - one of a few compositions with obvious religious overtones - depicts the Virgin as a domesticated body. She’s complete with red oven mitts, serving utensils, and classical signifiers such as vessels, all while preparing to serve dinner to a few tinsel angels.
"The Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary" by Laurie Langford
ALB’s work was more controversial, including embellished painted vests that each display the name of a fictional group of women – much like a motorcycle club would display their moniker - such as “Bombshells,” “Hell’s Hoochies,” and “The Plastics.” Though the apparel is graphically eye catching, and I could see how a number of young women would enjoy sporting these well-illustrated garments, my first reaction was not agreeable. Why refer to a woman as a stereotypical “bombshell,” or use the word “hoochie” as an emblem for empowering women?
"Hells Hoochies" by ALB
There is an apparent contradiction in the choice of words as well as the handcrafted iconography – kiss lips, pink grenades, and a pin that read “art slut.” Both are meant to support a female community, but my interpretation was the opposite. In her statement, ALB asserts that these images and the language used are intended to promote and strengthen women. She sees her art as an act of reclaiming the words that perhaps degrade the female sex. However, I struggle with this interpretation, and ask if these titles and signs are something women should accept? Is the act of reclaiming even an option if women did not give themselves these identities to begin with? In the current social climate, where inequality, predetermined gender roles, and street harassment are daily realities for most women, is this exhibition promoting empowerment, or feeding into the categories that are so hard to break free from?
Standing at the bus stop nearly ten feet from the gallery door, I was approached by a man passing by. “Smile,” he said. It was surreal.
Here I was reflecting on how feminism is portrayed by multiple avenues in our personal lives, in the media, and in art like the work included in “The League of Extraordinary Ladies,” and not a few steps from the artwork, I was reminded about my second-rate place in society.
Though I might not agree with the way this exhibition handled the seriousness of gender inequality and discrimination, we need more exhibitions like this. We need to have conversations where everyone will probably not agree, but problems will be brought to light and a meaningful discussion will emerge. We need a critique on sex, gender, and equality, which is exactly what Glitter Milk Gallery offers the viewer.
After my initial silence, the stranger persisted. “Why don’t you smile?” he said. My response was quick and direct: “Because I don’t have to.”
*Author’s note: If you are not familiar with street harassment, feel free to check out this ongoing art project started in 2012 by Brooklyn-based artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, and consider standing up for all people in each and every public space.