I recently wrote a review for AADL Pulp of Works in Progress, a group show at Ann Arbor Art Center. Consisting of work by 24 (mostly) Detroit/Ann Arbor-based designers at varying stages in their careers, the exhibit illustrates the creative process of gifted thinkers and planners who bring functional works to life through fashion, graphic design, furniture, architecture, and industrial design. To read more about them, go here.
In Girlfriend Material, multimedia artist, writer and thinker Sarah Rose Sharp examines the reductive archetypes that provide a distorting lens through which women are often viewed in American popular culture. She has gathered a small universe of cartoon females and set them up to play with and against each other, teasing out from these one-dimensional characters some three-dimensional thoughts on women and their place in the world.
A millennial feminist, Sharp is aware that a multiplicity of roles are available to women but she also knows that female complexity and nuance are routinely flattened out and simplified in the popular imagination, the more easily to be consumed and digested. And with the election of a known sexual predator and his cast of sexist cronies to the incoming U.S. administration, it looks as if Sharp’s observations are well calibrated to remain relevant for the foreseeable future.
“This show is a continuation of themes and ideas I’ve worked on for a very long time, but it’s been very much influenced by the recent climate surrounding the presidential election…we must really hate women for someone like Donald Trump to even have a chance, ” says Sharp in a recent Detroit Metro Times interview.
The artworks and installations in Girlfriend Material seem to say that a woman can be a bitch or a doormat, a sexpot or a smart girl, a princess or a goddess, as long as she doesn’t exhibit the complexity of a real woman. Modern society likes its female role models bite-size.
Sharp has elected to use only pop figures such as Wonder Woman, Betty Boop, Princess Leia, Lucy and Lisa Simpson in Girlfriend Material. She has limited her materials to mass marketed objects such as Pez dispensers, key chains, novelty fabrics and the like, altering and collaging them together to create imaginative games and transactional installations. While many of the artworks are playful, there is an unmistakable undercurrent of frustration in this work, and an underlying question about how a woman’s life is defined by herself and by others.
Miss Overachiever, represented here by a manikin wearing a girl scout/Lisa Simpson beret and a comically over-loaded merit badge sash, is the good girl, the nerdy smart girl who gets all A’s, but is judged by the surrounding culture in terms that value appearance and popularity over achievement. Or as Sharp says in her statement “Where is the line between smart and too-smart-for-your-own-good?”
The Betting Pool, a circular “game” with no start and no end, continues the theme of cultural stasis. The glassy surface features bodiless characters in kiddie cars bumping and shuffling against each other, their movement controlled by an unseen motivator that flies overhead. Who “wins” is determined not by the players but by gallery visitors who bet on the character they “like” the best.
The sexy but infantilized Betty Boop in A Sucker for Jewelry illustrates yet another kind of game that women are sometimes called upon to play with mixed success. Her 1930’s persona has been lovingly updated with tattoos and bondage gear. (Sharp found the keychain figures in an alley and has not altered them.) Why objects like this even exist is a mystery to the artist–and to us–but she suspects that Betty Boop’s child-like head on her sexpot body still has plenty of cultural resonance. “I didn’t make this stuff up,” she says, laughing.
It didn’t escape my attention that many of the artworks in Girlfriend Material had a monetary component. While Sharp may be complaining about the paucity of complex roles available to women, she seems also to imply that any choice a woman makes is likely to be poorly compensated. Women still earn only 80 cents on the dollar in 2015 as compared to men, and women in the arts are not doing any better (and possibly worse). To cite a common art world benchmark, in 2015 only 8% of the contemporary art for sale at auction was by women. It should be no surprise, then, that Princess Leia is crowdfunding her rescue at 25 cents a pop and Lucy is willing to empathize for a nickel. It’s the going rate.
In Double Wedding Ring, Sharp finally attempts to synthesize all of the oversimplified traits displayed by her characters into a more complex picture. The kaleidoscopic collection of images in the quilt, meeting and circling each other, insists that a woman can be sweet and bitchy, strong, smart and sexy and quite a few other things if the surrounding society will only give her a shot. And in other corners of the culture, especially in film and television, there seems to be some movement toward more complex female characters. Television shows like Lena Dunham’s Girls and movies like In A World (directed by Lake Bell) and the recently released Certain Women (directed by Kelly Reichardt) are carving out cultural space for actual women telling actual stories. Comedians like Amy Schumer and Samantha Bee bring humor to the public discussion of feminism.
So there’s hope, even if recent political events might indicate otherwise. It should be noted that all of the films and television shows I listed above are written and/or directed by women. Maybe by the time women reach wage parity with men (in 2152 at current rates!) we can look forward to equal rights in gender roles too.
Girlfriend Material is on view at Public Pool, in Hamtramck until December 17, 2016. For more information go here
As summer draws to a close and harvest time approaches, Jessica Tenbusch, Elize Jekabson and Maggie Spencer invite us to consider the honeybee.
The exhibit For Forage celebrates, in collaboration with the 4th Annual Ypsilanti Festival of the Honeybee, the many ways in which this indispensable insect contributes to the natural environment and human well-being. Participating artists were invited to “share visions, critique relations between humans and honeybees, share new perspectives.” And share they have, with a variety of intriguing and insightful artworks that are well worth a trip to 22 North Gallery, in Ypsilanti MI, where the exhibit will be on view until September 30.
In the cooperative, hardworking and self-effacing spirit of the honeybee, the anonymous collective Ann Katrine has created a series of small, wall-mounted artworks that combine the production of insect, bacteria, yeast and humans in a creative relationship. The bees provide the honeycomb and the artists riff on the hexagonal shapes with red embroidery thread, sometimes echoing, sometimes augmenting the shapes. The translucent coating visible on the surface of the works is dried kombucha, a microbial cellulose material which is derived from symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). These subtly glowing objects echo the interconnectedness of nature from the microscopic to the insect to the human.
A more playful tone is set by two fashionable and off-beat hats created by Lush Lapel. In Pursuit ofPollen, the honeybee appears as a decorative motif, along with seed pods, feathers and other bits and pieces. The results are fit for a queen bee of any species.
Also seriously fashionable are the brooches, necklaces and rings created by Riva Jewell-Vitale. Her multi-piece wall-mounted installation of jewelry, entitled Colony, demonstrates her considerable talent as a collagist. She creates inventive combinations of unexpected components that somehow result in elegant and mysterious wearable sculptures.
A more reverential note on the honeybee as Nature’s martyr and saint is struck by Ryan Bogan. His insect reliquary, Blessed is the Fruit of Thy Womb, features the tiny body of a honeybee suspended in a glass dome surrounded by precious gold leaf. Lovingly crafted and carefully composed, this piece wouldn’t be out of place in a modern religious setting.
If you are planning a trip to Ypsi to see For Forage, remember that 22 North, like many other arts spaces in the Detroit metro area, is open during limited hours during weekdays and on weekends, or by appointment. To find out more about the gallery’s exhibits and events go here.
Or call: 501.454.6513
Artists in For Forage: Meagan Shein, Brad Naftzger, Heather Leigh, Ann Katrine Collective, Owen Wittekindt, Marshelia Williams, Michael O’Dell Jr., Rive Jewell-Vitale, Jonathan J. Sandberg with Kevin Kwiatkowski, Ryan Bogan, Lush Lapel
Ann Arbor artist Valerie Mann has invited you to a cocktail party.
Attractive young women in tasteful jewel-toned taffeta gowns carry demure evening clutches and make polite chitchat. “This is fun!” you think. But then you take a closer look.
There is gun violence-a lot of it- at this party too. Each chic vintage cocktail dress in this installation at WSG Gallery has been carefully embroidered with images of the specific guns employed in recent U.S. mass shootings. The accompanying Lucite handbags–upon which drawings of guns are etched–give new meaning to the term “open carry”.
In Gun Show, Mann has served up a disturbing series of meticulously created objects that invite us to re-think why it is that guns and gun violence have become part of the background noise of American civic life. The artist herself seems puzzled by her juxtaposition of the conventionally pretty and the unspeakable:
“It seemed much easier before I started the making process. I don’t mean the actual, physical making of the work was so taxing to figure out, I mean it has been psychologically difficult.”
Using her sewing machine as a drawing tool, Mann has embroidered Sig Sauer MCX 223 rifles, Bushmaster semi-automatics and Glock 21.45 semi-automatic rifles on party dresses to commemorate the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting (Dance all Night), The Newtown Connecticut massacre (Big Guns Little People), the Charleston S.C. church shootings (Sunday Best). The specificity of each image adds bite to the social commentary.
The embroidered and etched firearms are carefully, one might almost say lovingly, crafted. Luxury materials — Lucite, silk, gold leaf — invite touch even as the image repels. Mann admits to the intrinsic and self-contradictory attraction of the gun:
“I shocked myself when, after many drawings of guns, I admitted how sexy they were.”
She acknowledges that gun violence became more and more difficult to address clearly as she researched the interlocking motives and conditions that result in specific atrocities: mental illness, racism, terrorism and lax gun ownership laws, to name a few.
The idea for Gun Show came to Mann some time ago, when she first heard about the Columbine shootings. This was the first time, she said, “where children were the shooters AND the victims, and when I first felt that the adults of society had really let down the next generation. We’ve let them down because of our unwillingness to talk about difficult things in a rational way, or to compromise.”
Art works, even very provocative ones, don’t have the power to change public policy directly. But they are not nothing either. Changing minds takes time and sustained attention and ultimately, political action. Valerie Mann has taken a courageous first step by bringing up the subject of gun violence in the polite environs of an art gallery. It is the responsibility of her audience to care enough to do something about it in the political arena.
Have you seen Gun Show? Would you wear a dress with guns on it? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.
Gun Show is on view at WSG Gallery from now until September 10. For more information about WSG Gallery go here