There will be a time when the work of women artists has become so pervasive among museum collections that special exhibitions calling attention to their achievements are no longer necessary to balance the scales between the caliber of their work and the recognition it has received. Maybe that time will come when women are finally given authority over their reproductive rights. Or when their salaries are equitable to men holding the same positions.
Until then, exhibitions exclusively highlighting women artists remain a necessary tool in fighting a patriarchy over 500 years in the making among art museums and collectors, and much longer than that across humanity. A powerful example of this critical curatorial work can be seen now through September 25, 2022, at the Modern Art Museum of Forth Worth (TX) where “Women Painting Women” presents a tour de force of portraiture from women over the past half century, “women’s work” their male contemporaries could only dream of matching.
What of those people who claim museum spaces and culture have already achieved gender equality? That gendered exhibitions like this are dismissive to the women artists who should simply be viewed as artists, no qualifier required.
“I can problematize that myself and I have all along, the idea that the word woman is in the title of the exhibition,” Chief Curator at The Modern Andrea Karne told Forbes.com. “I talked to all the living artists in the exhibition to make sure they wanted to be in it and didn't feel pigeonholed; everyone was excited about it because of the idea that the show is about inclusivity and it is about stretching the boundaries of what it means to be a woman–it's not confined to biology in any way.”
Sixty evocative portraits from an international field of artists collectively recognizes female perspectives that have been underrepresented in the history of postwar figurative painting. That medium is the focus of the exhibition as traditionally it has been a privileged medium for portraiture, particularly for white male artists.
“It's not a feminist exhibition, but I think there's a lot of taking the power back when women paint women,” Karne said. “The women are still objectified in the images for the most part, of course, but there's a range from abject to beautiful to everything in between.”
Therein lies the greatest difference she notices between how men have traditionally painted women and how women handle the subject.
“Women were bold enough to paint pregnant nudes like Alice Neel did–there's not a big market for pregnant nudes,” Karne said. “Showing a range of types of women that smash the archetype.”
Today’s women artists are going further in smashing the archetype, exceeding their predecessors in representing a more complete spectrum of women. How so?
“In a word, inclusivity,” Karne explains. “Seeing a more diverse range of skin tones and cultures being presented, not as exoticized. Queer culture and the idea of shaking loose from strict binary terms the idea of a woman. The exhibition includes femme identifying people, it includes queer culture, these things are newer.”
Gone too is the implicit whiteness of the maker, the viewer and the subject.
“I think it's important for young women and men of color to walk into a museum and see images that they can directly relate to and I think a lot of the artists in this exhibition have helped that along,” Karne said. “It's really important for young people to be able to walk into a museum and find their mentors on the wall and find issues that they know and relate to in the in the images they're seeing. I can't say enough about how great I think it is that there's more inclusivity in the institutions today than ever before.”
Exhibitions like “Women Painting Women” are critical in achieving that. So too have been major retrospectives in the U.S. and Europe over the past 18-months devoted to many of early pioneers among the women portraitists now together in Ft. Worth: Emma Amos at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Faith Ringold at the New Museum in New York, Alice Neel at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paula Rego at Tate Britain, Joan Semmel at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
“Too bad it couldn't happen during their lifetime, but I do think this is proving that the white Western male canon of art is being permeated now, as it should be,” Karne said. “These women should have been included (historically) in the institution so I'm glad they're getting airplay now, it's important, and they're important, they have so much to contribute, they have contributed so much, they need to be seen and known in the books.”
Along with the matriarchs, the best of the best women artists of today working at the height of their powers are featured: Jordan Casteel, Nicole Eisenman, Tracy Emin, Deborah Roberts, Jenny Saville, Amy Sherald, Mickalene Thomas. A stupefying assemblage of creative genius.
Following in their footsteps is an army of brilliantly talented early career painters, working provocatively, challenging boundaries, changing how the genre of portraiture is considered, challenging museums to catch up, challenging viewers and the culture to catch up. Somaya Critchlow (b. 1993, London) exemplifies this exciting trend. She’s making a huge splash in the art world currently, particularly in her hometown.
Karne came across Critchlow’s work by chance at a collection in Dallas when looking at other artist. She knew she’d found something–someone–important. Karne selected seven of Critchlow’s diminutive paintings the size of notebook paper to be included in the show alongside the legends, more than any other artist.
“She combines pop culture with rap culture with kitsch with art history–she has the chops as a painter and in terms of knowing art history,” Karne explains. “I love those tiny boudoir images of these black women–it's about omission, it’s about whose been omitted from the Western canon of art–and putting those people front and center in the imagery. They’re sexy and they’re soft porn and I love it when women like her and Lisa Yuskavage and Marilyn Minter–all who I have in the same room in the exhibition–use that language of soft porn, a way that women have been objectified, and make it their own and take the power back, that's what Somaya is doing.”