- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY: Jillian Wefald’s luminous portrait of women’s rights pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft stole the show.
"Feminist: Look it up.”
This is the imperative that advertises Powerful Women, on view now at Linnaea’s Café—the tagline that greets the viewer on posters and on the buttons available in a little basket on the refreshments table at the artist reception during Art After Dark.
Actually, this decidedly snarky quip belies the show’s incredible power and heterogeneity. I, being born a woman and distressed myself, am genuinely awed and inspired to see a collection of works with such an earnest and, unfortunately, still urgent political message behind it.
Each piece in the exhibit has its own card listing the “name of the public feminist that the piece pays homage to,” as well as the artist’s name, material(s), price, and an artist statement with varying amounts of information about the subject of the piece. While many gallery and museum exhibits commit the sin of too much information—artists are generally better seen and not heard—this opportunity for an implied dialogue between artist and viewer is a rich one, used to great advantage by many of the participants.
“Feminists can be funny!,” for example, opens the always-innovative Peg Grady’s statement, to accompany her embroidery piece paying homage to The Guerrilla Girls. The piece has a sense of humor, but that doesn’t dampen its message—you can laugh at it, but you can’t laugh it off.
The walls of Linnaea’s are packed with these homages, so plan to spend some time over your coffee and muffin when you come to see the show. The Powerful Women selected by participating artists range from Nina Simone, to Gloria Steinem, to the refreshingly defiant and theme-challenging piece by Lakin paying tribute to “‘over’ weight people, drag queens, and mothers breast feeding.”
- PHOTO BY HENRY BRUINGTON
- 'RESPECT YOURSELF': Mavis Staples radiates from Janelle Younger’s vibrant wooden assemblage piece.
The star of the show is Jillian Wefald’s exquisitely rendered portrait of women’s rights pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, whose 1792 A Vindication on the Rights of Woman argues for equality of the sexes in certain areas, especially education. A significant literary figure in her own right, Wollstonecraft was also the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. In the portrait, Wollstonecraft’s gaze implicates the viewer either in co-conspiracy or accusation, depending on your ideological position. It’s at once perfectly accomplished and a perfect satire of the traditional portrait of a wealthy woman—instead of the book in her hand being a mere prop resting idly at her side or slipping from her grasp, Wollstonecraft’s entire face seems to be lit from its open pages. And there are even a few books tucked into her hat, just in case you missed the message. Wefald’s other vocation as a tattoo artist may help explain the unabashed beauty and technical mastery of the piece, but that look goes far beyond the technical. Wollstonecraft—and Wefald—were the names on everyone’s lips at the reception.
Curator Lena Rushing adds her own deft hand to the show with The Jewel Is In The Lotus, a tribute to activist and playwright Eve Ensler. The popularity and even ubiquity of The Vagina Monologues, as a cultural phenomenon if not as an actual text—have those who make fun of it actually seen the play? Its power is undeniable—make Ensler a difficult subject to treat in a fresh way, but Rushing manages it as elegantly as ever.
Janelle Younger’s colorful, radiant homage to singer Mavis Staples is part found object, part altarpiece, inviting the viewer to worship in the church of Mavis. A whip-smart rendering of Annie Oakley by Cynthia Meyer, already sold by the time of the reception, appropriates Westernalia for feminism. The show even includes a little wink to locals in the know: Lynne Hessler’s tribute to Linnaea Phillips, the café’s founder and namesake. One artist notes the “name of the public feminist that the piece pays homage to” as “myself”—a bold move among such company, but I suppose somebody had to do it.
While there are admittedly some missteps in this exhibit (“Why does it look like bell hooks’ name is spelled wrong?” my husband asked me. “Because it’s capitalized,” I replied.), the overall strength of the works offsets the twinges of discomfort with concepts like “public feminist” and the danger of ghettoizing women artists. Most of us at the artist reception came specifically for this show, but before it closes on June 1 there will no doubt be many unwitting attendees who just came for the coffee … but who will leave, perhaps, with a greater understanding of half the planet’s inhabitants.
Name of the public feminist this piece was written by: Arts Editor Erin C. Messer. Send your definitions of feminism to email@example.com.