A Room of Her Own

McClain Gallery, Houston

Through December 31, 2009
by Wendy Vogel

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      Allison Schulnik
      Big Bear Head
      2008
      Oil on canvas
      60 x 60 inches
      Courtesy McClain Gallery

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      Louise Fishman, All Night and All Day, 2008, for full caption see image gallery

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      A Room of Her Own at McClain Gallery takes its title from Virginia Woolf’s maxim: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Woolf’s essay, which details the problems that women artists have faced in terms of representation and education, is addressed literally in this exhibition: McClain gives over most of the commercial gallery (three out of four rooms) to work by a transgenerational group of fifteen female artists. Yet the pressing question is the extent to which this exhibition, along with other recent all-female shows, reflects a larger set of concerns about the positioning of female artists.

      Two years ago, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution and the Brooklyn Museum’s new Sackler Center for Feminist Art brought the “F-word” back into fresh circulation among art audiences. This renewed interest has worked its way into the gallery world, where all-female group shows have become a framing device for situating new artists in familiar territory. The cynic could call this is a marketing strategy for a conservative market and, in the case of A Room of Her Own, the cynic would be right.

      A Room of Her Own is organized primarily by medium: sculpture in the first room, painting and photography in the second and collage and richly layered paintings in the third. Loosely, the work addresses themes of figuration and abstraction and a poetic relationship to landscape, though these motifs do not add up to a definitive curatorial statement. Rather, the exhibition attempts to skirt notions of essentialism by including a token text-based work: Jenny Holzer’s LED sculpture Purple Red Curve from 2005. But Holzer’s sculpture reads awkwardly in a show that otherwise aims to create visual connections between older and younger artists working in a less conceptual vein.

      A Room of Her Own forges these cross-generational correspondences to either pretty or subversive effect. The younger artists, most of whom are figurative painters, pick up where their fore-mothers left off. Chantal Joffe’s small, restrained canvases depicting women and children are clearly indebted to Alice Neel, whose painting David (1968) was initially included in the exhibition but was recently returned to its owners. Joffe’s work hangs salon-style with more aggressive works by Kelli Vance and Katherine Bernhardt. Vance’s She Seemed Very… (2009), in which a model seems to scrub herself raw on the canvas, takes Marilyn Minter’s work as an obvious reference. Meanwhile, Katherine Bernhardt’s angular, drippy renderings of hip-hop icons (Lauren Hill and Redhead, both 2005) provide a sassy, welcome contrast to Inez van Lamsweerde’s C-print of Kate Moss installed on the opposite wall. An art-historical one-liner, the photograph depicts the fashion victim as a bride stripped bare, literally, with white roses covering her stubbly pubic area. However, the young standout of the show diverges from female portraiture altogether. Allison Schulnik’s Big Bear Head (2008), a densely sculptural impasto that extends into the viewer’s space, embodies the corporeal tendencies of the older artists’ key works.

      What ultimately lacks among the works by older artists in the show is the viscera and vitriol for which they are best known. Louise Nevelson’s black-painted wooden relief, Untitled (1976-8), is reminiscent of work by her Abstract Expressionist cohorts like David Smith. However, Kiki Smith’s River Tree (2007) a delicately expressive wall-mounted bronze, gives little indication of the interest in abject, crouching figures that defined her earlier production. YBA star Tracey Emin, known for dissecting her messy personal life in diaristic neons and large-scale installations, is included with a discreet monoprint of a naked woman bearing the title of her favorite F-word (Fuck Me Blind, 1997). Emin’s print is hung below and visually rhymed with an inoffensive Cecily Brown watercolor landscape. Two recent works by Louise Fishman span the gulf of her current production. All Night and All Day (2008), a more aggressively composed oil painting consisting of long gestural slashes, recalls her important "Angry Women" series of the 1970s, while Copal (2000), a brushy oil on linen, is out of place aside from its visual connection to Cecily Brown’s works. Overall, the representation of works by the older artists in the show is disappointingly uneven—an unevenness that renders it difficult to make sense of cross-generational relationships implied by the exhibition. The curatorial intention behind these groupings begs for clarification within the context of feminist production. As it is, the exhibition simply promotes the younger generation as inheritors of a legacy taken for granted.

      The question of feminism-as-such does not enter the equation here. By contrast, in a recent historically-oriented show at Cheim & Read Gallery in New York entitled The Female Gaze, the theoretical implications were made clear from the title to the press release: this was a show that picked up where Laura Mulvey’s excoriating text, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” left off. The larger theme of female looking, and the pleasure and transgression contained therein, formed a workable construct for a gallery show looking to situate younger artists in a further-reaching critical dialogue. For the young artists at McClain Gallery, however, an artistic matrilineage may or may not be a foregone conclusion. The continuity (or disjuncture) of feminist practice needs articulation–and not at the expense of the older artists. By distancing the show from “the F word,” this show paradoxically serves to underscore the essentialist notion that all work by female artists needs a (ghettoized) room of its own.

      Wendy Vogel is a Critical Fellow in the Core Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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