The Question of Women

John Haber
in New York City

Mira Schor, Anna Ostoya, and Adriana Varejão

Are you a feminist artist? Mira Schor wants to know—and so, I trust, will you.

Is it a matter of persistence, for all the obstacles, or does it involve taking that as your theme? Is it about images of women, in all honesty, or about interrogating images of women, in all their frequent dishonesty? Of course, it can mean all of that and more, and much of the strength of feminism in and out of art is its divisions and diversity. Schor works with the possibilities, too, in both text and images, even turning them on herself. Meanwhile Anna Ostoya settles for the next best thing, with an assist from art history—taking revenge. Last, Adriana Varejão invokes Native American tradition for her images of women, but here tradition and feminism alike begin and end with her. Mira Schor's Are You a Feminist Artist? (Lyles & King, 2016)

Death knocks

You may not associate Mira Schor with installation art, but her latest series cries out to be seen as a whole. Its standing figures, one to a sheet, keep coming until they exhaust the walls. I cannot swear that all of them are women, although practically all have circles for breasts, in a charred red over black ink. I cannot swear which are dead or alive. (Talk about zombie formalism.) They do, though, carry an insistent humanity—and a question.

are you a feminist artist? The question appears throughout, in cursive and in lowercase, except where it does not. Other sheets may bear something more vulgar or more pleading instead, and others may show nothing at all except their poor, bare forked animal. Well, not quite bare, for they approach stick figures except for hints of a dress or smock, and part of their feminism is a refusal to disrobe for anyone's pleasure. And yet it is hard to say whether the question is directed at you or at them. If it is their question, it could well be directed at themselves.

It could encompass, too, their claim as an artist as well as a feminist. Schor calls them Power figures, like the African art that she cites as an influence, although part of their power lies in enduring the status that she identified in an earlier essay, "On Failure and Anonymity." They hold their arms close, like trained boxers, or read rather than paint. Still, they gain in power by coming together. They also benefit from the broad space of the gallery's back room, into which one must step down a foot or two. Sure enough, one might be entering an installation.

The artist might object to that thought, in an art so obviously handmade. Acrylic and ink align the series with both painting and drawing, while the sheets of tracing paper evoke the scale of one and the fragile basis of the other. Maybe you associate installations with macho gestures or big money, trash art or empty rooms—precisely what she is happy to confront. Still, the author of A Decade of Negative Thinking has room for self-doubt. In a show called "Death Is a Conceptual Artist," conceptual art may be the death of painting, or it may have the last word. Schor is known for text art, and a painting up front includes the single word language.

The front room introduces her strategies as a whole. Paintings can approach flesh tones, and one consists entirely of the word flesh. Others introduce her figures, with their circles for breasts, a skull or mask for a head, and in one a crescent moon for hair. They may appear outspoken or introspective, balanced between an open book and a flower. They may have their lips sewn shut, or their gaze may train on its object with laser eyes. Two emerge in burning orange from a thick field of black—perhaps what one of the Power drawings means by the word chaos.

Text aside, Schor works in a tradition in which crusty, stabbing figures stand for agony, outrage, or a carnival. She admires others who cannot stop for death, like Ida Applebroog, Joan Semmel, Nancy Spero, Leon Golub, and James Ensor—even if personally I am not all that comfortable with any of them. If feminism makes you think first of a lecture, she has appeared in "#class," a splendid assault on art institutions curated by Jennifer Dalton and William Powhida. Still, her painterly surfaces and firm gestures refuse to go away, and so do the questions. Is the work angry, despairing, or just plain funny? You bet.

Judith: the video game

Under x-rays, Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi becomes a virtual machine of torture and violence. Its colors vanish, from the deep red of the victim's robe to the blood dripping down his sheets, echoed in the sleeves of both Judith and her servant. The gleam of her sword gives way to a different chill in the pallor of black and white. Gentileschi had toyed with different placements for the dying man's arms, right on canvas, and x-rays reveal them all, layering one plane upon another. The eye of the scientist or restorer becomes as focused and clinical as the avengers. It could be a disturbing metaphor for art history.

Anna Ostoya's Judith Slaying Judith (Bortolami, 2016)It suggests a Cubism for today, without the macho swagger of Pablo Picasso. It presents women as actors, quite apart from the brothel scene of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. It adds hard edges and multiple copies suited to a digital age. It also prefigures Anna Ostoya. She slices and dices Gentileschi across a gallery's four walls. The very presentation has a Cubist side, with large canvases interrupted by smaller ones riding up the wall and down.

Gentileschi was taking her own revenge. Her Judith in the Uffizi has become canonical, although the Book of Judith, omitted from the Bible, has not. Yet it needed multiple attempts and multiple sources to exist. She would have known Judith as an emblem of civic pride from the sculpture by Donatello, designed to stand in a public square in Florence. The sculpture even bears a civic message on its base: "kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtues."

For Gentileschi, the message was not just doctrinal but personal. A lost early version probably copied closely a painting by her father, Orazio. There the deed is already done, and the women look away in caution and fear. Another version, in Naples from around 1613, coincides with her rape trial against her teacher and her maturity in art. She has set aside her and Judith's fears, just as she has taken away any show of sympathy for the victim's pain or of strength in the victim's arms. It riffs on a painting by Caravaggio from around 1599, with the head of Holofernes at its center in all its horror and pain and the maid in profile as a she-devil (or, quite possibly, a later copy in Naples closer to her own)—but with all three figures at its center, in a single whirl of violence.

The Uffizi version, from 1620, changes neither Judith's pose nor the dead man's eyes. It only sets them in a deeper and darker space, both psychologically and on a larger canvas. Nothing in Chelsea can come close to matching it. Ostoya's cartoon vision gains interest only slowly, as one takes in the room of copies without an original. The drips of blood add up, while the passion ratchets down. Heroine and villain become more distant, but also more alike.

They also serve as a prelude to a second room—and a turn to black and white, like an x-ray. There a second series, Slain Trances, has the further multiplicity and added jolts of photo collage. Two of the small images insert Ostoya's face as a teen, fearful or confident, while others reverse the gender of their actors. Still others adopt the symmetry of reflections out of tantric art, while collage quotes extend to African art and, sure enough, Picasso. The entirety comes close to trivializing Gentileschi or Cubism, like an extended video game. Yet it helps with the puzzle of what makes past art at once familiar, unfamiliar, and alive.

Inbreeding

Adriana Varejão has every right to call her paintings Kindred Spirits. Each presents none other than herself. A clan of twenty-nine cannot get more inbred than that. Yet they serve as no more than a ground for a freer application of paint—decorating her, exalting her, obliterating her, and obscuring her. They show her in the same three-quarter view, at once banal and defiant. Adding Native American tribal practices to portraiture, like Jimmie Durham, they give a double meaning to face painting.

Not that they begin or end with either vision of her native Brazil. They also draw on contemporary American art, the kind with too short a memory for art history or cultural anthropology. She mentions Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, Paul Thek, and Llyn Foulkes, and at times I could almost convince myself that I had seen them. Maybe it matters that no one withdraws from his art as much as LeWitt or exposes his sexuality and abjection as much as Thek. Maybe it matters that no one brings the touch of a woman's hand as much as Martin or the Disneyfication of Surrealism as much as Foulkes. Maybe it matters, too, that Cindy Sherman has riffed on cultural models and a woman's body, disguise and self-presentation, while working in series.

Varejão should keep one guessing just what matters. Those parallel marks on her cheeks may make her a cat-woman or a canvas for Minimalism. That ascending red may serve as a tribal headdress, and that black cloud spattering her forehead may belong to Minimalism's nastier explosions. Those two ideas of kindred spirits, at once preposterously narrow and ever so broad, are two sides of the same thing. Whether as self-portraits or as borrowings from all over, they claim Western art as potentially Brazilian and art of the Americas as her own. Apparently the Portuguese for mixed breed, mestizaje, is an insult only for the colonizers.

Not that she is pointing fingers or entirely on an ego-trip. The faces also echo paintings of Native Americans by George Catlin, among others, in nineteenth century America, as well as early photography. She appears to admire both, and she has to be aware of Brazil's contribution to Latin American architecture after Le Corbusier. Still, her embrace of others comes with an edge. She describes her approach to Western art as cannibalizing, after the theories of Oswald de Andrade, a Brazilian poet. This meal may be hard to swallow.

A second series takes her further into North America and beyond. It also takes her further into both ritual and abstraction. Her Mimbres resemble the sliced canvases of Lucio Fontana and Arte Povera in Italy. Up close, though, they seem as much crafted as destroyed. Somehow the thick fragments could still fit nicely together—perhaps another metaphor for the puzzle of cross-cultural traditions. Their wavy outlines serve as composition.

Their blacks, whites, and mute colors also bring them closer to pottery, including Chinese ceramics that sought and valued cracks. European colonizers brought painted ceramics to Brazil as well, but the shattering took on new meaning in the New World. The Mimbres cultures of the American southwest did it, the gallery explains (quoting a curator for Varejão in Dallas, Pedro Alonzo), in order to bury the fragments with the dead. For all the difference between the self-portraits and monochromes, they are kindred spirits after all. Like many global alternatives to Minimalism, these are artier and less industrial, with their own inbreeding. They may yet, though, shatter before your eyes.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Mira Schor ran at Lyles & King through April 24, 2016, Anna Ostoya at Bortolami through April 23, and Adriana Varejão at Lehmann Maupin through June 19.

 

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