When Outrage Makes Inroads: The Guerrilla Girls in Conversation with Yng-Ru Chen @ Brookline Booksmith

Yng-Ru Chen, founder and CEO of Boston’s new Praise Shadows Art Gallery, acknowledges that a global pandemic is an intimidating environment for new ventures. Chen describes Praise Shadows as a “labor of love,” a project emerging onto a Boston arts scene that, though flourishing on many levels, is experiencing frailties it had yet to contend with or acknowledge previously. The gallery’s namesake, Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, is an exploration of the aesthetic and symbolic power of light and darkness. Chen emphasized one quote in particular: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates… Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” 

“We founded this gallery from within the shadows of the pandemic and social turmoil,” she writes. “There is, and will always, be beauty.⁠”

Praise Shadows is a commercial exhibition space grounded deeply in community, with an emphasis on access and mentorship. “We are here to serve the art lovers of Boston, the artistic community worldwide, and the artists who give us so much,” explains Chen in promotional materials for the gallery.⁠ In keeping with Praise Shadows’ ethos, the gallery is marking its debut in conversation with the Guerrilla Girls, whose mordant wit has blown open the art world since their founding in 1985. 

In collaboration with Brookline Booksmith, a community staple that Chen has been frequenting since childhood, Praise Shadows hosted a panel discussion on November 23rd with two members of the Guerrilla Girls to mark the publication of their first comprehensive retrospective: Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly. The anonymous, art activist collective set its sights on the art world in 1985, and has been needling its ribs ever since. Each member of the Guerrilla Girls wears a gorilla mask in public so as to obscure their identity, and each has chosen a pseudonym to retain that anonymity—the name of a famous female artist. Present at the discussion on November 23rd were members “Frida Kahlo” and “Käthe Kollwitz.” 

Yng-Ru Chen with Guerrilla Girl Zubeida Agha in 2018. Photo by Natasha Janardan. Image courtesy of Praise Shadows.  

“There’s no lack of fantastic, incredible artists out there,” says Kollwitz. “The world of artists is great, but the art world sucks.” 

The cover of the Guerrilla Girls’ newest book, Guerrilla Girls: The Art of Behaving Badly. Image courtesy of Chronicle Books.

Frida Kahlo added to Kollwitz’s wry assessment: “The art world in 1985 […] was always interesting, but it was really one-sided. You started to think: where are the women’s voices? Where are the voices of people of color? They weren’t there. There were big holes in the art world and the gatekeepers were a compendium of critics […] with collectors as the driving force. They weren’t thinking about how the entire story of our culture was being told.”

In a project that swept the nation, the Guerrilla Girls decided to count the number of nude female bodies versus nude male bodies displayed in portraiture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to accentuate what Kahlo describes as the overwhelming “hetero-maleness” of the art world in the late 80s and early 90s. What emerged from this endeavor is the now-famous piece Naked

The Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum? (1989), screenprint on paper. Image courtesy of Tate.

Kahlo and Kollwitz explain that Naked was originally intended to be a billboard for the Public Art Fund. After it was rejected due to its “graphic” nature, the Guerrilla Girls ran it on buses all across New York. It is this kind of provocative performance that put the Guerrilla Girls on the map. Now, a screenprint of the original poster is part of the Tate collection.

Image from Bitches, Bimbos and Ballbreakers: the Guerrilla Girls’ Illustrated Guide to Female Stereotypes, 2003. Image courtesy of guerrillagirls.com

Projects like Naked represent the norm-shattering strategies of the group, and the power of engaging the upper crust of the artworld in repartee. As they note in their 2016 video “The Guerrilla Girls’ Guide to Behaving Badly“: “BE CRAZY. Political art or activism that points to something and says ‘this is bad’ is just preaching to the converted. Instead, try to change people’s minds and do it in some unforgettable way.”

“We could have done a poster that just said: ‘there aren’t enough women in the Met.’, but then we wouldn’t be here talking about it today,” says Kollwitz. “Once you see this poster, I dare you to go into any museum in the world and not think: what is on the walls and why?”

Later in the discussion, when Chen emphasizes the humor that has become a cornerstone of the Guerrilla Girls’ acerbic dressing-down of the art world, Kahlo is quick to point out: “humor is different from being funny.” 

“Humor has always been a weapon of the disadvantaged against those who oppress them,” she adds. “I think that is a great power, and it tells the truth. Humor can reveal all kinds of truths in a very direct way.”

The group’s tenets of anonymity and bodily occupation as minorities in majority white, male spaces hold a new kind of significance in 2020. Kollwitz adds: “When we began, the system wouldn’t accept radical art or political art; there were gender issues, race issues, and so much prejudice. So, young artists were just going into the streets and doing their own thing. We loved that. We decided we were going to make that the basis of our work—don’t wait for the gatekeepers to grant access. Get out there.”

Despite their condemnation of “gatekeeping” within the art world, Kollwitz and Kahlo, both white women, have received criticism for fostering a group hierarchy that excluded women of color and compelled them to split from the original group. As Art History Professor Anna C. Chave points out in her 2011 essay “The Guerrilla Girls’ Reckoning“, the group’s racial breakdown has been a point of contention since their founding by white artists. “While the Guerrilla Girls started keeping periodic tabs on statistics pertaining to racial, as well as gender discrimination in the art world,” writes Chave, “they staunchly, and problematically, resisted being surveyed as to the make-up of their own membership.” It is important to note, as Chave does, that this particular account is disputed by one African-American member, who uses the alias Alma Thomas, as she cites her participation from the group’s inception.

Chave continues: “Because of the group’s costumes—whose racial valences proved predictably offensive, to Thomas for one (‘I would have preferred pink ski masks’)— it can be difficult to discern the ethnicity of members in photographs. Though some members of color recount having been asked often to pose for publicity photos […] the photographed Girls generally appear to be white, in keeping with the group’s predominant ethnic make-up.” This assessment by Chave, and its inclusion in this article, is not to malign the Guerrilla Girls, but rather to point out that it would be in keeping with their methods to turn their own critical gaze onto themselves.

Guerrilla Girls, “3 Ways To Write A Museum Wall Label When The Artist Is A Sexual Predator” (2018). Image courtesy of guerrillagirls.com

As some are quick to point out, the Guerrilla Girls have grown their audience exponentially since 1985, and their works critiquing institutions like the Whitney, Tate, and MoMA now hang in those same hallowed halls. Chave writes: “Critic Suzi Gablik kept pressing a pair of ‘Guerrilla Girls’ during a 1994 interview as to whether they might not wish to change the art world rather than simply to demand fuller participation within it.” Chave recounts that one of the pair, going by “Guerrilla Girl 1,” clarified that the group’s focus was more on “‘access […] that’s our attitude about change, as opposed to breaking down the system.'”

This kind of specification, which might chafe against the discussions later generations of feminists and activists are having today, is unsurprising given the temperature of the art world and the public scene onto which the Guerrilla Girls emerged.

Today, Kahlo and Kollwitz continue to push back against criticism of their access-focused efforts, arguing that this kind of visibility allows them to do their work more effectively. They argue that amicable discourse is the surest way to wield influence: “If you can get people who disagree with you to laugh at an issue,” they say in their 2016 video, “you have a hook right into their brain. Once there, you have a much better chance to convert them.”

Chen seems to agree—having built up Praise Shadows with the support of friends and colleagues, she believes in a sense of true, supportive community: “partnerships in the community are how we thrive and how we survive.” Her choice to underscore communal discourse demonstrates how much we are all hoping for continued and lasting dialogue around the issues writ large in the midst of the pandemic, and those that will undoubtedly follow.

Variations on a Theme: Repeat As Needed

Tusk Fish

Emma Newbery

Tusk fish remember, return

to the rounds and ridges of loved coral

where they dash what is meant

to break open.

sifting through silt, they swim to the edge

alone, under dappled sea light.

in the passage from reef to ring they reach

a speed of thrumming stillness.

I can hope to pass under the same beams

to cut through the water dark,

and return through some fin-felt remembrance

each day

to what’s most important.

Inside Look: Rose Olson’s Rain and Sunshine

Emma Newbery

The maxim that Rose repeats throughout our interview is: “the person you don’t want to bore is yourself.”

I spoke to Rose ahead of her upcoming show Rain and Sunshine, set to open on June 24th in Kingston’s main gallery. We discussed newer elements of her work, especially in the context of her long tenure as a painter.

“I’ve always painted all my life,” she explains. “I can’t change. No matter what my job was, how many hours of teaching I did or whatever I did, I would have to come home and do some work sometime during the evening before I went to bed.”

Over the course of her career, Rose has honed a distinct aesthetic. Using acrylic wash to play with light, movement, and opacity, Rose brings depth to the surface of her seemingly simple works. “When I was younger, I worked on everything: paper, it might be charcoal drawings. It might be anything because I had to work. Now, I work strictly with paint and wood and nothing else because that’s what interests me right now.”

Her upcoming show at Kingston signals a new dimension of this familiar medium. Perhaps reflecting the mercurial social environment, Olson’s show includes works like Red Intrusion, below. The notion of intrusion is something Rose explores deeply in her more recent work. The push and pull that results from the integrity of Rose’s natural canvas meeting the piercing strip of red that truncates its base is a relationship she relishes.

Rose Olson, Red Intrusion, acrylic on wood, 20”x 30”x 2”, 2019.

“I love what I’m doing right now,” adds Rose. “A lot of it is new because of blocks of colors. And the color is quite heavy. But it doesn’t eliminate the grain of the wood, which is very important to me when I’m painting.” 

Rose goes on to explain the importance of maintaining the integrity of the surface on which she paints. It’s as much a part of the painting as the materials that cover it: “The grain of the wood is something that I respect. So I try to make it clear. I try to make it available for the viewer to see no matter what color is over it.”

“A grain is unique,” she says. “They’re like our fingerprints, so no two are alike.”

Rose Olson, Violet Calm, acrylic on wood, 2020.

Within this medium, Rose’s work retains its fluidity. “Sometimes I’ll look at a painting that I had done and it bores me, so I will go back and work on it. So I guess they never end,” she muses. Five minutes before our interview, she made a final adjustment to a recent work titled Violet Calm, left. “I just finished a painting now that I had started earlier and it needed something desperately and I wasn’t sure what it needed. And I just discovered that it needed a golden band. So I put it in. It’s just a slim band and it enhances the grain as it goes up.”

Once she has finished a piece, Rose strives to keep the viewer’s experience of her work dynamic. “The colors keep changing continually, which is important to me. Also, when the work is on the wall, there’s the light going from one end of the room to the other that continually changes the colors, because there are so many layers of color and the light will pick up one layer after another.”

Rose did not cultivate this dynamic approach alone. She credits a shared workspace and creative process with her interest in the ongoing nature of her work. “My husband was a writer. He wrote poetry. We would very often stop our work and I would show him my work.”

Creating side-by-side elevated both of their processes. “When he would start reading his poetry, I would say, you know, it’s not quite there yet,” Rose recalls. “Then, all of the sudden, he would do it. It would be right there and I would get the goosebumps and I would say, stop. This is it. You’ve made it. You know, you don’t want it any different than this.”

While her husband passed recently, she continues to find motivation through these memories of collaboration: “My husband died suddenly three years ago, and that is a blow to me. It’s overwhelming,” says Rose.

“But,” she maintains, “it doesn’t stop me from painting.”

Rose Olson, Swirl, acrylic on wood, 12”x 12”x 1”, 2019.

Swirl is shot through with two, thick lines of red, lending the work a different feel than Red Intrusion possesses. The color pushes against the grain of the wood, and the whorls through which it slices seem to bend in protest, or perhaps in welcoming. The paler, nearly iridescent wide stroke of violet below lends a tactile element to the piece. Beneath the lines, straight and firm, it almost serves as the memory of a hand has followed their course, leaving behind an imprint. The work, like its maker, is pushing at the boundaries, suggesting a sense of continuance, and of potential chaos.

In addition to her career as a painter, Rose also taught for many years, spurring on her students in the same way she pushed her husband and continues to push herself.

“I don’t think there was anything that I didn’t like, and I don’t think there was a student that I didn’t like,” she recalls. “I pushed them very hard. I wanted them to create something uniquely theirs, and I think they understood that because we would both get excited.”

Rose encouraged her students to trust their unique perspective on shared, human experiences rather than attempting to break away from artists who inspired them. “Sometimes you can try to copy something, just so you understand what, what colors that person is using,” she explains, “but they’ll never come out the way that person uses them. They’ll come out the way you use them. You find yourself doing it in such a unique way.”

“That is, it becomes exciting to you because we are all different from each other,” she adds. “That quality within each person is very important to me.”

Rose Olson, triptych. From left to right: Canals of Mars, Martian Sky, Martian Water, all acrylic on wood, 20”x 20” X 1.5”, 2020.

Ultimately, Rose views painting as a deeply personal, emotional experience that turns one’s internal experience outwards to face the world. “Whatever you are, whatever your passion is at the moment, whatever you see out there comes through in the work.”

“Whether you’re a painter or you put it into poetry and words, the way my husband used to, when it hits just right, that’s it. You get the goosebumps and that’s when you know.”

In any creative pursuit, Rose concludes: “When something is real, it’s it. It just affects you completely.”