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.

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.”

ELBOW ROOM CHAT

Jennifer Moses’ Elbow Room: An Interview in Images with Linda Leslie Brown

Jennifer Moses’ quizzical, layered paintings are packed with physical and conceptual content. They also manage to pay homage, in ways both straightforward and sly, to a panoply of artists -some of whose work you may recognize below. Elbow Room, her show on view this month at Kingston, is a visual feast you won’t want to miss.

I met Jennifer for coffee recently to talk about her work, in an extension of an ongoing discussion we’ve carried on over the years. So, we sat around over at Nero the other morning talking about our art heroes and influences, of whom we have several in common.

Here’s one of Jennifer Moses’ works:

-1.jpgJennifer Moses  Bird on Wire 33×30 oil on panel

And one of my wall pieces

nutt-house
Linda Leslie Brown Nutthouse 2016 mixed media

We decided to conduct our discourse in images…

“First, she said, there’s…

440px-gorky-the-liver

…And don’t forget

matteo-di-giovanni

Do you know this one?Sassetta_-_The_blessed_Ranieri_frees_the_poors_from_a_jail_Florence_-_Louvre.jpg

We have to mention  picasso_nudeinanarmchair1929  of course.”

And it seems both of us have a permanent Resident in our studios:

guston-studiophilipgustonweb1975lg

Well, that started a flow of images…murray2450

th   the-weeping-woman

richard_tuttle_the_triumph_of_night_320x240

larger-copy

…as well as images of flow…

101000-coping

until I came out with

4

which started us both laughing. We could go on and on with this!

So I’ll leave it to you, Readers, to search out further references like these in Jennifer Moses’ paintings and collages at Kingston Gallery this November.

See you at Elbow Room!

-LLB

Slow Down

Lang-11a 001

Mary Lang’s recent photographs alert us to the world, or more precisely the world as perceived by the artist and mediated through the lens of her camera. She is bound to this world, these landscapes. We see as she does, places of great beauty, from a distance. They situate the viewer both in and out of the frame. They hold us and diminish us. That they are all digital prints (she notes her first such exhibition) is evident, but not essential to the way they are composed and presented. The images are idealized; a sense of yearning and a predominance of green are twinned throughout. In this moment in our culture of over-saturation of images, especially digital ones, Lang’s photographs invoke places out of time. The spaces are for the most part emptied out, even when there are figures or some evidence of a human presence. They alert us to stop and consider what we are seeing. They quietly say: Look. Look here. Look inward. See what’s there.

There will be a gallery talk on Saturday, November 29 at 4 pm. The exhibit runs through November 30. Don’t miss the show!

Image: Mary Lang, Clouds and mountains, Machu Picchu, Archival pigment print, 20×30 inches, 2013.

 

 

What are we talking about when we talk about art?

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Last Saturday we had a wonderful (first ever) event in the new Second Saturday series organized by the Boston Art Dealers Association in conjunction with the current exhibit Ground Cover: Contemporary Abstraction between Figure and Ground, curated by William Kaizen, Assistant Professor of Art History and Visual Studies, Northeastern University. The panel Abstraction and Contemporary Art included Kaizen in conversation with Peter Kalb, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art, Cynthia L. and Theodore S. Berenson Chair, Brandeis University and Martha Buskirk, Professor of Art History and Criticism, Montserrat College of Art. They had a terrific conversation and great feedback from the audience as well. This is my response to and understanding of both the talk and the exhibit itself.

Sometimes I see things differently. It can happen after I read something, hear a lecture or visit an exhibit, and I will be profoundly affected and pleased by this new understanding of the world around me. This is the case with Ground Cover, seeing the works in the exhibit with the particular lens of the relationship of ground to figure and the ways the artists express their relationship to the theme. They all make their work by hand, perhaps expressing our collective anxiety to an ever-increasing technological world; perhaps balking at the trend of many contemporary artists whose practice involves technology for the production of the work.

The artists chosen by Kaizen exemplify the exhibit’s theme of ground cover and they each articulate in a variety of ways this relationship of figure to ground. In his curatorial statement he says: “Dancing between thing and nothing, event and non-event, appearance and disappearance, the works in Ground Cover transmute ground into figure and figure into ground.” Each of the works asserts itself in relationship to figure/ground or ground/figure and also articulates the space of the gallery and in so doing reaffirms itself as an object. For each, the question of what is figure and what is ground is one that is answered or resolved by the process itself and the resulting object. This assumes that the paintings are objects and not just surfaces for material. In fact all the works hover in the liminal space between object and surface in varying degrees.

The artists in the exhibit are not ambivalent about making objects and raise several important questions. How does their work function in our ever-increasing technological world? Why is abstraction still relevant? Artists always have responded to their particular culture. Art is made in response to society and thereby becomes its window. The work in Ground Cover gives us many different ways to see.

Don’t miss this exhibit! Ground Cover: Contemporary Abstraction between Figure and Ground runs through September 28.

Photo credits:  Will Holcroft, Installation view of Ground Cover exhibit, Mary Bucci McCoy, Attendees September 13 event

Ground Cover

Multistory

We are looking forward to the panel discussion Abstraction and Contemporary Art: Curator William Kaizen with Peter Kalb (author of “Art Since 1980: Charting the Contemporary”) and Martha Buskirk (author of “Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace”) on Saturday, September 13, 4–5 pm.  This is the first event in the Second Saturday series organized by the Boston Art Dealers Association and is in conjunction with the current exhibit Ground Cover. Hope to see you there!

Image: Julie Graham, Multistory, Plaster, wood, paintings on panel, 69 x 10 x 9 inches, 2012.

 

 

Artist Reception this Friday, please join us!!

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Please join us for a special artist’s reception, Friday January 24, celebrating Luanne E Witkowski’s exhibit IV from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. The weather will be fine and it will be a great chance to see the exhibit and join in the festivities. Also showing are Mary Mead (Heads) and Susan Alport (Give/Take). We look forward to seeing you there!!

The exhibits run through February 2.

Rescheduled First Friday Reception

Please join us on Friday, January 10, 5:30–7:30 pm for the rescheduled reception for our three January exhibitions:

• in the Main Gallery, Luanne E Witkowski: IV, an exhibition of mixed media pieces on paper exploring the landscape.

Luanne E Witkowski
Luanne E Witkowski — Swept, mixed media on paper, 15 x 11″, 2013

• in the Center Gallery, guest artist Mary Mead, new work of varying scale from an ongoing series in Heads: New Prints.

mead-from-head-series
Mary Mead — From the “Head” Series, woodcut intaglio monoprint, 30 x 22″, 2013

 

• and in the Members’ Gallery Susan Alport: Give/Take, exploring the idea of artists as givers and takers in their art practice.

alport_smallworks
Susan Alport — Shadow Shots, 35 mm film prints in vintage album sleeves, each 10.25 x 11.5″, 2013

The exhibitions are up through February, 2, and there will be an Artists’ Reception on Friday, January 24, 5:30–7:30 pm.

 

 

Contradicting Beauty

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Last Wednesday a group of thirty attendees had the pleasure of hearing Mira Cantor talk about her current show at Kingston Gallery, Meltwater. She began by stating that there are two things which are certain: death and the weather. She then discussed the ideas she ponders in regards to her practice, many of which are contradictory, but all equally embodied in the paintings.  Although she feels she is addressing a crisis in nature, a clear affinity for the materials at hand was apparent.

She has a love of landscape and a terror of that landscape. The work is about the water rising, but they are also beautiful images, making them unsettling, ambiguous. They are visual descriptions of mountains, but instead of offering the viewer a sense of looking outward, they are claustrophobic and disorienting. They are about the majesty and the demise of the mountains simultaneously. They alert us to issues of climate change, but with no solution or morality. Instead of being a clear representation, Cantor tries instead to express the essence of her experience. There is an economy of color and form as well as an importance of the surfaces; she uses a range of viscosities – allowing the forms to undo themselves.

Cantor derives her imagery from a specific locale, but she strives for something more universal; the paintings are an abstraction of that place.  Clearly, the influence of some of the artists she grew up with, Willem DeKooning and Marsden Hartley, makes itself apparent in this body of work, and like them, in the end, the work is all about the paint.

Image: Mira Cantor, Spector, oil on canvas, 40 x 32″, 2013

Gail Erwin’s terrific video explaining Van Dyke Brown printing

Gail Erwin’s exhibit at the Kingston Gallery features Van Dyke Brown prints, a 19th century photographic process.  There were many questions about the process during the opening, so this video demonstration was produced to answer them.  The chemicals that are mentioned in the video are Ferric Ammonium Citrate, Tartaric Acid and Silver Nitrate.

Gail will be in the Gallery on Saturday, November 16 from 3-5, Tuesday, November 26 from 2-4 during the Public Relations hours, and Sunday, Dec 1, from 12-5 if you would like to ask more questions.

The exhibit runs until December 1 – we look forward to seeing you there.

Enjoy!