Gleeful Dabblers or Masters? The Uneasy Place of Gender in Fine, Especially Fiber, Art

maue-legohouseanewindowAn article about Frida Kahlo made the rounds on social media this month, unearthed on the occasion of the exhibition Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo In Detroit that opened on March 15 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. We see the iconic Frida at an easel, facing her own, self-made visage, with the condescending title, “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.” The article reminds us that female artists have come a long way in being represented with credibility and respect. However, perhaps reading it nettles us beyond an incredulous grin because, really, women still have a long way to go. A brief look at the Guerrila Girls’ website reminds us of many ongoing disparities between how females and males are represented in the arts.

kahloA voice from the past can help us gain clarity about the present and possibly recognize assumptions we currently make about who makes art, and why. For example, fiber art is often associated with feminine domesticity, and therefore considered on a separate plane from drawings or paintings.

Joetta Maue meditates on how domestic life affects her professional artwork in the current Members Gallery exhibition on view through this Saturday, March 29. It spans multiple media, including photography, drawing, and an embroidered piece titled wash dry fold repeat. The work on fiber comments on how mothers experience moments of gratifying intimacy with their young children in an interrupted, multi-tasking manner. The piece also implies, by its existence, that the professions of mothers of young children are also folded into the mix. Are contemporary fathers also affected by the simultaneity of their burdens? More importantly, would we know that based on how their work is considered by museums and in the media?IMG_6599

When men make fiber art in particular, it is often presented as ironic, as though the art they make is somehow more “fine” and less “craft” than what a female artist would make. For more thoughts on this line of inquiry, here is a blog post by Betsy Greer, author of the book Craftivism, reacting to the implications of the exhibition “Man-Made: Contemporary Male Quilters” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. Greer suggests an end to the divide, i.e. gender vs. method or skills. In order to get there, we have to keep pushing at our assumptions, ask awkward questions, and wonder what arts write-up or exhibition title will shock us a few decades from now.

-Shana Dumont Garr