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An Exhibit of Women Artists From the Burchfield Penney's Collection

Virginia Cuthbert, "Self-Portrait" (1941).
Nancy Jurs, "Serving Platter" (1983).


Disclosure is an illumination of women as seen through the lens of about 60 art objects from the Burchfield Penney collection. The exhibition explores metaphors and themes in relation to beauty, work, and motherhood through more than 100 years of painting, photography, printmaking, textiles, sculpture, and ceramics.

Forty years ago, a mere three percent of museum exhibitions and collections featured the work of women artists. Although the female form has been the subject of many paintings and sculpture throughout centuries, the underexposure of women artists may have left the public uninformed about the role of women in the arts. Women have traditionally crafted utilitarian goods with clay, metals, and textiles. They have also made made paintings and constructions. Picasso’s wives and daughter were artists. Jackson Pollack’s wife was an artist. Joan Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Helen Frankenthaler, and other women were painting next to the famous male abstract expressionists of the 1950s. They simply received less exposure.

The feminist movement of the 1970s began a wave of change that entered business, family life, and cultural institutions. The narrative bent of conceptual art that was popularized that decade was an ideal platform for art by women that gained prominence through photography, performance, and film.

Curator Alana Ryder’s exhibition text mentions a quote from an interview earlier this year with the German neo-expressionist painter, Georg Baselitz. He expressed his opinion that “women do not paint very well.” I later learned that this unfortunate attitude was stated in response to the interviewer’s comment that few women painters have been embraced by the commercial art market of “expensive paintings.” It is true that there remains a compensation gap for women in all arenas—not just art. Baselitz’s open dismissal of women painters in 2013 reminds us that certain biases endure.

During the early 1980s, New York gallerist Mary Boone made a controversial statement that the best talent naturally rises, and in time, those artists will receive the attention they deserve. Since 1985, such misconceptions have been challenged by the activist group, Guerrilla Girls. They have influenced major changes using facts, humor, and outrageous visuals that museums and galleries cannot ignore. A stronger lineage of women in art history exists through heightened exposure of those artists. Artists who happen to be female generally prefer to not be differentiated by gender, and there is less need today to segregate art this way, but looking back through the decades at how women have been portrayed and how women have expressed themselves is an important history lesson.

Themes weave throughout the installation—interior space, vessels for containment, the other, the self, creativity, mother and child, and caretaking. The galleries open with Patricia Clark’s large 1998 oil painting, Allegory of a Surrogate Mother, which examines the job of caring for another woman’s children. Rose Clark’s simple watercolor from 1891 shows a young woman knitting—sitting alone with her thoughts. A painting of beauty and message, this was made at a time when domestic work consumed the lives of women. Was this knitting a defense against idle hands, simply a creative leisurely pastime—or was this necessary industry to produce a required warm garment? Virginia Cuthbert’s 1941 Self-Portrait of a pensive woman painter in her studio makes me wonder what motivated her during those World War II years. Was her husband a soldier sent to a faraway place? Roberly Ann Bell’s Elements from NO from 1995 is suggestive of artifacts found strewn about an archeological site. Parts from metal pitchers, vases, and other containers are imbedded in rock-like formation—remnants from domestic life. Three elements are hung in a corner on the wall near a photograph showing the original installation, about a dozen similar elements arranged on a wall as the word “no,” an important choice for any person.

Burchfield Penney visitors may recall the human-scale circular chess game of armored figures exhibited there two years ago. World Peace was created by sculptor Nancy Jurs. Featured this time is her porcelain ceramic piece made in 1983. Serving Platter is functional pottery in the form of a freshly laundered and pressed blouse.

This is also a chance to see two photographs from Cindy Sherman’s 1978-79 series, Untitled Film Stills.

The artists featured in Disclosure are not entirely women. The notion of “the male gaze” upon women is ancient. A few example of this are shown, including Charles Burchfield’s 1937 watercolor portrait, Bertha on the Davenport.

A table is set up to invite interaction with the public. Books are displayed to encourage further study: The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan; Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology, edited by Arlene Rave, Cassandra Langer, and Joanna Frueh; and Anonymous Was a Woman: A Celebration in Words and Images of Traditional American Art and the Women Who Made It, by Mirra Bank. The table is stocked with pencils and papers printed with questions. Visitors are invited to contribute responses to be added to the gallery walls next to some of the artwork:

1) If you could share a message with a young girl today, what would it be? This was a popular sheet that inspired many responses. “Believe in yourself. Live the life you want to live. Learn to say NO. Travel near, travel far…just go!”

2) Tell a story about an important woman in your life. One responder told about a teacher who affected her life by setting up a writing corner just for her to use during breaks. “It made me feel that it was valuable to write and make art.”

3) Many artists express the female experience through art. In 2013, could we tell them something new? “Society’s standards are falling apart and it is up to all of us now to recreate them.”

One commenter offered familiar words from Pablo Picasso: “Art is a lie that reveals the truth.” Many truths are revealed here in a compelling selection of art objects on view through the end of the year. Disclosure is not an attempt to disprove Georg Baselitz’s crooked judgment, although I would enjoy seeing a show that aims to do that. Last year, the museum hosted a large body of work from the “human universe” of the late painter, Jackie Felix. Exposure to one of her paintings would have been a worthy addition to this show.

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