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Femme ’n isms: Exhibits Are Fluid

by Zach Terrillion

Staff Writer


One of the artworks presented in “Femme n’ isms, Part I: Bodies Are Fluid,” the first in a series of exhibitions planned by the Allen Memorial Art Museum, is a work by Swiss artist Meret Oppenheim. It is a screen-print depicting the mythological cyclops, Polyphemus. This androgynous depiction of the creature is accompanied by a quote from Oppenheim, who claimed that art reflects “the entire human being, which is both male and female.” Her art offers a direct challenge to the gender binary: how can art, in its subjectivity, deconstruct the roles of gender, particularly among femmes?

Photo by Zach Terrillion

This is the primary goal of the Allen Art Museum’s new installation, which takes up ¾ of the upstairs Ripin Gallery. This exhibit explores feminist art from the perspective of intersectionality, observing liminal identities based on non-whiteness, non-cisgenderism, and non-heteronormativity. The title “Femme n’ isms” implies traditional feminine presentation, but also something more. A celebration of women but “also femmes and the feminine.” Contemporary art curator Sam Adams, student assistant Fudi Fickenscher, and multiple community advisors served as the main organizers. The community advising present ties this exhibition closely to shared authority; people in and outside of the curation world created it.

If I could use a word to describe the works on display, it would be “shedding.” Shedding all barriers around, whether for womanhood or modern art itself. For the first piece you encounter in the exhibit, you see pretty literal “shedding.” An animated video installation by Korean artist Heesoo Kwon depicts women in a bathhouse leaving behind their human skins to become gigantic snake people. In removing these skins, they remove the gendered labels and roles that hold them back. It is uncanny, frankly terrifying, but ultimately profound as hell. It sets the tone for the whole exhibit.

B.C. Series Self-Portrait by Hannah Wilke, photo by Zach Terrillion

The objects in the Ripin invite visitors to shed their skins like the women in Kwon’s digital bathhouse, queering and abstracting their identities to create “-isms.” A watercolor piece by second-wave feminist painter Hannah Wilke claims to be a self-portrait. Still, its abstract, almost labial presentation makes an “-ism” of the human form itself.

The exhibit also creates “-isms” of art, playing with our definitions of it. I was particularly fascinated by a scattered series of polaroids depicting various Black American women in ordinary situations. They are feminine forms for sure, smiling in teeny sepia-toned corners and ruminating on secluded black and white beaches. They have lives that aren’t too extraordinary, which makes them more so. These women’s marginalized identities are allowed a space to be authentic, creating an unconventional archive. In viewing them, the visitor “sheds” their vision of art being auteur-driven. It can just be simple bits of humanity for us to appreciate.

The exhibit organizes itself by broad themes rather than by chronology or artist. We start with “body parts and impossible wholes.” These explore the human form, separating and mixing it with concepts like labor, patriarchy, and psychology. A highlight here is multiple pieces by contemporary artist Kiki Smith, who often uses unconventional material to deconstruct images of the female form. See, for example, a woman’s pregnant belly made out of plaster titled “Shield.”

Untitled by Betye Saar, photo by Zach Terrillion

The following section covers themes of the divine. Feminine forms interact with icons of religion and mythology. It’s here we see the Polyphemus silkscreen by Oppenheim. A piece by Betye Saar, noted for her depictions of Black Womanhood, shows two breasts and other human features arising from an ocean framed in a rainbow. It channels “mysterious transforming gifts by which dreams, memory, and experience become art.” It is another example of this exhibit embracing ambiguity, in this case, within dreams.

Three Sisters by Hai Bo, photo by Zach Terrillion

You also find the subjects of pop culture and aging. There are various works of pop art playing with how the media depicts female forms. It tinkers with iconography, though not quite the same type as “the divine.” For aging, the final piece of the whole exhibit is surprisingly simple. It is a pair of photographs showing off the abstract works of before. Titled “Three Sisters,” the first image depicts three Chinese women in their youth, while the second portrays two survivors in their old age. It introduces mortality to feminine expression.

Overall, this exhibit adheres well to its goals. It is quite possibly the queerest exhibit I’ve ever encountered. It’s the first time I’ve stepped into an art museum and found my inner gender crisis projected onto canvas. It plays with feminine forms ranging from kitschy monuments by Andy Warhol to liberatory work for marginalized groups. They say art is subjective, and this exhibit expounds on how art’s fluidity can help illustrate gender’s fluidity, abstracting itself to “-isms” as it picks itself apart.

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