Rockford Art Museum
Illinois Women Artists: The New Millennium
February 16 - April 22, 2001
Once Seen Never Forgotten
Essay by Clare Henry, Final Juror, Art Critic, The Herald (Glasgow, Scotland)
For twenty years I have been a professional looker, i.e, an art critic! Every year I see hundreds of exhibitions, thousands of works. As the only child of a sculptor mother and photographer father, I was taught to observe carefully, a habit I later refined as art student, teacher and printmaker. I soon discovered that some images stay in your mind, lodge themselves in your psyche. Somehow these images matter. They have conviction, integrity, sincerity -- call it what you will. One does not have to like them, but somehow or other these images have a power, carry an impact. They ring true. The artist has carried out her initial idea, not just with professionalism and skill, but with that added essential and indefinable something that speaks to you, touches you. (left: Jane Frey, Taylorville, Blue Bowl 2, oil; right: Pearl Hirschfield, Evanston, Self-Portrait, plexi box, cast aluminum, photos)
"Once seen never forgotten" is a glib phrase, but I find that years afterwards I can recognize a special painting or sculpture. "Memorable" is perhaps too strong a word, but the spark is there and ready to ignite a fire if given a chance. These "sincere" paintings or sculptures are experiences obviously worthy of storing away in the mind, worth remembering. That criterion was at the forefront in selecting this exhibition. I did not look for any feminist viewpoint, subject, or message but purely at the formal aesthetics and the artistic conviction. It would have been possible to put a feminist spin on this show, but that would have compromised the quality of the work. In any case, those days are past. It is no longer necessary or sensible to play the strident feminist card. If a woman artist has something interesting to say, it inevitably forms an integral part of the fabric of her work. (right: Erin Palmer, Carbondale, Self-Portrait in Studio, oil on canvas)
Happily, I have catholic tastes so do not particularly lean towards figuration or abstraction. Today's pluralism -- in both North America and Europe -- is in my view a healthy thing, This Illinois New Millennium show reflects that current state of affairs and includes diverse work, from minimal conceptualism via digitalization and laser to traditional watercolors and oil paintings. It also includes three-dimensional pieces made from wax, papier maché, vellum, ceramic, limestone, perspex, and metal. I personally bemoaned the dearth of printmaking and also the lack of abstraction. However, Illinois's predilection for figuration is understandable in view of the Imagists and the Hairy Who, both movements associated specifically with Chicago. (left: Annelies Heijnen, Mt. Vernon, The Chicken and the Egg, clay)
Obviously, I came to the submissions completely fresh, knowing none of the artists, recognizing none of their personal calligraphy. I am used to being able to spot an artist's style from across a crowded gallery, so this felt rather odd at first. However, quality is universal and easy to identify. Moreover, the mix of styles and approaches was surprisingly similar to European competitions. One problem I encountered was each artist being represented by only one item. I much prefer to see a body of work, four or five pieces minimum. Here, artists had to sink or swim on the basis of a single idea. (left: Betsy Youngquist, Rockford, Flight of the Zebra, mixrd media beaded painting)
Two artists who were obvious candidates epitomize my approach because they are so very different but unquestionably what the British call "dead certs" for the final selection: Dean and Hild. Dean's Pin Woman is just that: a minimal torso form made out of black wax and then covered in pins. As an object it is lovely to look at, appealing to hold. Yet more than that, its simple pared down form defined by a subtle metallic sheen has a fundamental power reminiscent of early prehistoric icons.
Hild's precise narrative style -- two women, one black
one white, united by an op art hen, their hands
linked to form the central focus -- is a million miles away in technique and treatment, yet also speaks of age-old ritual and understanding. Its title, Grace, can be read on several levels: grace in acceptance of our fate, be we animal or human; grace as in hope and charity -- or is this bird not destined for the pot, but actually a pet affectionately called Grace! In one way these works say little that is overtly female, especially in contrast to Paul's modern Madonna and Child or Bladholm's Pandora, but they hint at the natural paradoxes of female life with all the strength and vulnerability that each woman experiences.
There is yet more ambiguity in Altenhofen's 20 Replies Not Yet Sent and Holz's Leaf Writings, both pieces using indecipherable text, a paradox in itself, as writing is for communication. Altenhofen's two-part wall piece made from the casts of dolls' arms includes one section where letters written in Italian are collaged onto the limbs. Holz scratches her script into the layered surface of her picture. Both hint at love and loss, distance and separation.
Another wall piece, Shaughnessy's Mini Mutants, pokes fun at the serious topic of cloning by putting Barbie's head on Bambi's body to create monster toys caged on a supermarket peg board display. More caged creatures appear in Wolfram's altogether more sinister painting, where muzzled women in 19th Century period costume are led like tame animals or pets by men made vulnerable by their own nakedness. These relationships forged in Hell create another paradox, a further mystery. In contrast, some artists use oil paint purely for the pleasure of it, such as Thienemann, whose Dry Dock evokes powerful two-dimensional sculpted geometry. Others employ watercolor to delineate with old fashioned precision, as exemplified by Meyer and Capps. Coed draftsmanship is always welcome, so I was happy to select Roth's The Dance, drawn with an honest eye; also, Lehrer's self portrait. Illness was a topic faced head-on in totally different ways by Sigler and Wonsil, while surrealism made a rare appearance under Nilsson's imaginative touch.
While selecting the show, I was asked if the theme, The New Millennium, fit the artworks. In as much as art inevitably reflects the period in which it is created, the answer had to be yes. But in fact, trying to contrive a false theme or ethos is nonsense. In reality, Millennium applies to the title of the show rather than the content. Artists develop in their own way, according to their own individuality. They are brave people who bare their souls, put their beliefs on the line. Artists create the energy that fuels our culture. More and more, maybe because of TV and film, the image is in the ascendancy. It has a universal -- and powerful -- impact. Artists are becoming more, not less, essential, but it's still a lonely path. We viewers merely partake of an often long and excruciating, but always unique, creativity.
To prove the point, right at the end I wickedly selected Kim's cool, clinical, black and white minimal squares to hang next to Youngquist's bejeweled, kitsch Flight of the Zebra. Poles apart, they represent the joy of the nonpareil! I much enjoyed selecting the Illinois New Millennium exhibition. It proved to me above all else that, despite fashionable "isms," individuality is here to stay.
Reprinted from the Catalogue for the Exhibit Illinois Women Artists: The New Millennium.
Additional venues for the exhibition are: Parkland Art Gallery, Champaign, IL, May 17 - June 22, 2001; Quincy Art Center, Quincy, IL, July 13 - August 17, 2001
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