The Unwilling Feminist. Or, dealing with the role of gender in one's own art.

I hopped the Metro-North up to New Haven yesterday to attend Yale's MFA Open House. On the way back, my tired mind inevitably wandered to the topic of my own artwork. It looped idly around the whats and whys, contextualized by having just visited a dozen studios of first-year MFA students as they approach the end of their first semester in the country's top painting grad program. My conversations with them tended toward a discussion of their work itself and how its direction is changing since coming into the program, the where and when of their undergrad, and the portfolio and interview portions of the application process. And so I was left pondering how the disparate tangents of work that I'm making and brainstorming (the bodyfolds, the babies, the dress paintings) make sense together as a body of work.

This isn't a new rumination, by any means. Since mostly abandoning my previous 'style'/approach, I've been trying to let myself paint whatever it is that attracts me, without [too much] judgement. There have been ample fits and starts and dead ends, though, leaving a wake of scattered ideas and unfinished pieces. How to bring it all together into something cohesive and application-worthy (whether for grad school or another opportunity) is something I'm often trying to figure out.

Bodyfolds 1
Oil on canvas, 23"x23"

Baby #3: Dexter
Oil on canvas, 17"x17"

This train of thought keeps bringing me to the same conclusion: I seem to be painting about "women's issues." And every time I reach that idea, I'm quite taken aback. Surprised, and dare I say, appalled. And then I'm a little horrified or embarrassed at my own reaction. Is it really so horrible to think that I might be painting about "women's issues," whatever that means? Is the thought of being a feminist artist so terrible?

No, of course not. But it's not something I identify with, either. I've never considered “women's issues” or feminism at all central to my existence or philosophy, perhaps to the chagrin of the women around me. I have been content to essentially see the world as somewhat ungendered, or to accept and live by "men's" rules (and often, to win by them, at least according to my own scorekeeping). The way I see it, I am a body but I don't feel like a terribly gendered body.

Except when I do feel like a terribly gendered body, which of course makes me incredibly anxious. And my paintings tend to come from a place of anxiety. If the challenge is now to figure out the underlying impetus of my imagemaking (rather than what the images themselves have in common, which worked for me in the past) then maybe there's your answer.

So, now to deal with this idea that I might be painting about "women's issues" or making "feminist art" or something along those lines. I think one problem I have with owning those sorts of statements is that they feel incredibly universal, whereas I'm intending to make work about the personal. I'm primarily just sorting out my own shit here; if it's relevant or resonates with someone else, that's great, but ultimately it's secondary. I identify more closely with the multitudes of artists who use personal mythology, psychology, and narrative as content. Furthermore, there's some frustration over the tendency for the question of gender to always be brought up in the context of women's work, but not in a man's.

Help Is Not Appealing  Karla Black, 2010 Sugar paper, chalk, spray paint, ribbon

Help Is Not Appealing
Karla Black, 2010
Sugar paper, chalk, spray paint, ribbon

“It bothers me that only women's work is gendered. I wouldn't mind these questions if male artists were also asked them.” - Karla Black, interviewed in Modern Painters, October 2011
But I also wonder if that tide might be turning a bit. Both Andrew Salgado (whose show, “Anxious,” was up at Tache Gallery until just today, I believe) and Aaron Smith are working with ideas about masculinity and its portrayal in a way that seems akin to how some women artists who really own their feminine or feminist content have been dealing with those issues.

Untitled (After Bataille)
Andrew Salgado, 2010
Oil on canvas, 40"x36"

Aaron Smith: 2011
Oil on panel, 60"x48"

In examining my work, where it comes from, and where it fits, I think what is closer to the truth is that it comes out of my failure or refusal to embrace women's role(s). The bodyfolds paintings definitely arose out of a tense relationship with my own flesh. The baby paintings arose out of my anxiety (and if I'm totally honest, my attraction/repulsion tension) over children and childbearing. The dress paintings started with inklings of feminine costume or artifice -- quite literally the "trappings" of womanhood? -- perhaps involving mother-daughter relationships and coming-of age rites, and are now shaping up to have something to do with a feeling of foreignness in my own skin.

Lastly, part of my rejection or discomfort over where or whether my art might intersect feminist art comes out of the fact that I'm almost wholly uninformed about the whole thing. Feminism and art? I have no clue, really. I was at the Brooklyn Art Museum a few weeks ago with a friend, where we saw the Dinner Party and got into a discussion about its merits or lack thereof. All I could really say is something like “well it's art-historically important.” I have embarrassingly little knowledge of that whole realm, both historically and whatever may be going on contemporarily. Luckily, to fix that, I just need to read up.

On Femininity

A friend of mine, who identifies along the transgendered spectrum, wrote in a recent piece that he intends to physically transition in the next year or so. I have been aware to some extent about his progress in that direction (and have a love and affection for him that is, as I have told him, "outside of gender," something I really can't say about anyone else I have known) but for some reason this timestamp, this statement that he's not just going to float about in the middle between genders, has thrown me for a loop.

I think it is because it comes crashing up against recent understandings I've come to have about my personal affiliation with femininity and its role in my artwork.

I've never considered myself particularly feminine. An only child to a father who I suspect would have been much more comfortable having a son, I was raised somewhat like a son. Not to say that he denied my being a girl, but we bonded via power tools. He is the reason that I have an extensive power tool collection today. My mother raised me pretty gender-neutrally as well -- I suspect that, in her mind, being a girl child equated to a very painful experience, so she was conscious not to pass that on.

Jump forward to the current day, my artwork is arguably one of my most feminine expressions of self. Lots of pink, and flesh, and sexuality. Looking at the subject matter itself, it's very much about the physical component of being female: female genitalia, breasts, the consequences inherent in a uterus (birth, cramps, blood). Only sometimes does it break past the purely physical into something bordering on societal: excessiveness versus voluptuousness (fat is a very culturally baggage-laden subject, especially where it intersects with the feminine); the binding or hanging of the flesh, which can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, whether gendered, relating to the 'human condition,' socio-economic, emotional, etc.

A work in progress. Ostensibly having to do with the heart, but just as much (for me, at least) about menstrual cramps and the sort of reoccurring, copious blood that is part of the female experience.

So now, mentally juxtaposing our two versions of femininity, my friend's and mine, I don't know what to make of it. His wardrobe is far more feminine than mine; my sense of femininity is mostly related to the anatomy over which I had no choice in being given. Like if you could blend us up and edit out the incongruous parts, we could be a 'complete woman' in both gender expression and biological senses.

Maybe I shouldn't make anything of it. Maybe that's the point of all this, to show me how irrelevant these culturally-loaded terms can become in the face of very real personal experience. How diverse personal experiences really are, and how insufficient language is to express them in their fullness and nuances.

But this friend of mine would probably have something to say about that -- he is a writer, after all.