Ideas

My Women Artist Heroes: A Reflection

Posted by: Jackie Cassidy

I collect artists like one collects shot glasses, or postcards. Compulsively, opportunistically. The discovery of new artists I like is one of my rituals; social media platforms, art publications, word of mouth, and so forth all converge to present a bounty of inspiration, a steady stream, an endless source.

I have a curated collection of male artists whose work I adore, of course, whose work I revisit again and again because I am just so mystified, so damn struck by how they made these things with their hands.

But my female artists—they are special confidants and muses. They hold an exalted place in my mind and heart precisely because I know their courage and struggle and resilience is magnified ten million times, and still their work is honest, personal, and magnificent. I respect their work, and sometimes I think I could not get by without seeing it. I learn the narratives of the creators. Had these women been male, it is likely they wouldn’t have had to push through the same barriers, or at least the walls wouldn’t have been so high and so many.

The persistent disparity that female-identifying artists and non-white artists face on multiple fronts—from remuneration to representation to major retrospectives and beyond—has been consistently documented. Our war is still raging with no end in sight. We must hold each other up and keep fighting. And making.

My heroes from our tribe include artists you may be unfamiliar with or whose work makes you uncomfortable, and that’s okay. When we think about who we’re uniquely drawn to, we discover long-buried avenues. A pathway flowers before us, we learn anew.

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Take Katherine Bradford, for instance. Before my brain can conjure up its incessant analyses, I find myself immersed in her world of ocean swimmers and ships and superheroes, playful lights, pure color. By some miracle, I forget that I’m an adult expected to abide social norms. Bradford has tapped into something rare. Her work electrifies with a keen sense of nostalgia, distilled from the substance of years spent in childlike wonder on this earth.

Bradford describes herself as a mark maker. She didn’t go to an undergraduate college that had a studio art program. (For the record, I didn’t go to art school, but like her, I wish I’d had access to that undergraduate experience.) She was living in Maine with her family when she began to make work, chipping away little by little in her spare moments, bravely. She earned her MFA when she was in her 40s. She also came out as a gay woman later in life, a storyline that certainly matters to us queer artists.

“I learned to be an artist by watching other artists,” she said in a lecture that was part of the 2013-14 John M. Anderson Endowed Lecture Series. “I had been brought up to be polite, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing when making contemporary art. I was trying to train myself to be a little bit more bold. I could remind myself that there was another side of life as a woman that I should look at.”

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The first time I encountered Belkis Ayón’s work was, regrettably, on Instagram. Although I know I could not have contained myself if I saw it in person. Floating in a sea of saccharine-sweet palettes ailing for digital attention, subject to the capriciousness of the platform’s users, was a gem of a composition—black, white, and grey—hashtagged with the artist’s name. It must have been providence that I discovered her allegorical work at all.

What I see, I don’t entirely understand. But I certainly feel it. She captures a world that is alien to mine, one filled with serpents and mouthless, ghostly figures and incredibly intricate patterns and textures. All of these strangely satisfying elements are wrought together with black-and-white symbols and broad landscapes of negative space. Are her images invitation or cautionary tale? I can’t be too sure. They seem to hover between her critical research and the realm of her imagination.

Born in 1967, the contemporary printmaker committed suicide in 1999. She was just 32, but in her too-few years created a phenomenal body of work exploring the mysterious Afro-Cuban fraternal society, Abakuá, through collography. That she rose to prominence is truly inspiring, especially in the context of her being a black Cuban woman. On a visceral level, her work strikes, quietly, and with staying power.

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Sometimes I fight the urge to gawk at Lisa Yuskavage’s flirty, mischievous vixens. It’s usually when I’m at work. But out of the sightline of passersby, after hours, I give in and indulge.

Her paintings get me every time with that pinch of uneasiness; I feel a little embarrassed. These flamboyant, fascinating nudes don’t play nice with conditioned sensibilities. Yuskavage turns the classical, painterly vocabulary on its head, giving us naughty minxes that actually don’t give a crap if we put ’em on a pedestal. Her ladies are empowered and sexually fluent. In Yuskavage’s world, you don’t look at female figures; they look at you, barely, before turning their attention elsewhere.

Yuskavage, from Philadelphia, studied at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, then pursued her MFA at Yale. Her accomplished work has generated a tidal wave of criticism, controversy, and praise over the years, but even so, the artist remains dedicated to her vision.

Yuskavage said in an interview published in Art in America, “‘…there is an orthodox way of looking at things: “This is a representation. This is not a pipe, it’s a painting. It’s not real,” which feels pretty obvious and rather dull at this point. There was this other possibility that seemed juicier and more fucked up and hopeful. And I did have to come to a synthetic approach to making, but once I could do that, I could also believe in painting again, and make it real again.’”

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The best thing about collecting artists is that the list only gets longer, the textures grow, the colors expand. The point of this, after all, is to dive deeper into those we carry with us like small keys. As we consider and discuss the artists we cherish, we begin to realize how profound our own potential is, as well as the potential of our sister contemporaries. We remember that our next hero is always only right around the corner, ready to teach us how to thrive.

Any minute now, she will walk into your life and never let go.

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