Issues

No Man’s Land

Posted by: National Museum of Women in the Arts

This article was curated from a post written by Brendan L. Smith for BMoreart.com

Male artists have dominated the female body for centuries in cultures across the world. Until modern times, women were depicted in the roles assigned to them, lying nude on the sofa or surfing to the beach on a half shell.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts flips that patriarchal switch in a compelling new exhibition called No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection, on view until Jan. 8. Featuring artwork by 37 female artists from 16 countries, the show explores the artmaking process and different interpretations of the female body, ranging from sensual to political to absurd.

The exhibition is a smaller version of a show that opened last year at the Rubell Family Collection museum in Miami. Mera and Donald Rubell, who own a chain of hotels including the Lord Baltimore Hotel and the Capitol Skyline in D.C., have collected art since the 1960s, assembling one of the largest private contemporary art collections in the world.

“There’s something in the way in which a woman presents her nakedness than how a man presents a woman,” Mera Rubell told BmoreArt. “Forever the woman has been the subject of fascination by painters. She has been gazed at, but now she is both the artist and subject of the gaze.”

Curators from the National Museum of Women in the Arts had the formidable task of pruning the original exhibition, which spilled across 45,000 square feet of galleries in the massive Miami museum, to 7,000 square feet to fit their downtown D.C. location. They also had to make sense of a vast body of artwork with little connection other than the gender of the artists.

While the exhibition features stellar work, the two competing themes about the female body and the artmaking process don’t really fit together, and the exhibition often feels like two different shows sandwiched together with little connecting the halves. A cell phone audio tour offers some enlightening commentary from the artists about their work and from the Rubells about their reasons for buying it.

Several artists use female mannequins to challenge the impossible societal standards for female beauty and the corrupting influence of capitalism. German artist Isa Genzken draws surgical lines on a mannequin’s stomach and adds some ceramic birds on its shoulders, reminiscent of Snow White and other fairy tales where a fair maiden suffers until she is saved by a prince. The piece is called Schauspieler, meaning “actor” in German, with many women acting out restrictive roles because of misogyny or their own hampered conceptions of womanhood.

The most provocative and humorous piece in the exhibition was created by the Rubells’ daughter, Jennifer Rubell, who is known for performance art focused on food. Inspired by a gag Hillary Clinton nutcracker, a nude female mannequin with absurdly large breasts and flowing blonde hair is suspended on its side with a vagina that is a working nutcracker.

Viewers can pick a walnut from a bowl, pull the mannequin’s top leg down, and hear a startling crack in a quiet gallery before eating the walnuts. Called Lysa III, the piece offers alternative interpretations of the power of a woman’s sexuality that scares some men or a society where a woman’s talents are reduced to a sole function contained between her legs.

In Migrant.I, Iraqi artist Hayv Kahraman creates a haunting oil painting about the travails of migrants forced from their homes into a world that doesn’t want them. The work is especially timely now with a wave of migrants and xenophobic discrimination spreading across Europe, the Brexit vote, and the build-a-wall bullshit from Donald Trump and his hopelessly misguided followers.

Resembling a playing card, two intertwining torsos represent Kahraman, who fled from war-torn Iraq to Sweden with a falsified passport. One torso extends upward while another faces down. One woman’s eyes are closed while the other is blindfolded, and they both hold nooses tied around their necks. The poignant piece opens a window into a migrant’s past, her fears about the future, and how the vagaries of luck can decide who lives or dies. If you’re still upset that you don’t have a new iPhone 7 after viewing this heartfelt work, then there’s something wrong with you.

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