Women Artists Making it Work
Artists are emotional creatures. They respond to the world around them and create art not because they want to, but because they have to. So it’s no wonder that women artists have been particularly forceful this year, given the turbulence of the “Me Too” movement and the societal policing of women’s bodies. The women artists showing at Superfine! in DC, LA, and Miami exhibit this strength. I interviewed four whose work struck a chord deep within me. Take a look!
Helen Robinson paints women I know, or at least, she paints women I feel like I know. Her contemporary women wear their activism on their sleeve, literally. The artist paints her figures in t-shirts bearing poignant slogans like, “Command Respect,” and “Our Minds, Our Bodies, Our Power.” I also love the snarky, “Bite Me.” Over the last few years, feminist t-shirts have witnessed a resurgence in popularity. Robinson attributes this trend to a cultural shift; women want to announce their feminism to the world. It is integral to their identity.
In Command Respect, the figure’s posture also suggests characteristics of her identity. “She stands with her shoulders drawn back,” Robinson says, “and her body open to the space in front of her.” But, the artist notes, “she is cradling a glass of rosé so gently in her hands, revealing a glimmer of fragility. I find that gesture so intimately feminine.” The result is Robinon’s interpretation of the contemporary woman—opinionated and ambitious, yet open-minded and empathetic. It’s an interpretation I happen to agree strongly with.
I was also extremely curious about the framing in Command Respect. I wondered why Robinson chose to omit the figure’s nose and eyes, which would have identified her. The artist informed me that doing so allowed her work to transcend portraiture, and enter a realm of conceptualism and interpretation. Robinson’s paintings depict people as they truly are— in how they choose to present themselves to the world— rather than through irrelevant physical features.
Furthermore, omitting most of the figure’s face involves the viewer more heavily in the work. “The viewer is encouraged to consider [the figure’s] character and persona,” the artist explains. “The figures in my paintings become ciphers for the viewer’s own imaginative range of memories and interpretations.”
I think that allowing the viewer to sift through his associations with this imagery could yield very interesting results. Robinson has removed the figure’s eyes, the only body part that could confront the viewer for ogling her chest. But her personality shines clearly through her body language and choice of dress. Would such a voyeuristic viewer still feel ‘caught’ in the act by this self-confident woman? Would he reflect on his instinct to ogle, and question it?
Heidi Horowitz also speaks directly to her viewers but her voice feels more melancholic. Her staged photography featuring dolls in human spaces evokes themes of entrapment and escape. Horowitz, herself a survivor of domestic abuse, sees the dolls as symbols of herself at various stages of her life. “It is a story, my story, and it just might be the story of the viewer,” Horowitz says, “hence the title MIRROR, MIRROR.”
One photograph within this series that really struck me was Epiphany. In this scene, a doll wearing black, trapped in a dark space, is lit from above by a blinding light. She shields her eyes with one hand, casting a black shadow across her face. In this photograph, Horowitz stages the moment she realized her confinement, and her subsequent desire for freedom. The light is both propelling and frightening. Like freedom, it is sought after but difficult to attain. Despite the difficulty of her situation, Horowitz found the light. “The years that followed were my years of empowerment,” the artist explains. “I learned to pick myself up, show the world I was back, and begin to live a healthy new life. Then, I picked up my camera.”
Epiphany is a triumph for survivors, but there is also much to be said for the artist’s more light-hearted faire. Gainers and Losers projects a performance of self-confidence that is almost more triumphant than Horowitz’ darker work— the artist is shown to be intelligent, self-sufficient, and beautiful. She is quite literally reading about the stock market in a magenta bathing suit.
Horowitz’ work tells a story of female empowerment that the artist hopes will inspire women to seek their freedom. Initially, she hadn’t intended to share Epiphany publicly, until she realized the impact it could have on viewers. “I am putting my fears aside,” she says truthfully, “[to] hopefully touch even one woman who will then know that she does not stand alone, and she too will find her voice and feel empowered—and perhaps take up photography!”
Ashley G. Garner & Lauren Karaman
Ashley G. Garner and Lauren Karaman are also driven by the desire to communicate a message: body love and self-acceptance. Their photography is incredibly process-based, as they work with women intimately, asking about their body love journeys before taking out their camera to shoot. “Hearing each woman’s story before we start shooting is sometimes an extremely emotional experience,” Garner says. “It no doubt affects the way that I photograph her and where I decide to focus.”
She and Karaman are interested in highlighting “the stigmatized parts of our bodies,” as Karaman calls them. This includes our bellies, stretch marks, and fat rolls—aspects of our bodies that media and society demonize, despite their natural beauty. “Zooming in [on these parts of the body] makes us realize that the body we live in is our personal environment,” Garner enthuses, “and we need to learn how to love it for all its hills and canyons.”
The artists shoot in natural light in order to craft a comfortable environment for the women to share their experiences. But it also has a marvelous impact on the work itself. Natural lighting hits the body where the sun shines, leaving certain plateaus of the skin light and shiny, and allows other crevices to hold onto darkness. As a result, every body feels like a complex story. There is light and dark— and happiness and sadness— present in all of us.
Garner and Karaman’s mission reaches beyond empowering their individual subjects, though their relationship to each is profound. They hope to open viewers’ eyes to the beauty of these bodies, pushing past the societal standard for female beauty. It is a process of reprogramming our own brains, and encouraging others to be critical of their own brainwashed ideas about beauty. “It’s a toxic and totalitarian mindset to expect all women to look the same, and to reward them with status and success if they do,” says Karaman.
I have always been passionate about body love, but hearing Karaman explain the issue with thse words resonates deeply. The human race is incredibly diverse—we boast populations on six continents. Why do we expect women to fulfill a specific chest-waist-hips ratio? It’s biologically irrational.
The 36-24-36 Project takes its name from these supposedly ‘ideal’ hourglass measurements. So far Garner and Karaman have photographed 57 women for this series. They are releasing a book this year and focusing on expanding The 36-24-36 Project to cities outside of New York, where the artists are based. They are also in the process of securing their status as a non-profit.
I think it is wonderful to imagine The 36-24-36 Project spreading across the country. It has the potential to heal those suffering from eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and give them confidence to achieve their goals. “Body bias can affect the way women move through the world,” Karaman says, “It can affect the risks we take and the power we hold. Loving our bodies leads to fuller lives.” The 36-24-36 Project could also have profound societal implications. “If the societal standard for female beauty embraced true individuality and wholeness in our bodies,” Karaman adds, “we would be a healthier, happier, more equal society.”