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Commentary: Women have made inroads in the visual arts but still have a long way to go

Nancy Kranzberg

In general, many women have broken the glass ceiling and occupy very prestigious positions not only in our city, but throughout the country and the world. We finally have a female mayor in St. Louis.

Women are finally being given their due in the arts as well. Just looking at the visual arts, the museums I have frequented recently have featured women.

The Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis (CAM) has just recently closed an exhibition featuring three female artists. Katherine Bernhardt, a St. Louis native, returned to her hometown to create a new site-specific mural on the museum's 60 foot long project wall. Painting with spray cans, Bernhardt reinvigorates graffiti actions such as "bombing" and "tagging," collapsing distinctions between the art inside and outside the museum walls. Deana Lawson explores and challenges conventional and stereotypical representations of the black body. She engages a range of photographic strategies to craft a multifaceted vision reflecting what she has described as a "knowledge of selfhood through a corporeal dimension." Nicola Tyson is recognized for her feminist reimagining of the female body. She has referred to this as psycho-figuration--an expression of the inner psyche by describing the body as experienced, rather than merely observed. Her figures often appear turned inside out by the drama of their own self-exposure, the intensity heightened by Tyson's distinctive chromatic palette.

Lisa Melandri, Executive Director of CAM reminded me that the museum is committed to exhibiting the work of women artists. Artists such as Maya Lin, Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois and Polly Apfelbaum have all had their work gracing the walls of CAM, to name just a few.

And I was treated to an exhibition titled, "Women of Abstract Expressionism at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Desert, California. Most of us have heard of the famous abstract expressionist couples such as Jackson Pollack and Lee Strassner and Elaine and Bill DeKooning, although the men are still the headliners. The exhibition featured twelve women artists active in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1940s and 50s.The text panel reminds us that this is the first major museum exhibition to feature women leaders in abstract expressionist movement whose works were underreported and their canvases undervalued.

An example of some of the women represented in this exhibition are Jay DeFao who is celebrated for her radical experimentation with materials and scale, Sonia Gechtoff who actually was invited to show her work at the Guggenheim museum, but when settling in New York was surprised to find a strong gender bias, Pearl Fine who exhibited widely in the 1940s and 50s and was an early innovator of collaging paper over large areas of paint to produce movement and depth on a canvas, and Grace Hartigan who was one of the first female painters to be a pivotal player in the New York art scene in the 1950's.

I also went to the one woman show of Pat Lasch's exhibition titled "Journeys of the Heart” at the Palm Springs Art Museum. Elizabeth Armstrong, the JoAnn McGrath Executive Director, says, "As a pioneer who emerged from the downtown New York art scene of the 1970s, Lasch embeds her work with rich narratives from her personal journey. Her practice is rooted in spirituality, and always weighted with the pains and joys of heartbreak, age and adventure. Driven by memory and experience, the artist incorporates a range of media, from ceramic, bronze and cut paper to wood sculpture and lacemaking, into her art.

Featuring the delicate cake and pastry sculptures for which she is best known alongside early stitched canvas panels and stunning piped-paint dresses, this exquisite work is intensely biographical. At the same time, Lasch's artwork stems from a resolutely feminist perspective that connects it to qualities and issues that next generation contemporary artists are working through today."

But I must throw in a quote from one of Laumeier Sculpture Park's past directors, Marilu Knode, "The visibility of women in the visual arts has changed over the past few years. St. Louis is a perfect example of how women have matriculated into leadership positions - almost all of the visual arts museums in town are led by women, but the statistics regarding the number of women artists showing across the country in galleries and museums is disconcerting. While women are almost half the graduates of art schools, newspapers and art magazines record the slide of representing women artists in the market. We need another round of consciousness-raising about the importance women artists, curators and philanthropists have had, and continue to have, in shaping the visual arts.

Desert X, an exhibition of site-specific art installations across the Coachella Valley in the Palm Springs area of California had rave reviews, but the Los Angeles Times says, "If a serious flaw mars this otherwise admirable juried event, it is the sharp gender disparity in the current lineup. In 2017, no excuse is good enough for inviting only four women to participate among sixteen artists.

So ladies, don't rest on your laurels although there have recently been great laurels to rest on. Keep on trucking along and stay in the headlines.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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