Art has long been a powerful tool in moving culture forward on issues of social justice, but it has a lousy history of gender inequity: a 2019 analysis by ArtNet, an art market website, found that only 11 percent of works acquired by top museums in the United States between 2008 and 2018 were by women. Three exhibitions in the Seattle area suggest refreshing ways to rewrite this troublesome narrative.
Unsettling Femininity: Selections from the Frye Art Museum Collection features oil-on-canvas works by many artists—Franz von Stuck, Gustav Majer, Lillian Genth, Ludwig Knaus, and others—all of which tackle perceptions of the female form. Naomi Hume, an associate professor of art history at Seattle University, guest-curated the show and divided it into four chapters: judgment, morality, performance, and artifice. “Judgment” asks questions about nudity in European portrait painting; “morality” tackles the trope of young white women as being inherently pure; “performance” highlights female entertainers (actors, singers, and other roles meant to delight); and “artifice” attempts to assess instances of costuming in portraiture. (It’s worth noting that most of the works in the exhibition were made by men.)
With Unsettling Femininity, Hume shows that women have long been passive characters in art, even within the context of their own stories, and subject to “the male gaze,” meaning that often they have been depicted strictly for the pleasure of the men who look at them. “So much of our contemporary media is still so dependent on this series of poses that are designed to show women as submissive and vulnerable and sexually available to the viewer,” Hume says. “It’s fascinating to pick apart how those decisions are instrumentalized.”
MOTHER OF AMERICAN MODERNISM
Viewers interested in complex depictions of the female body should catch Abstract Variations, a Georgia O’Keeffe showcase at the Seattle Art Museum. The exhibition includes some of her iconic and sensual floral compositions—reminiscent of the female anatomy—as well as other elements of the artist’s prolific life.
While exhibitions celebrating O’Keeffe as a major figure of American modernism and a painter of southwestern landscapes are nothing new, SAM’s edition will bring together Music, Pink and Blue, No. 1 (from the museum’s own collection) and Music, Pink and Blue, No. 2, on loan from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The two paintings—along with a broader series of O’Keeffe’s notable abstractions, two photographs of the artist by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and several charcoal and pastel drawings—focus closely on her interior life. As a total effort, Abstract Variations shows how O’Keeffe continues to act as a foil to her male contemporaries.
OLD STUFF, NEW LIFE
At the Bellevue Arts Museum, multidisciplinary artist Maria Phillips confronts the way the work of female artists is included and discussed in a museum context. Her Hidden in Plain Sight is a show composed of inventive sculptural works constructed from paper cups, plastic liners, and a variety of unsustainable packaging materials. “This felt like an opportunity to…engage a broader topic, one that is impacting all of us,” Phillips says.
Her recognition of the beauty within the everyday objects we leave behind is essential: If contemporary art is only open to the expensive and rare, is it sustainable for generations to come? Likewise, BAM’s recognition of this kind of work is an innovative and progress-fueled move. “A friend of mine who has seen the work called it ‘a beautiful slap in the face,’ ” Phillips says.
These shows challenge viewers to consider the role that arts institutions play in supporting a diverse set of practices by a diverse set of makers. When taken together, they guide us through a trajectory that begins with the male masters of yore and ends with the bright spots in contemporary practice by their female counterparts.
Ashley Stull Meyers is a Portland-based writer and curator. Her first love was Caravaggio.
• Through Aug. 23
• Frye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave., Seattle
• Mar. 5–June 28
• Seattle Art Museum, 1300 1st Ave., Seattle
• Through Mar. 8
• Bellevue Arts Museum, 510 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue