Gender and Art: Representation in Process Meets Practice: Balancing Creating and Teaching

Karissa Roberts
For The Clock

Watercolor landscapes.  Textile art.  Figure work.  Abstractions.  Ceramics.  Process Meets Practice: Balancing Creating and Teaching offers all of these styles of art, created by five woman artists.  There have been countless all men’s art exhibitions, whether that is the intention of the exhibition or not.  Malado Baldwin points out, “even though 51% of visual artists working today are women, just 5% of artwork featured in major U.S. museums is made by women” (Baldwin).  With this context, I believe that all women’s shows are necessary and especially relevant to our contemporary times.  This exhibition has connections to national and international art movements, underscoring the importance of what artists create locally in New Hampshire, all created through the lens of women.  Here I will be discussing why shows like this are relevant by analyzing three artworks, all focused on figures, from this exhibition: Cynthia Worthen Vascak’s pieces Lady Hawk and Gesture along with Annette W. Mitchell’s Portrait of Steve Sweedlerin the context of gender and contemporaneity. 

Gesture, created by Cynthia Worthen Vascak, is an energetic, and as the title says, gestural, charcoal piece.  The main subject of the drawing is a figure, presumed to be a woman, who has heavy shading in the hair, between the arms, and in the lower right-hand corner to make the woman’s shadow.  Other than this heavy shading, the piece is mostly linework and open white space, with the exception of some light shading behind the woman on the left side.  It features the woman with her head down and arms stretched out in front of her.  This position could be seen as the model bowing to the observer.  This piece is a good example of the importance of gender and how including context about the artist affects the way the art is perceived.  If this piece was created by a man, I would have come to the conclusion that he was drawing the woman to inflate his idea of being dominant over her.  This relates to Carol Duncan’s idea of the women being portrayed as an “obedient animal” (Duncan, 297) by male artists.  Despite this, to an extent, Gesture still possesses these connotations even though it was created by a woman artist.  This is due to the extensive history of women being used as objects in art and society and the subsequent internalized oppression that this creates. 

According to the artist, this piece “is very quick, fluid, and spontaneous”.  This idea of gestural mark-making and spontaneity relates to the Abstract Expressionist movement.  Many Abstract Expressionist artists, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, worked with large scale paintings.  This piece is much smaller and much more representational, but still carries that concept of creating action through gesture.  It allows for movement and looseness while still representing the human body.  For teachers specifically, these are very valuable skills to teach students, as they allow for exploration and therefore foster deeper learning.  I also think this piece teaches viewers that for an art piece to be worthy of a gallery you do not have to spend hours upon hours creating it. 

Lady Hawk, also by Cynthia Worthen Vascak, is egg tempera on gesso panel, and according to the artist was inspired by Arthurian legends.  It features a woman with long, wavy, red hair in a blue robe holding a hawk.  The primary color is gold, which shines over the entire background and accents the woman’s robe and bird handling glove, which are both intricately detailed.  One distinguishing quality of the robe is the abundance of folds and the movement that they create throughout the piece.  This movement continues in the woman herself.  Unlike what is commonly seen in the history of the representation of women in art, this woman is in action.  Although it is not an extremely dynamic pose, like what is often seen in ancient Roman sculptures of men leaping, fighting, stabbing, etcetera, by having both of her arms raised and one of them holding a bird of prey she is shown as more than an object. 

One of the textile works present in this show, Annette W. Mitchell’s Portrait of Steve Sweedler, is made of cut pieces of cotton fabrics.  The focus, Steve Sweedler, is shown at profile view wearing a coordinating blue shirt, jacket, and hat.  The piece also has a green, leafy background.  This background is relevant because it connects to the man’s personal life as he, according to the artist, “was our [Plymouth State University’s] resident tree expert”.  The warm tones in the man’s skin are brought to life as they are complimented by the cool toned blues and greens.  I find the inclusion of this piece, and Mitchell’s other fiber piece, Color of the Soul, to be important in representing a media that has historically been linked to women and therefore pushed aside.  This relates to Linda Nochlin’s answer to the question “Why have there been no great women artists?”, that “There have been no great women artists because women are incapable of greatness” (Nochlin, 1).  Under our current and historic views, men and the art they create are the standard and therefore are what is considered to be great.  Portrait of Steve Sweedler almost looks as if Mitchell is “painting” with fabric.  Because of this, even though the artist does not mention it, I see this piece as a response to fiber art being regarded as worth less than the traditional male dominated mediums. 

There are a couple things this exhibition could have benefitted from.  The curator could have utilized the digital format more effectively.  Including more images from different angles would have made it easier for those viewing online to have an experience more similar to actually being there in person.  A video walkthrough could have worked to accomplish this as well.   One positive aspect is the brief statement describing the show at the top of the webpage, but I would have preferred it to go deeper into the making of this exhibition and why these artists were chosen for it.  Providing some information on what challenges the artists have encountered while being a woman artist would have bettered my experience and understanding as well.  Another weakness of Process Meets Practice: Balancing Creating and Teaching is that it lacks in diversity, comprised of all white (and/or white passing women as their specific identities are not mentioned).  With this said, due to the majority white population in New Hampshire and in Plymouth specifically, this makes for an accurate representation of the professors at Plymouth State University.  This brings me to a quote from Maura Reilly, “While I yearn for a moment when there is no longer a need for women-only exhibitions, we are not there yet (just as we are not with all artists from marginalized communities)” (Reilly) which points to the necessity that is intersectionality.  While this show is successful in highlighting women artists, I wish it could have highlighted artists of color as well. 

As a woman artist studying at Plymouth State University, I enjoyed learning about some of the influential women artists that have helped to shape our university through this exhibition.  This show was successful in showing a wide range of art by including different concepts, sizes, subjects, movements, and mediums.  Analyzing Gesture, Lady Hawk, and Portrait of Steve Sweedler allowed me to see how recent works by female artists differ from historical works by male artists and the importance that representing them in a museum holds.