“ENGENDER” AT KOHN GALLERY: 8 ARTISTS ON HOW GENDER FUNCTIONS IN THEIR WORK
by ADAM LEHRER
Gender is a constantly shifting, mutating, and expanding concept. How do you tackle something constantly in flux, shifting in perceptions and expectations? A few recent exhibitions have seen the art world take on gender, particularly “Trigger: Gender as a Weapon and as a Tool” at the New Museum. The show, while rife with extraordinary works by a number of intriguing young and veteran artists, was ultimately over-curated and included a number of pieces that felt off-theme. “Engender,” Kohn Gallery’s upcoming group exhibition, is a much more intimate entry point into gender-based discourse in contemporary art. Curated by Joshua Friedman, the show features 17 artists who challenge binarized representations of gender as specifically male or female.
Narrowing the exhibition’s focus, Friedman chose artists working with paint to distort gender dynamics. Why? Because unlike video and photography, mediums used as purveyors of gender discourse early in their emergences in the art world, painting as a medium has historically reinforced the gender binary. By working in painting, the artists featured in Kohn’s latest show contend with centuries of art history and infuse it with contemporary notions of gender fluidity. With works by both well-established (Nicole Eisenman, Sadie Laska) and fast-rising emerging artists (Tschabalala Self, Jonathan Lyndon Chase), “Engender” uses the most ancient of fine art forms to ignite pertinent discourse. Artist and writer Adam Lehrer photographed and spoke to eight of the artists included in the show about gender politics and how they manifest in their work.
Los Angeles-based artist Christina Quarles is particularly concerned with ambiguities found within identity, partially influenced by her own identity as a queer, cis-gendered woman who is black but often mistakenly perceived as white. Her paintings, marked by lush color patterns, accentuated human forms, and conflicted representations of identity, destabilize notions of fixed representation. She shows work through David Castillo Gallery and in addition to her paintings featured in “Engender” at Kohn Gallery, Quarles currently has work on view at the similarly themed New Museum exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Weapon and as a Tool”
“As a Queer cis-woman who is Black but often mistaken as white, I engage with the world from a position that is multiply situated. My specific set of circumstances has forced me to confront identity ambiguity from an early age, but I think all of us have experienced a complexity of self that cannot possibly be contained by simplified identity positions. I see painting as a medium to be analogous to the way I understand the body. Both often function under the deception that they exist outside of their social history, enabling an essentialist understanding that, in the case of the body, our identity is solely determined and fixed at birth and, in the case of painting, that it is the direct result of an organic manifestation of genius.”
“The composition of the figures within my paintings is largely determined by the edge of the frame which, much like the edge of the body, is a limitation that is simultaneously completely arbitrary and extremely real. I’m interested in the distinction between the ambiguous and the vague. When something is vague it is illegible due to a lack of information, but when something is ambiguous its illegibility comes from an excess of information. In these pieces, I aim to position the viewer in relation to the disorganized body grappling with a state of excess. I am a champion of ambiguity, but despite all of its potential, its pitfall lies in our deep desire to be recognized. This desire often outweighs that of existing in all our multiplicity.”
Utilizing the erotic tension of surrealism and the stylish veneer of Pop Art, Brooklyn-based artist Emily Mae Smith is constantly seeking new ways to place her painting into both conceptual art and the history of painting itself. Referencing classic animation, mythology, and science fiction, Smith tempers her virtuosity with a humored satire. The paintings are both populist and subversive, sexy and empowering. In addition to her work featured in Engender, Smith was recently the subject of a solo show at Simone Subal Gallery in New York.
“My work has been gender-centric for a long time. The work is often characterized as being feminist and dealing with visual culture’s lack of imagery that is generated by women. I’m looking at how the woman is often the artist’s muse but not the generator of the content. I realized that no one was going to take my work seriously until I was 40 years old, because no one believes that what I have to say is truth. As a female artist you can’t just be ok, you have to be amazing to get people to listen to what you have to say. Earlier in my career I was interested in how class is represented in art, probably due to the critical theory in my art education at Columbia being very laden in Marxist ideas. I realized there was a connection between lack of agency in artists’ work and how I was seeing gender, and I realized I was dealing with gender and gendered vision. And not just politics, but visual culture as a gendered lens. It’s scary because painting wasn’t considered an intellectual medium. Painting is kind of popular now, but there was a long time where it wasn’t considered conceptual. I wanted to paint and figure out a way to make painting intellectual. My most successful paintings are the ones that scare me a little bit, like ‘How do I know this is even good?’ Conceptualism is super important, but to remove it from yielding emotions is bad. There is a prejudice against painting in a way because it is quite a direct medium. You might not need the explanation of the institution that is going to translate the art work to the viewer. It goes straight to the heart.”
“’The studio,’ which is a phrase that reoccurs in my paintings, is a slippery signifier in my work. I use it to refer to the mythical status of ‘the art studio’ or art production, which also is tied into mythical artistic genius. The myth of agency. It also speaks to the literal studio, where things are made and done, and the construct of artist’s place. And that place being a fraught one for me. The phrase itself really comes from an art nouveau magazine. A trade magazine establishing art nouveau as an international style that people could submit images to, like ‘what are glass blowers doing in the art nouveau style?’ So that word, the studio, comes from that magazine. When I was researching that aesthetic I found all these images of women painting that were used on the covers of the magazine, which was hilarious because women were out of work. So they were used to show what painting is, but they weren’t showing women as painters. It was this disconnect that did a disservice but also was hilarious. I wanted to amplify that contradiction, and I found all these images of women painting in art nouveau style and made them funny by sitting the women on giant, suggestive vegetables. In a very post-modern way, it means ‘this is a painting, the painting know it’s a painting, the painting knows it exists in the history of painting.’ It’s like making a joke out of the desire to have this be considered amongst the tradition of painting.”
Los Angeles-based artist Jesse Mockrin deals in figurative paintings that both reference and subvert the gender norms of the 18th Century Rococo style of painting. She happened upon this style when she came across a men’s fashion magazine with an editorial entitled, “Dark Florals are IN For Men.” In the styling and patterns of the fashion she detected a visual connection to the muted florals of Rococo painters like Fragonard and Boucher. Her male subjects can be described as dandies with their soft and androgynous features and tastes for decadent clothing. By referencing art history and pop culture she examines how gender norms progress over time. In addition to her work being included in “Engender,” Mockrin was the subject of a solo show at Galerie Perrotin in Seoul, South Korea in which she collaborated with Korean K-Pop boyband EXO.
“Gender mutability is important in my work. I avoid concrete bodily references in my paintings that would specify one gender over another, and I try to keep gender cues undefined. I use interchangeable adornments and ambiguous features in my painting (or sometimes leave them out) to explore the construct of gender. I feel like the ultra-smooth, flawless skin and boneless fingers of my figures highlights the distance between the image and the real. The absence of photo-realistic elements in the paintings emphasizes the contradictory ways in which produced images, such as paintings and photographs, inspire a sense of emotional connection. When I started graduate school the idea of capturing an index of the real world mechanically using a camera became less interesting to me than constructing an alternate one with paint and brushes. I wanted to create a certain kind of texture and light and color to construct different kinds of space within a flat plane that I felt I could only accomplish with paint. I began referencing historical paintings directly and became interested in making work about painting itself. I think that the distortion of the drawing of the bodies, the contrast of texture between smooth skin and the more gestural surfaces of fabric or flowers, the play with materiality, and the investment of labor are all effects I could not achieve with photography.”
“I reference art history as well as popular culture in my work because I’m interested in how depictions of the codes of gender change over time. Historical portraiture captures the acceptable dress and context for male and female bodies of the time. Likewise photographs found in fashion magazines do the same in our present time. The socially constructed nature of gender is visible when we see transgressions of those boundaries in fashion or music or other forms of popular culture, and I believe it shows us our own assumptions about gender categories.”
Brooklyn-based artist Heidi Hahn paints women but eschews explicit or erotic representation of her female subjects in favor of a nuanced perspective that allows viewers to understand what it means to be a woman in 2017. The New York Times has compared Hahn’s work to artists ranging from old masters like Edvard Munch to modern masters like Lisa Yuskavage, indicating that Hahn’s primary subject matter is the representation of women across painting history, period. Unlike most representations of women in painting, which sees them subdued and passive, Hahn portrays women across the spectrum of emotional states. In addition to her work being included in “Engender,” Hahn is represented by Jack Hanley Gallery, where she had a solo exhibition in 2016.
“I have been representing the female body for a long time in my work. Using the idea of femininity in a way that’s not totally represented in the erotic or art historical terms was reconstructing what it meant to be a woman. I’m using the mundane of every day actions, showing them and expressing them, I’m showing the personality of subjects more than I’m just depicting a body. When Josh told me he was doing an exhibition about different modes of human bodily representation and different representations of the human form, being a very traditional painter there’s nothing bionic or so far out there about using the body in that way. I was interested in playing with subtle gestures that denote empowerment and feminist political ideals. I realized I could dictate how women are seen.”
“The women are always clothed. They are in conversation with their persona, which might not be the viewer. The women in the painting aren’t looking out or interacting with the viewer. It’s not a provocation, it’s not a viewer. I don’t want to think about sexuality or being feminine as an explicit sexuality. I think of it more as a person. These are just people. And I choose to paint women because I’m a woman so I can relate. It’s a personal give and take that I feel close to in the work. I feel like, before these issues, I’m a formalist painter. I’m concerned with how painting functions upon a surface. How does the materiality inform the content? Foremost, these are paintings about painting. The content is a way to reach out and give that message. There is an empowerment and idealization of what it is to be a woman. My subjects are kind of the same woman over and over. An amalgam of me, my girlfriend, my mom and my sisters, and all those personas, and they all become stand-ins for a woman. They are, in a way, the same kind of generic form.”
Queens-based artist Jansson Stegner deals in figurative painting that focuses on subjects who take on both typically feminine and masculine visual signifiers. The women are beautiful but imbued with power through powerful musculature or an aggressive police uniform, for example. The men are painted with soft features and slight frames. The product of a comic book-obsessed youth, Stegner’s paintings often combine tropes of art history with healthy doses of pop culture silliness in order to dismantle highfalutin notions of the artist’s role in society. Unsurprisingly, his biggest influences are painters who worked with figurative representation but nevertheless made strange images (Stegner calls it “weird figuration”): Balthus, Otto Dix, and Alice Neel among them. Stegner is represented by Belgian gallery Sorry, We’re Closed.
“I started out just drawing comic books as a teenager. I knew I liked figurative work of some kind, and knew that’s what I’d want to deal with in my paintings. Sometimes I’ll see something in reality that I’ll know I want to take into a different direction. But I tend to trust the unconscious desire. If you want to see something made, that means that both I want to see it and there are probably other people in the universe that want to see it as well. I tend to trust that intuition. I think that a certain segment of my work fits perfectly into this show. I’ve always blended what I see as masculine and feminine qualities, like a beautiful female form but she will be well-muscled or wearing a police uniform. And my male figures often tend to be softer featured.”
“This desire is all about trusting my instincts. I paint images that I feel strong desire towards. I want to see a beautiful and sexy woman with some kind of power marker. The typical fashion model who is emaciated with the far away stare, it repulses me. I’m more interested in a woman who is flexing her sense of power. Fashion is more about attitude or the idea of unattainability and superiority to you. And most men desire women with their fuller bodies, so maybe it’s like this unreality that people have detected in my work is actually more in line with the reality of what men are attracted to in female bodies. Who isn’t attracted to a powerful woman? It’s a more interesting ideal of form to me. Powerful in a physical way and a mental way.”
Brooklyn-based painter Loie Hollowell deals in abstractions of the human female body. She portrays the heightened energy surrounding both pain and pleasure, and often uses her own vagina and its interaction with her husband’s penis as the source material for her vibrant, near-psychedelic bodily abstractions. Hollowell uses painting to portray the shapes, forms and colors of human and female arousal and discomfort. Inspired equally by the lush painting of Georgia O’Keefe and the crudely, proudly feminist comedy of Amy Schumer and “Broad City,“ Hollowell has seen an unprecedented rise into the art market, from her first solo exhibition held last year at New York’s alternative space Mesler/Feuer (now Marinaro) to representation by PACE, the gallery that handles archives of iconic artists like David Hockney and Julian Schnabel. It’s evident her work is tapping into both contemporary political discourse, particularly relating to gender, as well as the purposes of abstraction within contemporary painting. In addition to her work being featured in “Engender,” Hollowell was also the subject of a solo exhibition at PACE’s Palo Alto space earlier this year.
“‘Engender’ is super necessary right now in the political arena. It’s much more interesting to be a part of a gendered conversation than an all women’s show. My work deals with gender in that I mainly look to mine own body for content and context. All of the work comes from my body and my cis-gender, heterosexual relationship with my husband. So, there’s one penis and one vagina, and a very personal relationship to the forms that are being abstracted. There is no over-arching conceptualization. A simple act is seen, and then cartooned (the traditional Renaissance idea of cartooning), and then translated into the drawings, and then abstracted further into the paintings. I also made some paintings based on my sister’s pregnancy. The work is a visualization of extreme pain or extreme pleasure, and the cyclical nature of my body, the female body, that pertains to the women I know. I can speak to the visceral nature of it. Because my body and my partner’s body are being abstracted in such ways the viewer can enter the work on different levels. It can be a layered experience.”
“The overarching gendered context is maybe in line with the cultural need for women’s visceral experiences. We see that a lot in comedy and television, for example: ‘Broad City,’ and ‘2 Dope Queens.’ ‘Broad City’ girls are comedians dealing with being open and not entertaining patriarchal norms. They aren’t even engaging with it. ‘This is our life, you can enter how you want.’ There’s a way that comedy is dealing with pain right now. On the series ‘Fleabag,’ Phoebe Waller-Bridge is dealing with very dark trauma but she’s doing it in an open, expressive and dirty way. I feel like this work is offering alternatives to aggressive pussy-grabbers. There’s a space for this conversation with people who aren’t afraid of women’s bodies, like women and even gay men, who now have a voice and possibly make more money. These people are curating shows and museums, they are writing. These people don’t get offended by content that deals with blood or poop because it’s just a part of their lives. I don’t want to exclude straight or gay men or any men, I’m not trying to express a seventies feminist commentary. My parents are in California and they came to my show at PACE Palo Alto and it opened a whole can of worms. My father is a formalist painter and this gendered conversation that comes from the penetration into my vagina depicted in the work is a conversation that I’m very comfortable having. But him being a father, it’s just not something that he wants to think about. That conversation is not one he’s interested in having through painting. My dad’s not one of a kind, he represent the majority. In grad school, I was confronted with that as well. People couldn’t talk to me about the formal content of my work and the sexual and political content of the work. They’d try to direct it a certain way. My dad being a formalist has fortified my desire to really speak on behalf of myself and have work come from myself. If it’s coming from yourself, you always know how to defend it. I’ve always been attracted to strong, contrast heavy images. I love ethereal art deco posters with strong streams of light falling on some beautiful 1920s car, or seventies sci-fi posters. When I started creating my images and abstracting the body more, I needed some narrative tool to direct the movement. If the bodily shapes were to be minimized there had to be a path through them. So I used strong light and the forming of dark to light to express the pleasure that the forms are depicting. The light always comes out of the central place of pleasure. It radiates from the central source. It creates an internal sense of light. These are spaces made from my mind, so I light them internally.”
Brooklyn-based artist Natalie Frank makes paintings that depict human forms bathed in decadent color and captured in suggestive narratives and provocative poses. Dealing with themes of power, gender, identity, sexuality and identity, Frank’s grotesque figurations of the human form have been favorably compared to Francis Bacon and the artists cites painters like Velasquez, Goya, Gober and others as inspirations. In her paintings, Frank often references literature and folklore that women have lost ownership of. In one of her most prominent series, Frank used the unsanitized versions of Brothers Grimm fairy tales that had originally been orally handed to the Grimm’s Brothers by women, revealing how these tales were actually meant to tell stories of women’s experiences. In addition to her work being included in “Engender,” Frank is represented by Rhona Hoffman Gallery, where she had a solo show this year.
“The body and the idea of shifting identities and the ways in which really marginalized figures can reclaim power through these transformations of the body has been my work’s primary theme for a long time. The last show I had was with Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago. I went through all these dungeons in New York and photographed these Dominatrixes and their submissives. And I’ve been working with fairy tales. All of these fairy tales are actually handed down stories about women and about what women have endured through different time periods: forced marriage, rape, being attacked by animals, not being able to feed their children and having to eat their own. These parallels between this fictional world and the real world have always interested me. The first fairy tales I worked with were the un-sanitized versions of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I had learned that these stories became the Grimm tales because they, the Grimm brothers, would have women come to their home, tell them stories, and they would write them down. They changed them for poetics and put their names on them. The women got no credit. And eventually one of the Grimm’s sanitized them so they would have more mass appeal. And those versions are the ones that Disney has taken and perverted into the patriarchy. These fairy tales are a way for me to explore reclaiming these stories for women. My work is about authorship and who has the right to tell their own stories in art and literature.”
“For this show at Kohn Gallery, I photographed a friend of mine Tyler Ashley who works at New York Live Arts. He is a cross-dresser and a nightlife personality and a performer. I wanted to make a portrait of him that echoed a Madonna. He plays with binaries. He still defines as a man but flirts with feminine sexuality. Since I’ve been working with these fairy tales, it’s been about the lines that gender and sexuality can cross. In our last election, we saw this aggressive man full of bluster and assumed that that was how a macho man should act, while Hilary was this extremely qualified woman who was called all the horrible things that any ambitious woman is called.”
Brooklyn-based artist Nathaniel Mary Quinn is, at his essence, a portraitist. A few years ago, coming up on a hard deadline for an exhibition, Quinn painted the first thing that came to mind. Intuitively putting line and color to canvas, he realized that the distorted variations of facial features that emerged on the canvas was his brother Charles, who he had not talked to since he was abandoned by his family at the age of 14. Since then, Quinn has gained fast fame for his incredibly distinct portrait style in which he uses photographic source material to rebuild his human subjects from within. Though these paintings don’t look like his subjects, per sé, they are his subjects. In his paintings, humans are portrayed as melanges of multi-layered experiences and traumas. From far away, his paintings look like collage, which makes them all the more impressive when you walk up close and see the paint hardened and layered into and on top of one another. In addition to his work being included in Engender, Quinn is represented by Rhona Hoffman (where he had a solo show earlier this year), Almine Rech, and most recently Salon 94. Earlier in 2017, he had a breakout solo show at Half Gallery.
“I constantly blur the lines between femininity and masculinity in my work, challenging societal notions regarding traditional, perceived, and conditioned aspects within the context of gender. On the surface, the removal of the very demarcation between that which is male and that which is female holds a prominent place in my work. It is my contention that carrying both masculine and feminine traits is an essential aspect of humanity: there is no room for ambiguity on this matter. Gender roles are fluid. Considering the state of political affairs permeating our conversations today, it is explicitly clear that many years of policies, laws, and legislation will crumble underneath the weight of the colorful spectrum of humanity, being driven by the very mandate, on a molecular level, by which the marriage between masculinity and femininity has been eternally defined.”
“I aim to illustrate the complex spectrum of humanity to portray the essences of my subjects. The gender of the souls inside our bodies is, at least for me, unknown; however, I would argue that the souls in our physical bodies are defined by an energy that stretches beyond the limits of our imagination, and not as a result of our inability to understand such energy but due to our struggle with relinquishing ourselves from the grip of our collective ego. Our individual worlds are a reflection of what we perceive it to be, which is entirely different from embracing that which exists in the present moment. For example, a man finds a woman attractive. He really likes her. Considering the immovable fact that most men tend to perceive women as having “feminine” traits, one could argue that this particular man possess an attraction to her “feminine traits,” the very same traits that are oftentimes used to defend homophobic perspectives and belief-systems. Yet, gay men are attracted to ‘other men,’ which means that they are, in fact, attracted to “masculine traits.” It would appear that heterosexuality has embedded at its core a heightened sense of femininity; homosexuality, at its core, seems to highlight a pillar for masculinity. Is attraction driven by choice or by nature? Is it a product of free will or a product of the central nervous system?”