You’ve only got a few more days to catch Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, on display through January 9th at the Art Institute (http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/violence-and-virtue-artemisia-gentileschi-s-judith-slaying-holofernes). The painting is not to be missed, on its own merits, but its content coupled with Gentileschi’s biography also invites a broader discussion on artists who are also women. I’d like to think that this conversation is over, that the playing field is level and we can all just be artists regardless of what we’ve got under our underwear, but reminders to the contrary are all to common: this month marks the one year anniversary of George Baselitz’s unfortunate remark to Spiegel online that “women don’t paint very well.”
Of course pretty much everyone with a pulse derided Baselitz for his opinion, and Sarah Nardi wrote an excellent piece for the Chicago Reader pretty much excoriating Baselitz with a side-by-side comparison of his work with that of some female painters (http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2013/02/05/women-cant-paint-and-neither-can-georg-baselitz). Baselitz is old news by now, but it’s only a matter of time before someone else says something equally stupid in public, and we’ll have to have this conversation all over again. We could save ourselves a lot of trouble if everybody would just go and take a look at Judith, because it’s pretty much impossible to argue with.
One person I would really like to have had corner Baselitz in front of Gentileschi’s painting would have been Grace Hartigan, the late painter and director of the Hoffberger School of Painting when I was a graduate student there. Grace was a female painter in the male-dominated Abstract Expressionist scene, and she certainly held her own with the boys. Grace’s relationship with gender was a bit complicated; she once exhibited her work under the name George Hartigan. We asked her about it, but I never quite understood her reasons for doing that.
Hartigan once said something interesting about how for a long time she refused to participate in all-woman shows. Her reasoning was essentially that by participating in a show consisting entirely of women, she would have implied an acceptance that she couldn’t compete with her male counterparts. She seemed to have softened her views before her death in 2009; her work was included in an all-female exhibition curated by Leslie King Hammond which I saw in New York sometime between 2005-2007. I’ve curated an all-female show, myself, and I believe they can have value: for example, when the work has something in common other than the genetalia of its makers. Nevertheless, her argument has stuck in my memory.
While from time to time, a group show of female artists can present something drawn from a commonality of experience they share, or a common concern, it should by now be clear that women need no handicap to stand on their own as painters, or artists in any medium, in Chicago or anywhere else. While for most of history women have been treated like a “minority,” albeit one comprising 51% of the population, and I think John Lennon had something to say about this, in today’s Chicago art scene women are well-represented in just about any role there is to be played.
It doesn’t take any time at all to think of a female Chicago-based critic (Lori Waxman), gallerist (Linda Warren, Rhona Hoffman, Monique Meloche), or as we are all increasingly becoming, multi-role cultural facilitator (Michelle Grabner, Shannon Stratton, Claire Molek). Female artists, while I’m not going to do the math on what percentage of gallery rosters they form, certainly form at least half of my favorite artists in Chicago: Lauren Levato-Coyne, Jenny Kendler, and Deb Sokolow do amazing work; Noelle Mason, although she’s living and working in Florida now, cut her teeth in Chicago and still shows here.
If you’ve been to at least a couple of shows in Chicago in the past year, you’ve probably got your own favorite artists in mind, and odds are that more than a few are women. Some artists make work that isn’t particularly gendered; it could as easily have been made by a man as by a woman. In other cases, though, artists draw on their own gender, and the unique experiences that come with it. This is true of male artists as well as female. A recent example was Chicago painter Julia Haw’s “Pussy Power,” from last year. Artemesia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes” is another piece that draws its power from its creator’s gender. It is impossible to separate Gentileschi’s biography from the image, especially when one compares it with treatments of the same subject by male painters (most notably Caravaggio). Its presence in Chicago is a rare opportunity to see one of the most important and powerful works of the Seventeenth Century, and there is no excuse not to see it. Wind chill temperatures that feel like fifty degrees below zero come close, but bundle up and make it out to the Art Institute in the next couple of days to see it before it’s gone.