Moving Beyond the Boy’s Club (with the help of two Lindas)

Almost two years ago Linda Nochlin passed away. Soon it will have been 50 years since she helped to birth the field of feminist art history with the publication of her ground-breaking essay. Introduced to her work through classes with Whitney Chadwick at San Francisco State University, Nochlin’s thinking and research broke open my world, revealing a language that felt like my mother tongue.

Dr. Nochlin is one of two Lindas on my mind because within the last couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure to see a few projects that feature the work of women artists. I wish the best response to this statement was, “so what?” or “who cares?” I wish I didn’t feel the need to highlight work solely because it was made by women. But a study recently released by artnet News concluded that only:

“11 percent of all museum acquisitions over the past decade have been of work by women.”

Frustrating and disappointing news, certainly, but not all that surprising, especially when, within the last year, the decision-making positions in museums have been found to remain mostly white and male. What does this mean, other than systemic change is slow? Of course it means more than that. It means that, 50 years after Nochlin’s essay demonstrated the power of critiquing institutional privilege, women are still dealing with the angry results of challenging institutional privilege. Adrian Piper responded to the artnet News article by pointing out the responsibility of the press:

It is remarkable that your report neglects to examine what is arguably the most significant factor of all in perpetuating the invisibility of art made by women. It says nothing about artnet News’s own role in protecting the status quo.

Women ride motorcycles, weld metal, lead bands, serve in public office, and write plays. Women make art, too, and their work needs to be supported and critiqued and celebrated.

Following are a few of the projects that I’ve seen lately.

10 Wisconsin Sculptors: Not Just A Boy’s Club is an exhibition currently on view at the UW-Milwaukee Union Art Gallery. Featuring artists working in Wisconsin–most with ties to UW-M, UW-Madison, or MIAD–the show is thoughtfully curated and beautifully installed.

Although only on view through October 11, 2109, the artists are all worthy of additional attention: Emily Belknap, Prithika Deivasigamani, Yevgeniya Kaganovich, Katie Martin Meurer, Nirmal Raja, Mary Roley, Jill Sebastian, Valaria Tatera, and Kristin Thielking and Lisa Beth Robinson.

Earlier this month, Marielle Allschwang & The Visitations performed Precession of a Day: The World of Mary Nohl, a work that was commissioned by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Milwaukee Film, Wisconsin Union Theater/UW Madison, and the Cedar Cultural Center. Celebrating the life and work of a legendary Wisconsin artist, the performance was a mix of music and video. Not presented as documentation, the imagery, words, and sound explored the artist’s vision as life-long inspiration. The project is accompanied by a gorgeous vinyl production with extensive notes (sadly my last turntable was dorm-room compatible and given away in the 1990s). One more performance is yet to be scheduled, it will happen in Minneapolis sometime this winter.

Another artist who takes inspiration from earlier works is Lauren Gunderson, a playwright whose 2017 The Book of Will was the only play by a woman presented at APT this season. Maybe this play was so powerful, or there were such riveting female protagonists in other plays on the schedule (A Doll’s House, for example), that other women playwrights weren’t considered? I don’t know the reason, but this is a spectacular work, performed in Spring Green by a deeply talented company.

(This play is about the first printing of the collected works of Shakespeare. The performance struck me intensely, not only because of my lifelong interest in these plays. In 2016 I had the opportunity to be part of the team that brought an actual First Folio to Wisconsin when the Folger Shakespeare Library organized a traveling exhibition. The book, and the play, captivated me. As I watched the actors on the stage, I recalled the first folio in its crate, in the gallery, in my hands. I installed one of the books that the actors talked about, that the play was written about, that is the legacy of that late-16th century playwright. Now three years after the exhibition, watching this play, I understand it in very different terms).

Another touchstone for me (and maybe for my generation?) is the music of a second, latina Linda: Linda Ronstadt. The documentary about the singer’s life that was just released reveled in her powerhouse voice, but also revealed the influence she wielded in the music industry of the 1970s. Despite a sexy, cute public persona, this is an artist who encouraged careers, supported other women artists, put up with harassment and verbal abuse, and ultimately performed and recorded the music that she wanted.

And that’s what Linda Nochlin was writing about: the ability of women to pursue their work, and the roadblocks that they have encountered throughout history. Ronstadt was singing and recording at the time that Nochlin was writing her essay. After almost 50 years, when we look back over the careers of these two Lindas, what can be considered “great?” To pursue your vision, to do your work, to receive recognition, to be inspirational.

Gracias, Lindas, we are in your debt.

Word & Image, Song & Story

Fun Home was on stage at the Forward Theater here in Madison during the fall. I was excited to see the play, and was curious to learn how this funny yet intense graphic novel about personal identity and unpacking familial mythology would translate into musical theater. How better to present a sensitive, heart-rending story about an artist figuring out who she is in relation to the loss of her father, than on a small stage, with a packed house and marvelous actors, and a musical score? It could be called genre-busting. But after seeing the play, having the chance to listen to some other old soundtrack chestnuts, and diving back into a few favorite graphic novels, I wonder if maybe musicals and comics have always been places for difficult stories. Loaded with drama and pain, yet punctuated with real joy, this play might just be the inevitable coming together of seemingly disparate artistic forms.

Musical theater is the natural home for wrenching heartbreak. I was reminded of this when, for reasons of nostalgia—or possibly in an attempt to distract me during a card game–I was recently subjected to not one, but two dramatic, emotional soundtracks: Camelot (original Broadway cast), and Les Miserables (original London cast). The distraction was perhaps effective (or it might have been just a lucky win for the kid), but the impact of this music persisted beyond the usual earworm.

Camelot
Camelot (1967)

Camelot. Wrenching heartbreak? Isn’t that just a silly 1960s Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave movie spectacle, with medieval hippies flitting about the English countryside/sound stage, playing at courtly ladies and knights? Sure, but at its heart, Camelot is a tragedy, a tale of the failure to contain evil, the devastating fall of a culture centered on love and joy. The play was based, of course, on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose story humanized its medieval characters in a consideration of political ambition, emotional devotion, and utopian yearnings. Toss in some dreamy love songs, armored masculine posturing, and conniving offspring, and you have one complicated story-telling apparatus. I could go on about the similar structure underlying Les Mis–love, faith, greed, revolution–but my experience of this play is too heavily skewed. My 20-year-old-self shed a lot of tears during the production I had the privilege of experiencing in London; I still can’t consider this play separate from my original context for it. 

Although musicals have always easily handled complex storytelling, Fun Home is not just another excellent example. Something else happens in this play when a graphic novel is incorporated into a stage experience. This isn’t just a play with actors telling a story. This is a play that shows an artist creating a work. When the adult Alison is on stage, watching the the scenes from her childhood and drawing what she sees, the play seamlessly melds two mediums: drawing and acting. While the story unfolds the audience sees the artist remembering and recording and creating. The stage presentation captures something that is so central in the structure of the novel: the act of drawing that not only frames the difficult narrative, but is it’s very telling. It is in the remembering and drawing where Alison finds her story. On stage, the art-making and the theater experiences are so cohesive, so neatly intertwined. What is accomplished in their close integration is a view into the experience of memory and creation. The activities involved in discovery, sense-making, and understanding are the very story that is presented in this play.

Other graphic novels have certainly handled complex and challenging stories. With visual elements emphasizing concepts that would be lost in pure text formats, the graphic novel is a powerful medium for difficult narratives. The images of water in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, the laughter and faces of the women in Marjane Satrapi’s books; the cityscapes in Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck or Jessica Abel’s La Perdida–these novels present personal narratives, visual and textual, some autobiographical, all beautifully drawn, hilarious, scary, fun, and heart-breaking.

But the form can also powerfully transform the presentation of technical material. In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss not only combines biography, history, and science education, she accomplishes this using a format that pays homage to the work of her subject, Marie Curie. By turning to drawings on cyanotypes, the work references the photographic exposure that was critical to the discovery of radiation. Its physical form is an important element in how the book is able to convey its story.

At UW-Madison, the cartoonist Lynda Barry is using drawing to explore the creative process with not only artists, but scientists. Her students have created the Applied Comics Kitchen, but there are also other efforts in visual science communication around Madison, such as JKX Comics.  It’s amazing, fascinating stuff. This is not just about images, these are explorations into different kinds of stories and story-telling.

lyndabarry_syllabus1

It is exciting to see compound productions like this–graphic novels and theater,  storytelling that is both visual and physical. The combination of text and image, music and communication, it’s an interdisciplinarity that is so powerful. I’m not talented enough to ever be as moving and charismatic as Karen Olivio and the two younger actresses I saw in the role of Alison, but few people ever really get to that level. I do, though, think about story-telling, about how to explore and better represent complex narratives. I’m not sure my answers will necessarily involve singing (actually, I am quite certain they will not), but there are so many other forms available. A wide-ranging consideration is an important place to start.

 

Fair Rosalind

Rosalind is always better when she is disguised as Ganymede. The recent closing night of APT’s production of As You Like It proved it once again as Melisa Pereyra’s ease and charm stretched all the way through the pouring rain to reach even the ushers seated in the last row.

I love this play. It is not the I die, you die, we all die experience of Hamlet or other of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Instead, this play has bad poetry plucked from trees; banter between fools, shepherds, and melancholy philosophers; beautiful language, songs, and famous lines; a cross-dressing heroine; and a convenient wrap-up at the end.

When Rosalind sheds her feminine garb and appears as Ganymede, she/he just has so much damn fun. Ganymede is all experiment and exploration. He tests and prods, feeling what is possible. He is the very force of creation; he is the edge, the gray area, the liminal place where inventiveness resides. But he is, at the same time, Rosalind. It is really she (in disguise) who is the explorer, the mad scientist, the inventor, the instigator. And I love her for it.

The Path
Carol Pylant, The Path (oil on aluminum)

As You Like It rests easily in works by the Wisconsin and Chicago-area painter, Carol Pylant. Her courtyards are so still, populated only occasionally by stray dogs or peacocks. The spaces are quiet, with stone flooring and archways, plastered walls, signs of age but of indeterminate, and thus suspended, time. But these spaces, so beautifully rendered in mind-boggling detail, open onto disparate landscapes of green forests and wooded paths, sunlight and trees, overgrown but inviting. Rosalind waits against the stone wall in the spare courtyard, but Ganymede runs off into the distant woods, his feet nimble among the roots and uneven paths.

Artigas Spring
Carol Pylant, Artigas Spring (oil on linen)

The boundary between the formal and the unkempt, the ordered and the wild, the confined and the free, is so clearly represented in this work but cannot be neatly comprehended. The paintings are unsettling because of this very disconnect: the spaces don’t match. The constructed courtyards that open to unstructured wilderness are too close, too accessible. In their very realism the paintings proclaim their place in the imaginary, as when the audience lets itself believe that Rosalind could ever be taken as Ganymede. The painting is its own referent; the play’s the thing.

Before the End
Carol Pylant, Before the End (oil on aluminum)

But sound is also the thing, especially when it’s Jason Moran playing piano at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. There’s piano, and then there are the sounds that Mr. Moran creates. The rumbling, so quiet at first, building slowly until it fills my head, forcing out any other thought, requiring, demanding, clear, sole focus on the sound itself. Sound that split the world of piano into two: what I had known before, and what I understood after. The former was the constructed world, the courtyard where Rosalind sits attired in her courtly manners, suspended in time, waiting. The latter is possibility: the overgrown, tangled woods where Ganymede freely uncovers love of all kinds.

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Jason Moran: Celebrating Willie Pickens & Muhal Richard Abrams. Logan Center Performance Hall, September 30, 2018.

Soothing balm for difficult days? Maybe, but the music, the paintings, and the play all embody the quintessential dichotomy of court and green world, the opposition between constrained manner and unfettered potential. Luckily for viewers and listeners, there is a space where characters shed expected behaviors and take on new identities, where music is released into sound, where buildings open into wilderness, offering up a celebration of creativity and imagination, the joy of discovery, the release of constraints, and the pleasure of making something new.

(Update: Carol Pylant’s work will be featured in an exhibition during spring 2019 at Gallery Victor Armendariz in Chicago. A publication, Carol Pylant: Portal Paintings, 2009-2019, will accompany the show, featuring essays by me and Buzz SpectorDetails will be shared about the catalogue and the exhibition as soon as they are available!).