The Women in Our Life at Cheim & Read, New York

by Sascha Feldman, July 2011

Cheim & Read is celebrating their fifteenth anniversary with an exhibition that showcases the ten women artists on their roster. The show’s tender, familial title The Women in Our Life gives the playful impression that these artists have acted as maternal or sisterly influences on the tastes of John Cheim and Howard Read, who have represented and championed artists such as Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois since the early 1980s. The exhibition aims not only to spotlight exceptional artwork made by women, but to underscore the significance and strength of their careers in the contemporary art world. International museums and galleries often turn to gender as a curatorial theme, which can be both a noble gesture and a risk. A recent show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York entitled Modern Women brought artworks of numerous eras and mediums together. The principal curatorial threads that bound the work together were arguably flimsy: All of the pieces were created by women and they were all culled from the museum’s renowned collection. What makes Cheim & Read’s exhibition so successful is the stress placed on the ways in which these artists have deeply influenced each other across decades, movements and international borders. The installation pays close attention to subtle echoes of color and theme that weave the works together. Cheim & Read have carefully exposed these connections. When walking through the show, there is a tangible sense that the artists have been and continue to share and respond to collective artistic, emotional and political concerns.

In the first room of the exhibition, the viewer is immediately introduced to the colors and materials that have become inextricably linked to both feminine and feminist artworks: yarn, soft textiles, fleshy and bubblegum pinks, amorphous mounds of wax and marble. The chaotic and colorful embroidery of Ghada Amer’s Unfriending Camelia (2011) recalls the tightly wound strings woven into the canvases of Louise Fishman’s work, completed over thirty years prior. A sculpture dripping in molten beeswax by Lynda Benglis hangs behind Louise Bourgeois’s Nature Study No. 5 (1995), a strangely seductive collection of breast-like forms of pink marble encased in steel.

A commanding painting by Pat Steir hangs in conversation with an equally immense work by Joan Mitchell, an explosion of yellows and blues across four canvases. Mitchell’s bright yellows and Steir’s layered greens are mirrored in Alice Neel’s Marxist Girl (Irene Peslikis) (1972) that anchors the main room of the exhibition. Neel’s powerful painting is especially significant because it is the first figurative portrait of a woman that the viewer encounters and seems to act as the face or physical manifestation of both the female form and of the female artist. The gradients of yellow, purple and blue in Neel’s portrait anticipate and clearly have influenced the color sensibilities of Pat Steir, Louise Fishman and Joan Mitchell, whose surrounding canvases all have a distinct tonal relationship to Neel’s. On the floor in front of Neel’s portrait lies Lynda Benglis’s Jacks #3 (1998-9) a mound of threatening bristled forms of cast aluminum that sharply contrasts the feminine, painterly hues and textures that dominate the room.

The show plays up juxtapositions between light and dark, hard and soft as a way of demonstrating the myriad ways that women artists have produced work.  Benglis’s menacing, razor-edged sculpture feels overtly masculine in the gallery space, which aligns it with Jenny Holzer’s piece entitled The Living Series: Someone Wants to Cut a Hole in You… (1980-1982). On a simple enamel-on-metal sign, Holzer has written, “SOMEONE WANTS TO CUT A HOLE IN YOU AND FUCK YOU THROUGH IT, BUDDY.” “Buddy” is not usually a word used to describe women, or used from woman to woman. In the same way that Benglis re-appropriates materials and artistic processes that are traditionally understood to be masculine, Holzer adopts, displays and takes ownership of aggressive male language.

A large self-portrait by Chantal Joffe shows the dips and curves of the artist’s back, as she simultaneously turns toward and away from the viewer. She stands solidly in a state of undress—the way her blue underwear show through black stockings shows both vulnerability and defiance. Joffe’s self portrait is cleverly hung near a series of photographs by Diane Arbus, whose portraits of a transvestite, nudist couple and a cat-eyed woman caught off guard expose and question our understandings of sexuality and identity.

The Women in Our Life expertly highlights the individual talents and idiosyncrasies of each artist, while mapping a clear trajectory of how these women have influenced, anticipated and elevated one another. Though the pieces stand alone as significant and strong contemporary artworks, the show has a true feminine and feminist viewpoint that reminds the viewer of the artists’ tenacity and creativity within and in spite of a male dominated art history.

The Women in Our Life: A Fifteen Year Anniversary Exhibition
30 June—17 September 2011
Cheim & Read
547 West 25th Street, New York