LADYLIKE: A Proper Take on Feminist Art

Curated by Joanne Hinkel
Koscielak Gallery
On view through July 30th

How “proper”  for an exhibition to ironically regard itself as a purveyor of manners!  For those disenchanted with Feminism, they express the same disapproval towards manners, embodied in texts by Dear Abby, or even Betty Crocker cookbooks. But this disregard is at the same time an embrace in Hinkel’s well-crafted Ladylike.

Today, no such thing as Feminism exists. Feminism, whatever it may be, did exist at one time, although now it is just one node within a plurality of Feminist-type discourse. The duty of major retrospectives over the past few years, including WACK! and Global Feminisms, has been to dispel with the historicization of a myopic genre and present multiple versions of Feminism that co-exist with one other. But it’s not just about genealogy. Feminist discourse produces a structure that allows for a discussion about systems of difference, and away from the female body. Many of the works in Ladylike lack reference to any essentialized version of Feminism and instead construct systems that explain how their images work.

Paintings by Lorainne Peltz, an artist represented by the Koscielak Gallery and an adjunct professor at SAIC, recall simple doodles scrawled in elementary school notebooks. These images of children’s drawings, such as representations of daisies and speech bubbles, are also a reminder of their own instability and structural variance. For example, the images in Juicy Peaches and Afternoon Delight lack a figure-ground relationship, and as such, they appear volatile as they float, almost about to drift off the canvas.

Sally Ko’s two untitled paintings also share an insistence towards a fragile, yet undidactic organizing structure. The paintings have been described as microsopic slices of organisms at a cellular level, and I concur, but I think that they also recall how anything can be turned into the baroque decoration through repetition. The thick, glossy sheen also provides decoration, yet is a formal recognition of its function as surface to be seen through.

The artwork most closely associated with the exhibition is Jessica Hannah’s performance/installation, Red Phone Showroom No. 6, due to its reproduction in various press and web images for Ladylike. It stands alone in its obstinate stance against the type of Feminism that can be found in the other works. Responding to the exhibition’s motif of Feminism as a site beyond the female body, Showroom No. 6 parodies a 1950s Suburban utopia, filled with American-made cars as long as boats, bobs flipped out at their ends, and rotary telephones.

For this installation, I picked up a phone in front of a mannequin dressed like a Stepford Wife, one of three situated in the gallery as if they were in a window display. I shuffled backwards when I realized that the mannequin was moving. It was a human and she was moving like a robot. The female body as a locus for parody was on display in Showroom No. 6 as a middle-class, suburban woman become commodity, but this time, she throws your stare back at you. Unfortunately, she has nothing to say, but why should she when the installation is already so heavy-handed in its symbolism?

Buffy Summers #2 from Stacia Yeapanis’ ongoing cross-stitch series Everybody Hurts made at least its second appearance on the Chicago gallery circuit, having appeared at Henbane: Dialectics of the Feminine Sublime in April. Without the title, the indexical nature of the knitted image is indeterminate as to whether the female face in intense pain is either Sarah Michelle Gellar or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or an image that wavers between both. Although the image’s source remains potentially indeterminate, the maudlin text inscribed underneath, “It seems like the birds shouldn’t be singing anymore, but they are,” points toward the image’s deceptive function. The clichéd sound of the text resonates with the image and emphasizes both the image and the text’s unoriginal articulation of emotion. This contradiction of the image as a bearer of transcendent meaning denies it of any expressive power a viewer may choose to invest in it.

A structure, or framework: this is what Feminism looks like in Joanne Hinkel’s curational debut. In the few cases in this exhibition where it refers to the female body and the context surrounding it as its critique, it takes on a dated posture of essentialism. But in general, it’s not necessarily about women or gender—and that’s what makes this exhibition so persuasive and relevant.

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