The show Beyond Appearances - Women Looking at Women is an exploration into feminine narratives and brings into dialogue recent works by Mona Kuhn, Alex McQuilkin, Regina Parra, and Marianna Rothen.
Including video, painting, photography, and installation, the exhibited artworks explore their ongoing research into the female gaze and question, more specifically, the relationship between outer image and inner character.
In 1975, the film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the notion of the male gaze in her essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which depicts the world from the narrow, masculine, heterosexual perspective prevailing in the Hollywood film industry at this time. This notion has since expanded in the following decades to decry and, more broady, the domination of patriarchal values in Western societies in which women are too often objectified. Within these values, women are not judged on their abilities but reduced to specific qualities and physical criteria of appearance, both in relation to their representation in our visual media environment and in everyday social interactions. Though the sociocultural impact of such marketing imagery has been loudly denounced in the last decade, our mainstream media environment is still marked by an emphasis on physical beauty and sexual appeal to others. In todays social media-dominated world, not only is our visual experience biased by this still prevailing reductive imagery but our identities have been forged by these gendering representations, which affect how women feel about themselves, how they are perceived, and how they interact with others.
The female gaze in opposition is a ubiquitous term used in recent years to describe a movement that attempts to disestablish this omnipresent male perspective and to move towards portrayals and narratives that are more authentic, diverse, and empowering. In the arts, in particular, it addresses actual changes in society by forging new female perspectives and cementing the way women control their own identity.
To that extent, the exhibition is an invitation to question cultural assumptions of gender representation and to explore societal perceptions of female identity. Foregrounding womens narratives in their artistic practices, the artists in the show set a clear distance to patriarchal repertoire. They present works that oscillate between personal, cultural, and collective identity, shedding light on differences, nuance, and interiority.
Mona Kuhns series Bushes & Succulents is a celebration of the female essence - confident, raw and elegant, yet confrontational and unapologetic, which she defines as her artistic response to the ongoing currents in contemporary feminism. Reminiscent of Georgia OKeefes floral paintings, your eyes wander around the graceful lines, not knowing exactly what you are looking at. The solarization process reveals human imperfections, not only in the metallic brilliance of the skin, but also brings to the surface a womans struggles, strengths, and power. The installation Botanicals combines a selection of vellum photographs placed on adjacent walls. As the artist stated: My intention is not to objectify the body but to celebrate the female body and its essence. The installation is accompanied by a sound piece created in collaboration with composer Boris Salchow, featuring the voice of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks reading her 1959 poem We Real Cool.
Alex McQuilkins work revolves around the nature of stories, both fiction and nonfiction, and the faith that we place in them. Her two-channel video Dark Spring is named after German artist Unica Zürns autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Inspired by the books final scene in which the protagonist fantasizes about her own suicide and then eventually enacts it, McQuilkin critiques issues of representation such as the aestheticization of female suffering. The camera alternates between wide-angle objective and tight point-of-view shots as the young female protagonists voice struggles, humorously at points and tragically at others, against that of an imposed male narration. Untitled (Escape Route), a 17-foot rope created with the artists hair shorn during the filming of her video Joan of Arc is a manifestation of the partial loss of ones self, which also echoes her investigation into how stories are relayed and connoted, in this case as a remembrance of a fairy tale.
Regina Parras current research focuses on the social body of women as a place of affirmation and potential power. In her recent work, Parra investigates the concept of vulnerability as a character trait associated with womena condition of weakness, dependency, passivity, and powerlessness. Using female characters in plays written by men as a starting point, she reappropriates their narratives by looking into her own body and asking herself: Is it possible to use the female body to challenge social stereotypes of representations? How could we reimagine the female body and its possibilities? Can we take control and embody our own vulnerability, understanding it as a source of strength and not weakness? Based on the character of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, a sense of empowerment is discernible in her new series Blanche. Her paintings seem to record a lapse in time as if the original narrative was suspended. By empathizing with Blanches story, the artist avoids the written tragedy by offering a potential alternative. A dialogue between past and present ensues, intertwining fiction and reality within a contemporary discourse.
Marianna Rothen explores conventional conceptions of female beauty and gender politics using a mix of traditional photographic processes and digital media. In her video Mail Order, the female protagonist imagines her ideal man by staging herself next to mannequins and playing humorously with a series of stereotypes and clichés around womanhood. As a response, her photographic series Making it Real attempts to flip the dynamic by giving these inanimate objects a dominating posture while the female figure remains enigmatic and silent in the background. Accompanied by extracts of the artists diary, this new series is a reflection on heteronormative ideals and social psychological construct that influence idealized conceptions of romantic relationships during adolescence. Furthermore, it echoes the theory of Compulsory Heterosexuality, popularized by Adrienne Rich, in which heterosexuality is socially promoted as the natural state of both sexes in a male-dominated society, regardless of the individuals sexual orientation.