The gallery space is small and the name is very long — the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library at Rutgers University — but the exhibits have a large impact. Now the Feminist Art Project (TFAP) is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in the space with TFAP@TEN, on view through Friday, April 8, featuring the work of six artists.
Walking into the gallery at the right of the main entry, where Anonda Bell’s “Apiphobia (Biophobia Series)” is on display, we are reminded that there are many ways of seeing. A silhouetted female figure is surrounded by flying things, with the lightness of butterflies or sprites. But these winged creatures are bees, which may evoke fear of the sting, or compassion for the imperiled honeybee. The silhouetted woman, an earth mother, seems to be a divine spirit, summoning them. Up close, we see the bees are paper cutouts painted in numerous patterns of yellow and black. No two patterns repeat. Though cut from the same “cloth,” each creature the earth mother welcomes is unique.
The earth mother herself, on closer inspection, seems to embody nature — there are patterns of tree branches and honeycombs in her darkened form. And then there’s the title of the artwork itself, suggesting fear of bees — surprising, since this figure appears to be in harmony with the honey makers.
The artist, we learn, is interested in human psychology and motivation. Perhaps the best way to overcome a fear of bees is to embrace them. And for an artist, certainly, to find the beauty in the patterns and colors that comprise these pollinators.
Bell, an Australian-born artist who earned a master’s in fine arts at Monash University, Melbourne, in 2007, is also the director of the Paul Robeson Galleries at Rutgers-Newark. Biophobia, says the artist, “is a seemingly inevitable consequence of growing up in an urban environment where our interactions with nature may be limited to incidental encounters, strictly mediated and moderated by the perspective of urban planners.”
Highlighting the distressed relationship between humans and the natural world, says Midori Yoshimoto in an essay for the TFAP@TEN catalog, “‘Apiphobia,’ in particular, was partly inspired by the freak-show demonstration of ‘bee bearding’ as well as certain bee-based horror movies, such as ‘Swarm’ and ‘Killer Bees,’ both of which reference the literature of Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ and Roald Dahl’s ‘Royal Jelly.’” Yoshimoto was regional coordinator of TFAP New Jersey chapter from 2006 to 2009 and is an associate professor of art history and gallery director at New Jersey City University.
On an adjacent wall, works by Jaz Graf embrace nature. “Night Soldier” is a moth whose beautiful feathers look like the dress of a fairy. The long proboscis of a hummingbird leads the rest of its being in “Gaze.” “Dendrochi” looks like leaves folding inward as they lose the moisture that keeps them alive.
Graf’s father, fascinated by hummingbirds, would watch them for hours. “By drawing the object of his gaze, the artist hoped to get closer to her father, whose health was her concern at that time,” says Yoshimoto. “The intensive working process became a way to work through her emotions toward her father and think about the meaning of silence in their relationship.”
Also in this gallery are the tree branch-like works wrapped in bandage and held together, as if nature could be bound by Johnson & Johnson’s sterile white gauze. Another work, on the ground, is also bound in white bandage, which contrasts with the beauty of a rusty iron chain, its bronze the color of some people’s skin. Adrienne Wheeler’s work addresses the injustices women and children face, with references to Central and West African ancestral, spiritual, and cultural conditions. The artist notes how these traditions are often misunderstood and demonized, and stand as “tools of resistance against the inhumanity of slavery and other forms of oppression.”
Wheeler’s “Lembranca/Memory” series “was partly inspired by the Bakongo healing rituals of binding or wrapping bundles … and stands as a symbol of resistance against the inhumanity of slavery and other forms of oppression,” says Yoshimoto.
In the anteroom of the gallery on the left is an installation by Babs Reingold, like a stage set within a stage set. It starts with a graphite on paper, “Study for Linda Window: Ladder No. 6.” This framed work on the wall is intriguing of itself, depicting a room in which some kind of platform is suspended and a ladder, bent and flowing, penetrates it, almost like a tree with roots in the ground. On the floor is a strange-looking animal, keeled over, not far from an overturned basket, from which perhaps he imbibed too much. It is dream-like, for sure.
And yet, according to its title, it is only a “study” — we see the rounded page corners on the right and the straight edge on the left where it was torn from a sketchbook. Three dates at the lower left indicate the three days in 2009 on which it was created.
Now, step back, and you are within that very room in the study. Variations have occurred. The suspended platform is now two windows on the wall, and the ladder — now a twin set of rungs — pierces the broken glass. Made of a felted wool, the hairy ladder has veins and tendrils, as if it is a living thing, or the remains of a living thing. Human hair seems to grow out of it. The ladder alone is fascinating, in how it combines traditional women’s craft (sewing, felting) with conceptual art.
And what about that keeled over creature? It, too, has been transformed. No spoiler here — you’ll have to go and see it. (Hint: it lies on a spotted pillow.)
The hair Reingold uses in her work comes from anonymous donors, combining individual DNA to mimic the diversity of societies. There is a push-pull, according to exhibition materials, “beauty in one setting and disgust in another.” She wants the viewer to be simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the work, like hair, which is beautiful when flowing from a head but ugly when in a clump on the shower floor.
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, and presently dividing her time between Bayonne, New Jersey, and St. Petersburg, Florida, Reingold is known for creating alternate ambiguities as they relate to the environment, poverty, and beauty, drawing on her early experiences of hardship. The domestic objects and natural materials she uses, such as clotheslines, threads, human hair, animal skins, rust, and tea staining, help to convey this. One work (not in this show), “Hung Out to Dry No. 4,” is made with encaustic, hair, silk organza, stockings, rust, tea, a door plate, door knob, cheesecloth, thread, clothesline, and clothespins. The clothesline, a recurring theme, is a symbol of poverty, she says.
Growing up in Ohio — where her father, the owner of an industrial sewing machine business and a photographer who sold work to National Geographic — she loved watching him in the darkroom, seeing the image emerge on the paper. But he developed multiple sclerosis, and her mother was unable to cope. Living in a public housing complex, the family endured the effects of poverty — high crime, inadequate housing, lack of access to basic social services.
Reingold escaped the cycle, earning a scholarship toward a bachelor’s degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and subsequently a teaching assistantship toward a master’s of fine art degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo. After graduation she worked in advertising to support her mother.
The “Luna” in the title of Reingold’s works here refers to Luna Park, the magnificent amusement park in early 20th century Coney Island, a subject for many artists, that burned in a fire and was replaced by a housing project. Having grown up in a housing project, Reingold has sad memories of broken windows and rickety ladders that, covered with dust, dirt, and mold, revert to earthlike structures with roots.
Back to the idea of the line and the hand of the artist, Nancy Cohen works in glass, yet her shapes are all about line. Using wire and fiber, her glass and resin follow the line, adding to our vocabulary of shape. There are things that look like melted bottles, bottles split in half and adhered to wedges cut from a ball, miniature milk bottles, and glass circles reminiscent of an optometrist’s tools. It is like a museum of vintage glass has been transmogrified, with scalloped glass ashtrays that may have held center stage in the conference room in the 1950s. Wire forms shapes as if in cloth, but red bubbles are proof that this “cloth” is glass.
So Yoon Lym is perhaps best known for her detailed, photorealistic drawings of corn row patterns on African-American scalps. Based on photos she has made of students and strangers in Paterson, where she lives, the works have been exhibited in the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, among other places.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, she spent her early childhood in Kenya and Uganda before moving to New Jersey at age 7. As a teenager Lym moved to Normandy, France, to study under exiled Korean painter Ung No Lee, who had a major influence on her.
Here we follow the evolution of her line, first with three works in acrylic that follow the patterns of brains on the backs of heads. In one with a thick neck, the braids rise above the head, ending in wisps. In the other two the corn rows flow down the back of the neck, yet every hair pattern is different — they may cross over each other or spiral out from the center like a nautilus.
From 2011 Lym did a series of monotypes, “Bloodlines,” suggestive of her own mixed bloodlines. These, too, are like handwriting with no words, an alphabet of no language, yet communicate in profound ways. At a time when most of our writing is done using a keyboard, Lym pays homage to the dying art of handwriting.
“It is, in part, an anthropological study of Paterson,” says Yoshimoto. The artist sees her home of more than a decade as “a city of nomad refugees” like herself. “Intertwining wavy lines of white, pink, and red suggest the complex passages of immigrants as well as their intermixed bloodlines and DNA strands.”
In 2012 Lym moved on to her Modern Love series with “Love Letters.” Done with white ink on black paper — the reverse of the monochrome in the hair drawings — they are like handwriting without words, forming shapes and patterns, also suggestive of tresses yet more abstract. They seem to invent their own alphabet of repetitions and also suggest African masks and aboriginal art.
“The wide range of the subject matter, materials, and techniques employed in these artworks demonstrate a striking multiplicity of expression within feminist artistic practice today,” says Yoshimoto. “Their out-of-the-box approach, both in terms of concept and execution, transport the viewer into new worlds and inspire us to think a little more deeply about the world around us and within us.”
The Feminist Art Project is an international collaborative initiative advancing the aesthetic and intellectual contributions of women in the visual arts, say the organization’s promotional materials. The director is West Windsor resident Connie Tell, who curated TFAP@TEN. With a searchable calendar of more than 3,000 feminist art exhibitions, conferences, artist talks and lectures, publications, and much more, TFAP has become a hub of information on feminist art, with 55 regional coordinators throughout the world.
The Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series Galleries are located in the Mabel Smith Douglass Library (8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick). Gallery hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. feministartproject.rutgers.edu.