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Women take over SAM with two new dynamic exhibitions

  • Written by Deborah Stone
SAM The blue Room
Photo courtesy of SAM. Suzanne Valadon’s “The Blue Room”
Women artists are at the core of Seattle Art Museum’s new and exciting exhibitions: “Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris” and “Elles: SAM – Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists.”

The former is a fascinating survey of painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video and installation by visionary women artists from one of Europe’s most extensive collections of modern and contemporary art.

It is a groundbreaking exhibit that offers a memorable sensory experience, which challenges viewers’ assumptions about art of the past century.

Over 125 works of art created by 75 women artists during the time period of 1909 to 2007 are on display, revealing a history of 20th and 21st century art from a new and enlightening perspective.

Included in the exhibit are seminal pieces by such notable artists as Frida Kahlo, Diane Arbus, Sonia Delaunay, Louise Bourgeois, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, Sophie Calle, Gina Pane, Hanna Wilke and more.

Although other museums have organized exhibitions exploring female artists and feminism in recent years, “Elles” is distinctive in its broader historical scope.

This is due primarily to the Centre Pompidou’s vast and rich collection.

SAM’s curators were inspired by the Pompidou’s acclaimed “Elles” show back in 2009, which took over the museum’s galleries in Paris for a period of nearly two years.

From this milestone exhibition, co-curators Cecile Debray from the Pompidou and Marisa Sanchez of SAM selected pivotal works and created a unique collection to showcase in Seattle.

It’s the first time these pieces have travelled together as a collection and the exhibition’s specific focus on female artists brings attention to significant works of art that until now have not been on continual view to the public.

SAM is the only U.S. venue for the show. “Elles” is installed thematically and follows a very loose chronological order.

The exhibition begins by chronicling women’s art from the first half of the 20th century with galleries devoted to “The Early Avant-Garde,” “Surrealism,” “Paris in the 1920s and 1930s,” “Bauhaus” and “Paris/New York.”

Within these rooms, women artists who made important contributions to significant movements in Modernism are spotlighted while issues of sexuality, gender and identity are explored.

Suzanne Valadon’s “The Blue Room” for example, a painting from 1923, depicts a reclining female, sans corset, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.

Her appearance is clearly in conflict with Western conventional ideals of beauty and presents a radical rethinking of what it is to be a modern woman.

Women artists of this time used their art as a vehicle to grapple with their experiences and deal with the various obstacles they faced within society.

Their work shows a desire to move beyond conventional boundaries, explore self-limits and redefine identity.

Artists in the Surrealist group were involved in experimenting with images that freed the mind and defied logic by blurring the line between dream and reality.

Photographer Dora Maar used her pictures as psychological probes, while filmmaker Germaine Dulas dissected the psyche.

On display is Dulas’ avant-garde film, “La Coquille et le Clergyman,” an intriguing piece of work worthy of much examination.

Also of special note is Frida Kahlo’s “The Frame,” one of the most well-known of the artist’s self-portraits.

Interestingly, Kahlo, though regarded as a Surrealist by many in the art world, decried this distinction, claiming that she painted her own reality.

The exhibit moves forward into the Post World War II period with galleries identified by such themes as “Eccentric Abstraction,” Feminism and Critics of Power,” “The Activist Body,” “Muses Against the Museum” and “Figures of Speech.” Here, a flair for the dramatic takes center stage with works representing performance, activist and guerrilla art, among other styles.

In “Muses Against the Museum,” for example, artists express their criticism of some museums’ “holier-than-thou” positions and authoritative judgment of artists and their work.

Andrea Fraser’s “Museum Highlights,” a video performance where the artist assumes the persona of a straight-faced docent and tours an unsuspecting group through the museum while providing an-often amusing narration, is spot-on as a commentary on the notion of wealth and power within this environment.

An entire gallery is devoted to “The Body,” where photos and videos representing the female body —  its stereotypes and paradoxes regarding the cliché of ideal beauty as formulated and propagated by the media — are the focus.

Artists such as Marina Abramovic, Cindy Sherman, Valerie Belin and Rineke Dijkstra explore the ways in which beauty is reinforced and invented.

Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer, details the unsettling transitional beauty of an adolescent girl in “Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA.”

The photo is one of a celebrated series of full-figure shots in which swimsuit-clad preteens in all their awkward glory echo the stately poses of 17th century Dutch figure painting.

Belin’s “Untitled” photo from the series “Mannequins” is another notable piece that captures a picture-perfect face that is seemingly real, but which in fact is an image of a stylized mannequin.

Individual narratives are the subject of the “Narrations” gallery, where contemporary artists such as Annette Messager and Nan Goldin draw upon their personal experiences and bring their stories to viewers via a combination of language and images.

Messager uses this technique to disturbing ends in installations such as “The Borders,” where she challenges conventional definitions of art and deals with issues of abuse, sin and obsession using “female” materials and techniques such as knitting and embroidery.

Language is at the heart of the artistic process in “Figures of Speech,” the final gallery in the exhibit.

Barbara Kruger’s work, “Untitled (What Big Muscles You Have!),” uses words as the principal medium, which translate into provocative images.

To enhance this dynamic and thought-provoking show, SAM transformed its own modern and contemporary galleries to highlight the accomplishments of women artists whose work is not explored in greater depth in the Pompidou’s exhibition.

“Elles: SAM – Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists” includes more than 130 works of art from the museum’s collection and notable private collections.

This international survey of painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video and installation features 75 pioneering women artists including Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, Georgia O’Keeffe, Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke-White, Jo Baer, Louise Bourgeois, Victoria Haven, Jenny Holzer and Adrian Piper.

There’s much to see and digest in this complementing exhibit and visitors will be surprised at seeing works they are familiar with in an entirely different perspective.

Of special significance is the sub-exhibition, “Yayoi Kusama: A Total Vision,” which marks the first-ever Seattle museum show of the works of this “art-world superstar.”

Kusama, a largely self-taught Japanese artist, creates a mesmerizing visual universe with her stunning installations that are both exhilarating and disconcerting at the same time.

In conjunction with the “Elles” exhibitions, there will be more than 50 performances and events held at partner organizations throughout the region. This is in addition to the nearly 40 educational and social programs that SAM is hosting at the downtown museum, Olympic Sculpture Park and Seattle Asian Art Museum.


“Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris” runs through January 13, 2013.
“Elles: SAM – Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists” runs through February 17, 2013. For exhibition and related special events information, visit: www.seattleartmuseum.org

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