Three Female Artists in NOLA

- - Art

by Jonathan Blaustein

Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. So they say. But what if Mars is the better planet? If so, isn’t it sexist to give Mars to the men? Shouldn’t women be from Mars, and men from Venus? That would be more equitable.

Of course I’m joking. I’ve been thinking about this, though, since mid-November, when I realized that I hadn’t reviewed a book by a female artist in a long time. It wasn’t conscious neglect. I’m fairly indiscriminate when I grab the books at photo-eye, and then choose to review those to which I truly respond.

I was disturbed by my lack of awareness, but not surprised by my preferences. Early on in my relationship with my wife, we realized that all of my music was made by men, and all of hers by women. One man’s Bruce Springsteen is another woman’s Ani DiFranco. (Then, thankfully. Now it’s Lilly Allen and Regina Spektor. Much better.)

Still, I wasn’t going to let the trend continue. I had Cara Phillips’ “Singular Beauty” in my book stack, and reviewed it straightaway. I thought it was a fascinating book, and said as much. It belonged in the column. In retrospect, was this a case of affirmative action, or a belated remedy to a problem resulting from carelessness?

Shortly thereafter, it came time to give photo-eye my best books of 2012, and again I had to temper a male-centric list. I could have left it as it was, but that seemed inappropriate. Is it controversial of me to admit this? Probably, but the alternative is less attractive. I’d rather be open, and let you choose to respect my stance, or take exception.

This blog, and my effort in it, has always been about radical honesty. I’m not trying to offend anybody. I take this platform seriously, and think it’s vital to show a diversity of perspectives in the things I cover. Furthermore, I only want to discuss projects that are interesting and provide value for your precious time. If these articles promote dialogue, so much the better.

Men and women are both part of the human species, but our structural bodies and body chemistries are different. We couldn’t possibly have the same experience navigating the world. As an artist, it’s socially acceptable for me to have a lot of “female” characteristics. I’m emotionally sensitive, like to talk, and ask a lot of questions. I can empathize, and appreciate taking baths. But I also like football, farting and cursing. I’m still a dude, albeit one with a healthy dose of estrogen.

With all that in mind, I was thrilled to see three exhibitions by three super-talented female artists while I was in New Orleans. On a Sunday, just after my reviews ended, I was walking quickly towards the Ogden Museum when I got a text to stop in at the¬†Contemporary Art Center. I was meant to meet my new friend Kathleen Robbins, so she could take me to see her show “Into the Flatland,” at the New Orleans Photo Alliance gallery. She asked me to change course, and there she was in the lobby, standing with a few women I didn’t know.

Kathleen told me she’d set up a little gallery tour, and would that be OK? I said no problem. Within a matter of minutes, my slow brain surmised that our companions were the artists featured in the shows were were to see. (And the three prize winners from photoNOLA 2011.) Sarah Cusimano Miles was exhibiting at the Martine Chaisson Gallery, two blocks away, and Priya Kambli had just wrapped an artist talk right there at the CAC. The last of my guides was photoNOLA chief Jennifer Shaw, whom I’d yet to meet.

Did I suspect a set-up? Of course. But I didn’t care either way. What a great opportunity, and it just dropped in my lap. I’d been thinking about how to include more female artists in my articles, and there they were. (Was it just like having brunch with Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda? No, not at all. Does my clich√© reference make me square? Probably.)

We went to see Sarah’s show first, in a shiny, beautiful white gallery space. The photographs were still life masterpieces: objects from the Anniston Museum of Natural History in Alabama, (where the artist lives,) combined with her own possessions. (Mostly food.)

The photographs looked like twisted visions from a Victorian Curiosity Shoppe. Lots of dark, rich browns and plenty of dead things. The photos were very sharp, as well as sumptuous. Sarah told us she thought female artists were more motivated by intuition than were men. The other women all agreed, heartily, and the best I could muster was, “I’m down with the ladies.” (Yes, that’s a direct quote.)

Sarah shared a bit about her insanely intricate process. Apparently, she wasn’t happy with the sharpness of her lens across a variety of focal planes, so she put together the tableaux in pieces, shot by shot, with as many as 200 photos per picture. (A few inches of focus at a time.) I think that much composting in Photoshop would drive me back to coffee. (Or cocaine.)

They were incredible photographs, for sure, but didn’t speak directly to my viscera. It made me wonder about the intersection of gender and taste. Is there a feminine aesthetic, relative to a masculine one? Furthermore, does the male view still predominate throughout the art and photo worlds? (Again, probably.) But most of the curators and photo editors I know are women. And given that women now outnumber men in college, and seem to have the upper hand in the economy of the future, (health care, education) at what point will the scales tilt?

I’m not suggesting that equal rights have been achieved. Women still earn less on average, and are hampered in career tracks when they take time out to have kids. But I know more than a few families in which the woman is the primary earner, including my own. The story is far more complicated than it used to be, thankfully, and progress is undeniable. (Let me also shout out Taryn Simon and Susan Worsham, two of my favorite photographers working today.)

Back in NOLA, we walked the two blocks back to the Contemporary Art Center, and I got to speak to Priya for a few minutes.
She told me she teaches in rural Missouri, having studied in Louisiana and Texas, so all three artists have Southern roots. (For fun, try saying “rural Missouri” five times fast.)

Her photographs, at the CAC, were installed against serene blue walls. She’s from India, originally, but has lived in the US for many years. The color scheme references her background, I’d guess, as it’s a powerful theme throughout the work on display.

The pictures were, for the most part, diptychs printed together. One panel would contain scenes from her family domestic life: little toys and household objects and constructed things. They were personal as well as sculptural. Very well seen. The other panel would typically be a historical-looking portrait of family members back in in India.

Beautiful work, beautiful show.

After a few minutes, we piled into a very small car to go see Kathleen’s exhibition. There was a class going in inside the multi-purpose space, so by the time we got in to see the show, it was nearing dark on my last night in town. I was exhausted and drained, and couldn’t spend more than four or five minutes with Kathleen’s pictures. My apologies.

These reeked of a bleak, wintry, poor South of which I know nothing. The artist is from Mississippi, and the photos were of her family, herself, and the area from whence she comes. Lots of broken down shacks and barren fields. (I recognized one image from Fraction Magazine, and realized that I had seen the work before.)

The pictures are lyrical and Romantic; about place and home and sad light. Were they feminine as well? I suppose so, but they clearly had some edge. I responded emotionally to this show, most of all, and could almost hear some dark blues music in my head. (Or Ry Cooder’s opening riff to “Paris, Texas.”)

Did it make me want to go to Mississippi? Not exactly. But these three shows did give me a lot to think about. They were a great reminder that looking at art made by people of different backgrounds (or genders) opens one’s mind. I’ll keep on trying to maintain the balance, in 2013, as it benefits us all.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

    • And be sure to visit “Heather’s” Aloha wedding photo site. “She” also posts under 3 other names and it’s always the same vapid cool and thanks for sharing. Just click on “her” name. Ugh.

  1. Interesting thoughts, Jonathan. The first time I hung the show that you saw, I looked at it and was surprised because I thought it looked masculine. It was a very strange reaction because I had never thought before about whether it was masculine or feminine, or how either gender would respond to it. I don’t usually think about the bias of one gender or the other when I look at work, but I may start now. Thanks for the article, and it was great hanging out with all of you on a warm December afternoon!