At 106th Street and Lexington in East Harlem, a block already vibrant with murals and other public art projects, a simple handwritten sign leads into Taller Boricua. Taller Boricua is an art collective founded in 1969, which became incorporated as an arts nonprofit the following year. Today, the organization hosts a range of artistic programs including exhibitions, performances, workspaces and educational outreach. It centers the perspectives of artists who have long been marginalized by the “dominant cultural gatekeepers” of the art world in New York City.
Taller Boricua’s most recent exhibition, just concluding its final week, meets this goal with a remarkably wide range of voices. The gallery is home to the New York Society of Women Artists’ centennial-celebration exhibition, called Evolution Revolution. Immediately upon entry, the space encourages independent exploration and contemplation, as the viewer must weave between three small and heavily-hung rooms, a wandering route that forms a triangle. The largest works anchor the corners of each room, and wait hidden on the other side of door frames. With each entrance, the viewer must whirl around to see what just protruded into their field of view from these corners.
This curatorial style can be read as a simile to the exhibition’s thematic questions: where have women historically been positioned, and how have women historically had to navigate the world? In its exhibition catalogue (linked below), Evolution Revolution shares its “quest for equality in a society in which the triumphs obtained today are constantly at risk of being lost tomorrow.” The show contains over 50 works all by women-identifying artists and poses the framing question:
“Are equalities earned once and for all, or will the continuous erosion of rights obtained require constant vigilance and fortification?”
The short answer to the former question is “no.” The latter question is a resounding “yes,” which shapes the spirit of the exhibition. This gathering of works does not stunt the ideas of progress and growth; instead, the paintings and sculptures, with their great activity and energy, insist that change will continue. While not easy to call “optimistic,” the exhibition is challenging and uplifting, introducing a range of media and methodology so that any person, female-identifying or otherwise, could find their own personal history in these winding rooms.
I was immediately fascinated by how well the abstract and expressionist works attack the exhibition’s central question. Abstract Expressionism appears in art history as a male-dominated movement, but increasingly, museums and galleries are correcting this mischaracterization. Evolution Revolution puts abstract paintings in side-by-side conversations with representational works, creating complex and relatable stories.
One such pairing is “Cave Wall Beginnings” by Kathy O’Keefe, a highly active, gestural series of white scratched lines, glowing with an end-of-day-blue underpainting. In the exhibition catalog, the artist speaks of a similar reparation of history, and the acknowledgement that women were the first artists, unrepresented in archaeology. In proximity to other artworks, these close set, rapidly-made lines recall other historical moments in which the female mind was quashed and relegated to the margins of society. They have a frantic, scrubbing quality, conjuring the gothic suburban archetype: the classic 1950s housewife. In this surreal world composed of lines, she might be washing dishes, mopping floors, or scraping away residues and stains. There is a violence to the line work, as it strips away and corrodes the canvas, again recalling the nature of household “women’s work.” She might be on her knees. She might be clawing for escape.
This narrative is strengthened by an adjacent work by Rose Deler: a thin and breathless corset rendered in white ink. The fine white lines of each piece give this pair a distinctive connection. Deler’s piece is most aptly titled “Domestic Violence.” She writes that to create this work, she rolled the corset garment through a printing press to create the lithograph, “subjecting [it] to the same pressure” as the wearer would have once experienced.
Other abstract works throughout the exhibition kept the momentum alive as I walked, adding to this narrative of “women’s work” and its cultural history. “The Heart of The Matter” by Karen L. Kirshner has a playful carnival of bright colors made with small marks, and “I Saw The Midnight Sun” by Susana Aldanondo appears like a dramatically-assembled bouquet of flowers. Both read as celebrations and joyful energy–again, this show is not a dirge to female suffering, but a forum of diverse female experience.
Still, with darker ideas of domestic violence lingering in my mind, I saw more than harmony in these works. In “The Heart of the Matter,” I imagined a vast scattering of messy fingerprints, food scraps, and children’s toys, perhaps encouraged by Anna Kuchell Rabinowitz’s crib and mobile installation, “It Takes Two Baby” by its side. In “I Saw The Midnight Sun,” the illustrative use of black gives a memento mori edge to the otherwise healthy hues. These works reinforce the central idea that women’s equality is an active fight, and women’s social subjugation has consequences. Each of these works relay a sense of urgency: urgency for the swift performance of our tasks, the messes we must clean up, and the chaos that we must perpetually organize.
Each of these works relay a sense of urgency: urgency for the swift performance of our tasks, the messes we must clean up, and the chaos that we must perpetually organize.
There is also a literal “sharpness” throughout the works in Evolution Revolution. The heat of metal and the bite of reflected light illuminate several sculptures, each of which further complicate this question of how to fortify agency and equality. In “St. Barbara – Patron Saint of Those Who Work With Explosives” by Natalie Giugni, the bright gold figure has a hard shine that reverberates through the room. The artist explains the legend of St. Barbara in the exhibition catalog: the patron saint’s own father locked her in a tower and ultimately beheaded her for the crime of educating herself. In the legend, St. Barbara’s father was struck by lightning in divine retribution. Even if not familiar with the story, the use of metal illustrates its highs and lows quite effectively. She may be frozen, imprisoned, and dominated by her metal casing as she was in her life. Also inescapable however, metal means strength; gold means triumph.
Another story in metal, Peggy Silverstein’s steel figure titled “Ms. Earlene Nobles” creates a compelling contrast between subject matter and material. Ms. Earlene wears a demur, relaxed expression, and a gentle pose, hands loosely clasped in front of her. Her blouse is a clean, polished silver, and her hair is a neat crown of springs. The artist writes that she hopes to depict Ms. Earlene “on Sunday in all her dignity, ready for Sunday Church.” There is great creativity, play, and affection in the artist’s rendering of a woman she knew personally. It is a work of pride and love.
There is something empowering about the way the slightly-oversized portrait of Earlene Nobles demands space in the room. The use of metal also seems to reference the hard-won nature of her strength and power. There is simply nothing like fabric rendered in metal; the two materials are easy antitheses, full of paradox when it comes to female agency. Ironically, that paradox can be articulated by the same snarky question asked of women in the world of fashion: is she wearing it or is it wearing her? In this portrait, perhaps both claims are true. Seeing the female body encased in steel will awaken sense memories for anyone who has ever worn a beaded gown, a fur coat, or even chandelier earrings. Throughout history, women’s garments have dragged them down with an overpowering gravity. Nonetheless, metal is armor. The women in Evolution Revolution are largely at war, and winning.
© Allison Green (9/16/22) — Special for FF2 Media®
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Although this excellent exhibit closed on 9/16, readers can still access a wide variety of online resources.
View the Exhibition Catalogue and Artist Statements:
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: “Ms. Earlene Nobles” by Peggy Silverstein.
First Photo: “Cave Wall Beginnings” by Kathy O’Keefe.
Second Photo: “Domestic Violence” by Rose Deler.
Third Photo: “St. Barbara – Patron Saint of Those Who Work With Explosives” by Natalie Giugni.
Bottom Photo: Author Allison Green at the Evolution Revolution exhibition.
All photos taken by Allison Green and used by FF2 with her permission. All Rights Reserved.