Thursday, February 3, 2011

Prairie Artsters: Closing the Gap*

Last week in Winnipeg amidst a deep freeze wintry weekend, The Winnipeg Art Gallery in partnership with Mentoring Artists For Women's Art (MAWA) presented Sculptural Vocabularies, Canada's first international symposium on women in sculpture. Presenters included 2009 Gershon Ishkowitz winner Shary Boyle, who's coming off a landmark year in her career with a major solo show touring across the country, internationally heralded Aganetha Dyck, whose art work with honey bees has been revolutionary, Rebecca Belmore, Canada's Venice Biennial representation in 2005 with a body of work that crosses over from performance to sculpture to video, among many more active artists working across North America and Europe.

Image credit: Shary Boyle, Scarecrow. 2010. Installation View at the AGO
The symposium drew visitors from across the country, with a strong contingent representing Winnipeg's consistently vibrant arts community. Well over a hundred individuals and delegates from artists, curators, writers and administrators registered and attended, and lively debates and conversations were held on the process, possibilities and potential of sculpture and public art. Through it all, it was a great weekend, but a part of me couldn't help but look around Muriel Richardson Auditorium every morning and wonder: why are there less than five men in the whole room?

Breaking that five down, at least one was the husband of an artist, one a volunteer, one a father of one of the organizers, and at least one was on the clock. What, if anything, about this extraordinary event kept the men at bay?

The symposium was about women in sculpture, but first and foremost, the symposium was about art. I can't imagine such a disparity was mere coincidence. It's not that women in sculpture is an entirely foreign concept, though the field has held a reputation of being a boys' club. The conference was a first of its kind for a reason, as women working in this realm have been far less recognized than women working in Two Dimensional and Performance. There is no clear reasoning, though over dinner with some conference delegates, theories swirled that a permanent feminist public art piece (aside from figurative legacy projects) could not exist as the intention behind public art in all its reinforcement of power and structure is antithetical to feminism.

It's been 40 years since the radical rise of politically engaged feminists in the art world. That era has been historicized as a story from the past, through exhibitions like WACK! and by thinkers who think we are now post-feminism in the creation and exhibition of contemporary art. But the numbers haven't changed. Artists who are women are still consistently receiving less exposure than their male peers in solo exhibitions in galleries and museums, across the mediums, even though enrollment by women in art schools has exponentially skyrocketed over four decades. While most artists I encounter do not relate to the label of "feminism," and admittedly that is a term I have wrestled with myself, the momentum of discourse continues on whether or not we personally identify with it.

You don't have to be a feminist to engage, enjoy or even like art made by women and you don't have to be a woman to engage, enjoy, like or dislike art made by women. But you have to see it to decide for yourself. Art, on some level, is still about communicating a human expression unheard through any other means, and it's amazingly disappointing to see the disregard we still have when it comes to hearing what we all have to say to each other.

*First published in Vue Weekly

1 comment:

Dave J. said...

Right. I would have attended this!
I would have wanted to listen to, see, or meet Wanda Koop, Bev Pike and Eleanor Bond, as well.