Is Gender Bias in Denver Arts in Transit — Or Fixed?
When I first read Ray Mark Rinaldi’s review of “The Transit of Venus” exhibition at RedLine, I was astonished at the biased perspective of this major voice for art in Denver. He labeled the show “the girliest art exhibit . . . ever seen in Colorado.” But, to be fair, his first sentence, “At the risk of offending women — all women, in general; thinking women, in particular . . .” warned me of the coming insult. Similarly, curator William Biety and the Front Range Women in the Visual Arts group alert visitors that this exhibition is about the psychology of the sexes, via a pink entry wall hung with artworks that are primarily blue, but made by women — an intentional effort by Biety, not mentioned by Rinaldi, to highlight that pink = feminine and blue = masculine. Why are we not beyond these gender labels in 2014, some 40 years after the Front Range Women came together to “pop the balls of sexism,” as Rinaldi stated? Why are the balls still so entrenched and overinflated?
According to Barbara Shark, a representational painter and member of the Front Range Women in the Visual Arts, “While things have changed somewhat for women, it’s not equality of any sort, and that’s true for all professions.” This statement, printed in the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, is valid.
In 2013, Gemma Rolls-Bentley, an independent curator, found in an audit that every artist in the top 100 auction sales in 2012 was a man. For nine years, art critic Jerry Saltz has taken New York’s Museum of Modern Art to task for its deplorable representation of women artists in its permanent collection of painting and sculpture on display. In 2004, less than 5 percent of the 415 works on view were by women; in 2013, under 8 percent of the 367 works on display were by women. An improvement, yes, but still unacceptable. And artist Micol Hebron, who has been collecting and posting gender data from the art world on her Facebook page for the past year, has found that gallery representation and art magazine ad features are 71% male and 29% female.
I did an informal survey of the top galleries in Denver by counting the artists listed on their websites. Robischon Gallery represents 71 men and 36 women. At David B. Smith Gallery the roster includes 12 men and 5 women. Plus Gallery shows the work of 25 men and 10 women. Even female gallery owners do not exhibit much better. Robin Rule’s gallery represented 11 men and 7 women at its closing. Walker Fine Art shows the work of 32 men and 20 women, while Goodwin Fine Art is almost balanced at 22 men and 21 women. Only Sandra Phillips Gallery represents more women than men — 18 to 12. Space Gallery is unequal, with 25 men to 17 women, and Gildar Gallery in 2013 showed the work of 23 men and only 12 women. Visions West features the work of 52 men and 44 women and William Havu, 32 men and 25 women. That’s a total of 317 “dudes,” as Rinaldi calls them in his review, and 215 “chicks.”
Yet there are good Colorado women artists out there.
But how about a look in hard light at the Denver Art Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art, where Rinaldi claims “female artists now have solid places on the schedules”? Last year DAM showed the work of these local artists: Rick Dula, Bruce Price and Laleh Mehran. Two males, one female. MCA Denver has done decidedly better with their local artist shows featuring a balance of genders, although their national and international offerings leaned 5 to 3, male to female.
One sentence in Rinaldi’s review underscores the conflict that he as a critic appears to feel with the appearance of this all-women show in his midst: “It’s an audacious festival of middle-aged, menopausal, hippie chick affirmation.” But in the next paragraph he states, “In fact, it’s feminist, serious, skilled and, at times, very good.” He concludes that the indulgence in “gal power . . . lets women be womanly, clichés and all.”
Let’s cut to the chase. This is an exhibit showcasing the Front Range Women in the Arts: women who came together when there was no female art faculty at CU Boulder, when women artists were still ridiculed by male students for not focusing on cooking dinner and raising children.
The quality of the art on view in this exhibition is wide-ranging, some good and some not. In this vein the only difference from another group show is that, yes, it’s populated by women only.
And Rinaldi hasn’t taken the time to view much art by women if a perusal of 30 of his online articles for The Denver Post is any indication. I counted 65 artists mentioned by name in visual art reviews and only nine times were the names female. Perhaps this is why Rinaldi suggests that “creamy lines” and “craft-making illusion” are feminine only; perhaps he ought to look back at Impressionism or Post-Impressionism for creaminess and glance again at the work of Bruce Price and its connection to craft-making. To view men’s art as technological and women’s as relational and introspective evidences a narrow world-view.
I actually see the clichés in this exhibition as being the claims to abstraction in tie-dyed canvases and overwrought celestial references. Rinaldi, who touches on the weakness in this exhibition, goes on to reference what he construes as women’s liberation to make work that references the domestic or the political and offers, “testosterone can be a barrier to rendering such intimacy.” The kind of intimacy seen in Margaretta Gilboy’s “Idyll,” a skillful painting of life observed.
But a couple entwined on the grass with a large black dog standing over them is not about domesticity or gender, and Vidie Lange’s stripper portraits are not about the panties. Bare breasts and cut-off faces are traditionally considered to be works of the male gaze upon a woman’s body; these are made by a woman commenting on female objectification. Barbara Shark’s “Cooking in Sayulita” features two men and one woman in a kitchen, preparing a meal; aren’t some of the best chefs in the world men?
The numbers and gender bias in visual art are also reflected in the critics jobs available. In Denver, Michael Paglia and Ray Mark Rinaldi are the only voices on traditional “legacy media” platforms. They both happen to be male. But even more than the numbers are the tired old perceptions that get floated around that women have solid places on the schedules at museums and “don’t have to mimic the work of men to have careers.”
I don’t like shows that are themed to take a socio-political stand — all female, all any race or culture that isn’t white and male — because the response is exactly the way that Rinaldi reacted to this exhibition. It’s girly, it’s female, it’s art by women about women’s issues. It shows that feminists have succeeded. Bullshit. We don’t have the ERA, we don’t have equal pay. The capitalist system favors men, in and out of the art world. The glass ceiling remains intact. Art is about human issues and perspectives and it need not be viewed through gender identity — but it is. And only when every gallery and museum has a more balanced roster, when the critics equally review exhibits by male and female artists without a sexist perspective, will the balls of sexism implode.