MIAMI — The exhibition of over 100 women artists currently on view at the Rubell Family Collection is difficult to review because the works do not all fit into the space and the decision was made to rotate them over the course of the show. The plan is to gradually replace some works with others, but because there doesn’t appear to be any overriding theme — apart from the fact that the creators are all women — I’m not sure how one might emerge by switching some pieces in the collection with others. One applauds the decision to create greater visibility for women, yet one also wonders if several discrete, thematically curated shows might have allowed the individual women to look stronger.
Walking through the exhibition, titled No Man’s Land, poses a conundrum: what does it mean for women to be brought late to the table? In other words, even if some of the women here were working alongside the men of their generation, what does it mean if they are considered more seriously only in retrospect, rather than at the same time as the men? I think this question will come up over and over again with the proliferation of all-women shows on the horizon. While these attempts at redress are hugely important, they raise serious questions. And these questions press more heavily on women working in traditional media, e.g. sculpture, drawing, and painting, than on those women who mined photography, video, and digital media.
When I entered the foundation I saw a work made of neon directly in front of me that could be the work of numerous male artists I’m already familiar with. This work encapsulates the problem. The introductory wall label tells us that the Rubells seek out pieces that relate to what they’ve previously purchased for the collection, creating a dialogue between new acquisitions and old. This is, of course, totally sensible — they collect what they like and want to have a collection that speaks as a whole. But when women only become visible long after the men they worked alongside, the women inevitably look derivative, whether this assessment has any merit or not.
The Rubells did not create this problem. In fact, at least in some cases, the Rubells made their acquisitions at the time the works were made, though others were purchased later, once the women had more legitimation in the marketplace. With the current surge of rediscovery, some important women who were excised from history and then dropped back in at a future date (which is certainly better than nothing) now find themselves victims of that history. In many cases here, they weren’t entirely excluded when they were working; they just received much less attention than their male peers. Thus the understanding of the history they were a part of was shaped by their absence from the dialogue, and the men were believed to be the ones making the discoveries and blazing the trails. It’s hard to gauge, in retrospect, the real influence these women had in the moment. No matter how carefully they’re reinserted into the narrative, one struggles to go back in one’s mind and reimagine it. That’s why it’s so difficult to understand the shock of Piet Mondrian in front of a Jackson Pollock painting — we now take Pollock’s achievement for granted.
The women who work in newer media fare significantly better because many of them saw that little room would be made for them in the pursuit of painting and sculpture. Spurred on by the feminist critique of film and the Marxist critique of advertising and consumer culture, they set out to work in areas with shorter histories that were not already overdetermined by men.
Two large rooms near the entrance of the Rubell Foundation are given over to the sculptural installation work of Solange Pessoa. I have no way to know, without serious research, how an artist like Pessoa, born in 1961 in Brazil, fits into the context and development of the art scene there — if she is involved in pedagogy, how her work has influenced younger artists or possible students, how her work is situated in relation to that of her male peers. One surmises that she is important given how much room her work has been accorded in this show. In the context of Miami, however, the installations feel vaguely like other things I have seen before. One room features a body of sculptural works made from suspended sacks covered in clay, accompanied by a suite of drawings. In the other room is a work titled “Catedral” (1990–2003), made of suspended strips of dark, felt-like fabric and a set of sacks, or masks, from the same material. The most interesting part of the installation is a video playing on an iPad that depicts a group of horses in a field with the sacks from “Catedral” masking their faces and the long strips trailing behind and between them. Activated as a performance among the horses, the work is transformed into a bizarre living sculpture.
Sonia Gomes, born in 1948 and also from Brazil, is represented by a room of sculptures completed in 2015 that are, for the most part, married to the walls. They have a discrete charm while referring to the works of other women artists already better known to American audiences, such as Senga Nengudi. It’s hard to know if Gomes is consciously referring to Nengudi or others, but at least the precedents seem to be women.
And then there is Cady Noland’s installation “This Piece Has No Title Yet,” from 1989. Comprised of beer cans, flags, steel scaffolding, and paint, it stands apart from everything else, contained in its own room. Her work always feels specific and completely hers. It also seems out of place somehow — hard to situate in the context of what surrounds it. I remember seeing this installation two years ago at the Rubell Collection in the same space, and indeed, it is permanently installed there; the rest of the exhibition was, effectively, built around it.
For the most part, the painting in the show falls into what might be loosely categorized as expressionist in type and feels overly familiar. There are exceptions, among them the paintings of Celia Paul, born in Trivandrum, India, and working in London. All of her pieces are nearly monochromatic and modest in scale, and all but one is a portrait; one senses immediately, before checking the wall labels, that several are self-portraits. They convey authenticity and careful observation, attributable to the paint handling and an ability to represent subtle facial expression.
In a room with many other works around it, Cecily Brown’s “Service de Luxe” (1999) nearly leaps off the wall, as do Rosemarie Trockel‘s wool paintings from 1990 in the next gallery. Other strong painters include Yayoi Kusama, Elizabeth Peyton, and Sue Williams, all of whom are represented but not in enough depth to have the same impact. The younger Los Angeles artists Jennifer Guidi, represented by four finely textured abstract paintings, and Analia Saban, whose wrapped hybrid sculpture/painting leans against a wall with a quiet pathos, deserve mention too.
The works in newer media don’t really cohere with the more traditional work. As these women historically moved into newer territory — again, because it was so much harder to gain recognition as a painter or sculptor (remember Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes?) — they also chose somewhat different subject matter. Many were engaged in the women’s movement, even if that wasn’t directly reflected in their work, and they were able to be innovators of both form and content. No Man’s Land may have been stronger as two separate shows, one of more traditional media and one of newer media. It often feels divided in that way, despite the works being presented together, in some rooms side by side.
I would place the paintings of Deborah Kass and Marilyn Minter, as well as the sculpture of Collier Schorr (better know as a photographer in any case), in the category of newer media as well. Kass because her work engages directly with the canon of painting, critiquing it and opening up a space for women, and Minter because she deals with consumer culture, starting with food and later moving to fashion. In the case of Schorr, my encounter with her fantastic little plaster dress with inscriptions inside was a wonderful surprise. It was still vivid to me, even though I hadn’t seen the piece in more than 20 years.
Photography is an arena in which women made a large impact in the ’80s. Many of these women were considered part of the Pictures Generation: Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, Laurie Simmons, and Louise Lawler, to name a few. At the Rubell, there is a photograph by Lawler, “Life After 1945 (Faces)” (2006–07), depicting a group of artworks leaning against a wall, either pre- or post-installation. Her photographs of works in collectors’ homes, museums, or storage spaces, offer a critical commentary on the distribution of art without a hint of bombast. Her finesse and subtlety have no doubt contributed to her being underrated, for she is arguably the true star of the Pictures Generation. There is also a beautiful portrait by Rineke Dijkstra from 1996 and a number of early photographs by Catherine Opie — though I wouldn’t necessarily combine their work with that of Lawler or Barbara Kruger, if I were thinking about how these works create meaning. (Kruger is represented by a oversize piece on the first floor, a work that’s become, somewhat ironically, a focal point for group photos and selfies.) In the cases of Dijkstra and Opie, I am looking at portraiture, and with an artist like Lawler or Kruger, I am looking at a critique of consumer culture. And so again, I was left feeling that No Man’s Land is not really about making meaning cohere out of curatorial choices.
Even when only considering the videos in the screening room, it’s a little hard to tease out a connecting thread. Fortunately, three of them are extraordinary. Fiona Tan’s peculiar, black-and-white, ethnographic “Facing Forward” (1999) is an 11-minute video which totters into Orientalism but is completely riveting. The film deploys archival footage to examines the representation of the “other” during the colonial period. The relentless presentation of these images repositions them by making a Western audience painfully aware of their exploitive, erotic nature under the guise of social science, and by implicating us in their imperial origins. Patty Chang’s “Mellons (At a Loss)” (1999) features the artist giving a recitation about the death of her aunt as she eats a melon lodged in a brassiere she cuts open so that it resemble an unsnapped maternity-type brassiere. Staring so fiercely into the camera that she resembles a warrior, she scoops herself out with a spoon, raises a bit of melon to her mouth, and interrupts her speech just long enough to swallow. It is the overriding tone of defiance in the face of injustice that makes her so compelling.
And last, there is Israeli artist Sigalit Landau’s unforgettable, one-minute-and-48-second “Barbed Hula” (2000). The hula hoop, invented in 1958, is a novelty toy that, in the US at least, is primarily associated with young girls. In the video, the artist sways her hips — the movement required to keep a hula hoop aloft — but her hoop is made of barbed wire; we watch as it circles her naked waste and pelvis and gouges out her skin with each rotation. We don’t see her face or feet, only her naked chest, torso, and upper thighs, and we see that she is standing on the beach close to the water. Later, the camera moves closer, focusing on her waist. The artist talks about the work in terms of pain and safety, both ongoing issues for women, but Landau’s act of perverse self-mutilation also seems a sad metaphor for what has happened to Israel politically. Either way, the visceral power of the performance is undeniable.
I don’t know if, strictly speaking, this is a review of the exhibition, as I have only seen its first iteration and in this first portion there is so much work I haven’t even mentioned. It’s a big show. Perhaps, in the end, a private foundation is only about taste, and expecting scholarship or cohesion is unrealistic. Why should it be more? It is what it is. The Rubells spent money acquiring the works of serious women artists. By doing that they supported these women artists, over a hundred of them. That’s what really counts.
No Man’s Land: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection continues at the Rubell Family Collection (95 NW 29th Street, Miami) through May 28.