The Woman Destroyed, currently on view at PPOW Gallery, takes as its organizing theme the 1967 Simone de Beauvoir book of the same title, comprised of three stories that explore the personal crises of middle-aged and aging women. “All of these characters have shaped their identity around a sense of moral righteousness, goodness,” said artist Robin F. Williams, one of the artists featured in the exhibition. “They all speak about authenticity, deep sacrifice, selflessness, and a loyalty to their families. Beauvoir takes those virtues to their logical conclusion and creates these women who, with the best of intensions, have willfully erased themselves. It’s almost a cautionary tale. You can become so ‘good’ as a woman by following all the ‘rules’ that someday you realize too late that the rules are designed to eliminate you.”
The Woman Destroyed is a particularly germane title for an exhibition, as it suggests both themes related to femininity and the deconstruction of the female body within an art historical context. It’s also a leading title, one that influences the expectations of those who know Beauvoir’s bleak book. I anticipated that the work in the show would be dark and lonely, capturing extreme mental disquiet perhaps by deconstructing or perverting the female art-historical position. My expectations proved largely incorrect; much of the work achieves a surprising positivity through rebellion, finding ways to subvert societal baggage tied to femaleness.
Jessica Stoller works in porcelain, a material with an imperial history that also suggests a feminine sphere. Her three pieces in The Woman Destroyed are suggestive and humorous plays on the pristine porcelain figurine. In “Untitled (weave)” (2015), a basket filled with snakes sits atop a base of mirrored, shapely woman’s buttocks. “Untitled (gather)” (2016) features three female figures positioned next to a barren tree, surrounded by fruits and vegetables. Two of the women lift their dresses to reveal their naked bodies underneath; the third, nude, crouches on all fours. In “Untitled (slip)” (2016), a woman’s bust is covered with mashed sweets; perhaps she has literally fallen into a dessert display. These pieces are the opposite of coy — each figure’s transgression lies both in subverting the expectations of propriety or cutesy kitsch associated with the artist’s material and in suggesting a blatant sexuality. “The material I employ (porcelain) is linked to seduction, consumption, and desire,” Stoller told Hyperallergic. “As a cis white woman, I am a product and critic of ideas of femininity, and the sculpture I create uses notions of the grotesque to explore this constructed, often idealized world.”
The titles of Robin F. Williams’s two figurative paintings, “In the Gutter” (2015) and “Bag Lady” (2016), refer to stereotypes of downtrodden and misbehaving women. The accusation of being “in the gutter” and the moniker of “bag lady” have connotations of blame and shame, but the figures in Williams paintings are having none of it. A young woman leans backward over a grated gutter, resting her elbows on the sidewalk behind. She is nude but accessorized with gold heels, a gold belt, and hip sunglasses. She’s hovering above the gutter, not quite “in” it. There’s a house in the background, but the landscape looks largely unpopulated. The character begs for an imaginative backstory. Perhaps she’s a teenage girl in a small town who’s thinking about what “in the gutter” might mean and look like: Does it involve selling oneself? Being overtly sexual? Acquiring wealth — signified here by the gold accessories — at the price of one’s sexuality? And where is this “gutter” she’s been warned about? The one she imagines is, literally, the grated drainage system on her street — a touch of naiveté. The figure in “Bag Lady” also complicates, maybe even upends, her stereotype. She wears sunglasses, smokes a cigarette, and wears a brown paper bag over her head like it’s a hipster fashion. “I want to make paintings of women that can’t be understood,” Williams told Hyperallergic. “I want to make women who aren’t vessels.”
PPOW Director Anneliis Beadnell has done an excellent job of choosing artists whose work relates to the exhibition’s theme in ways both obvious and subtle. Lauren Kelley’s digital prints and stop-motion short videos use modified Barbies to tell stories about womanhood that are sad, funny, surreal, and touching. Elizabeth Glaessner’s work veers more toward the abstract; in the shapes and positions of her figures and in her use of color, one can see references to depictions of women in the work of Courbet, Gauguin, and Matisse. “It’s not the materials or genres that examine ideas like gender and feminism, it’s the the total image painted,” she explained to Hyperallergic. “When I paint worlds, scenarios, situations, of women and gender-fluid figures, they are outside society’s normal conception.” Allison Schulnik’s “Centaurette in Forest” (2015) similarly hovers between the figurative and the abstract; its central character is sexual, grotesque, and strangely charming. David Mramor’s work is the most obviously bleak. His series of inkjets prints on canvas, Venus, depict a woman in three-quarter profile, but her image is painted over, crossed out, and blacked out. The figure is his mother, who suffered from alcoholism. The series “tells stories of who she was,” Mramor told Hyperallergic. “I start to create new stories and memories of what she wanted to be and what she could have been.” In one image, Mramor’s own face stands in place of his mother’s. “I am trying to relate to her,” he explained. “I am trying to connect to the feminine. Where does one gender begin and the other end?”
Depending on one’s vantage point, gender today is both more in flux and as punishingly rigid a category as ever. In liberal circles, it’s often still a part of one’s identity and expression but may not align with one’s sex; in conservative circles, gender remains biology to the extent that public bathrooms must be policed to prevent any deviance from this alignment. Worldwide, the female sex faces high rates of violence — genital mutilation, forced marriage, domestic abuse, rape, and honor killings are common — and the United States is not exempt. Transgender Americans, in particular trans women of color, face disproportionately high levels of hate violence. While Beauvoir’s 1967 book defines the female gender narrowly, as cis women, the frustration, limitations, and anger she captures remain deeply relevant. The experience of identifying as a woman, regardless of one’s sex, comes with a persistently heavy load. (Not to mention the inequality that comes with being a woman artist — please, peruse some statistics here.)
The Woman Destroyed is a satisfyingly complicated show, featuring artists who engage with the sociohistorical moment and with gender in ways that avoid simplicity. The exhibition isn’t the first to grapple with these themes, and it surely won’t be the last.
The Woman Destroyed continues at PPOW Gallery (535 W 22nd Street, 3rd floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 29.