Kate Just, an American-born Australia-based artist, has long been committed to making feminist work that examines the human body experience. Although she has worked in other mediums, such as in The Furies, a series of 12 banner-size photographs dealing with violence against women, knitting has been her primary one. Several of her past works have been large-scale, but with the Feminist Fan show currently at A.I.R. Gallery, comes pieces roughly 14×18 inches in size, each depicting a famous feminist’s (and often iconic) work from the past century. According to Just, the portraits deal with “textiles, clothing, and adornment. How do they work as transgressive forces?” While all of the images are a “personal genealogy” of Just’s artistic influences, they are also “significant feminist portraits that speak to feminism as an art movement. The way they’re dressed is meant to change something.”
While the A.I.R. show has 19 pieces, they are a part of a larger, ever-evolving body of work. Just started by knitting portraits of female activists. Then the project further unfolded; “I was thinking about activities, doing things in public spaces. The FEMEN photo [which is not included in this show] is classical Greek sculpture in action,” she said. Eventually she began drawing on art familiar to anyone who has taken a feminist art history course: an image from Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Lynda Benglis’s 1974 “Ad Forum ad,” a Cindy Sherman still, a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, a George Lange photograph of the Guerrilla Girls.
What is initially striking about these knitted works is their breadth; they depict artwork ranging from the 1920s up until 2015. According to Just, the portrayal in yarn softens the original artworks’ message, which to some may be seen as alienating. It invites viewers to take another look at a work they may have formerly felt divided from.
In talking to Just about why she chose these images, she notes that all together, they are about “self-representation and the body in feminist art.”
“The way women are represented in art film and media when they are represented by others is often in a stereotypical and objectifying way. When artists self-represent, they bring a degree of subjectivity to their images and tend to expand on limiting ideas of womanhood.”
Just also made this a virtual show by posting the images to Instagram, each caption noting the history of the piece and, where applicable, tagging the artist themselves. She also often wrote how the original pieces made her feel, such as the one portraying the knitted piece of Sarah Lucas’s 1993 “Self Portrait with Fried Eggs”: “… Androgynous, defiant and seriously cool, Sarah Lucas makes me want to smoke, glare, wear impossibly high waisted jeans and take over the art world. Sarah Lucas, I’m your feminist fan!”
These pieces are a celebration of fandom, of enjoying someone else’s work and then through social media, and being able to literally share one’s work with one’s idols. “I am their fan, I never expect them to endorse it; they see it as an act of love,” she says, even though she started informing these artists slowly at first of her social media work, as she wasn’t sure what their reaction would be. Carolee Schneemann, in response to Just, after being emailed about the exhibition, which includes a knitted portrait of her piece “Interior Scroll” from 1975, called the works “incredibly devotional” — a phrase that works perfectly for these pieces, which seem part meditations on the past and part note-taking for the future.
When she started the project in 2014, Just’s skill level wasn’t up to par in regards to the frequent color changes needed for each piece; the first portrait took three months. “It took five of them just to learn, they’re not how I wanted them to be.” It wasn’t until she got to Cindy Sherman and Sarah Lucas’s portraits where she thought, “I know how to do it now.” The first year she made seven pieces and, in the second year, she made two a month — some of which took up to 80 hours to complete, while working part-time as a lecturer at the Victorian College of the Arts and raising a child.
While the pieces may have taken time, it’s the intimacy and performative element of knitting that matter to the artist. While the images were taken from photographs, they were rebuilt by hand as if laying bricks. Overall, Just sees them as “a self-portrait of me and a performance. Knitting maximizes the intention.”
Feminist Fan puts the mirror up to the ways in which feminist artists have used their bodies as forms of protest over nearly the past century. As we continue to move the boundaries of the construction of gender, Just’s work, referencing live performances such as Carolee Schneemann’s “Interior Scroll” and Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” also seems to say we also need to see where we’ve come from. This series, she said, has brought her closer to artists who “care about feminism as a force and they believe in it. It matters to me that they embrace it.”
Kate Just: Feminist Fan continues at A.I.R. Gallery (155 Plymouth St, Dumbo, Brooklyn) through July 30.