It began (as so many things do these days) with a Facebook post. On November 14, less than a week after the election, artist Roxanne Jackson wrote on the social media platform: “Hello female artists/curators! Let’s organize a NASTY WOMEN group show!!! Who’s interested???” At the time, Jackson had been thinking of Donald Trump’s misogynist comments and his subsequent winning of the presidency, but also of a certain aesthetic akin to her own: purposefully and playfully grotesque art made by women. She’d been talking to curator Jessamyn Fiore about doing a show of such work. As responses to her post swiftly accumulated, however, she realized she was tapping into something much larger than just an artistic style. “Hundreds of people responded to this in an hour, and some didn’t fit into the category of grotesque work,” she told Hyperallergic. “We realized that we needed to include all those women who wanted to participate in this show so their voices could be heard through their art.”
Within five days, the pair had a venue — the Knockdown Center, a former door factory–cum–art space in Maspeth, Queens, whose curatorial advisory board Fiore sits on — and a website — thanks to graphic and web designer Barbara Smith. They posted an open call: anyone who identified as female could submit an artwork, and as long as it measured under 12 inches in every direction, it would be accepted. Submissions began rolling in — hundreds and hundreds of them.
“I think the week that we did this, there was this crazy energy” in response to the election of Trump, Fiore said. There was “a need for something, and it needed to land somewhere. We were able to give a conduit” for people’s desires to take action.
Or, as a friend put it to her: “You just happened to create the spark that landed on a giant pile of tinder.”
Importantly, the fire was lit by more than just the opportunity to show work in a high-profile group show in New York. Nasty Women was conceived from the get-go as a fundraiser, a fact that stressed by both women. All of the nearly 700 artworks included in the final exhibition are priced at $100 or less, and all of the money from their sales goes to Planned Parenthood. According to Jackson, that means the show has the potential to raise about $50,000 for the national women’s health organization, which has already been threatened by the new Congress.
“People want to do things. This is a straightforward visual arts response that has practical results because it is a fundraiser,” said Fiore. Jackson added that the low pricing of the works was also meant to encourage people who’d never bought art to give it a try. “We’re trying to make the process more democratic.”
Building on that idea, the installation is egalitarian. Although it’s now an art center, the Knockdown Center does not actually have many walls on which to hang art. Artist Clive Murphy volunteered a solution: he would design and build an armature for the exhibition, a series of 10-foot-high pinkish-purple letters spelling out “NASTY WOMEN.” The show’s paintings, drawings, collages, sculptures, videos, and more are splayed across these letters, not curated in any traditional sense, only arranged by volunteers. (The rest of the Nasty Women team consists of Angel Bellaran, Liz Nielsen, Aimee Odum, Young Sun Han, Haley M. Shaw, Stephanie Stockbridge, and Carolina Wheat.) Some groupings seem purposeful, and resonances do arise — vaginal necklace and fruit imagery side by side, two portraits about aging on a diagonal — but the letters act most importantly as a unifying force, bringing together pieces by established artists and those who’ve never shown before; art that feels deeply earnest and rooted in cynicism; works that evoke pride, introspection, shame, and anger.
In spite of its diversity, Nasty Women does seem to manifest one central idea: Women across the United States are unhappy with the election of Donald Trump (even though many other women voted for him). They are scared, threatened, pissed off, defiant, and galvanized by a misogynist taking the country’s highest office. But the very existence of the show suggests they won’t be silenced, and that is genuinely inspiring — so inspiring that in the course of last night’s three-hour opening, 444 artworks were sold, raising $34,950 for Planned Parenthood. As the pieces are purchased, they will disappear from the display, leaving only the show’s worded skeleton. “If we have a whole bunch of empty letters by Sunday, that’s exciting,” said Fiore.
Nasty Women continues at the Knockdown Center through the weekend, with planned music, performances, and workshops every day. The run is short, but, as Fiore pointed out, it’s also the first in an international series; there was so much interest in the exhibition that the organizers decided to franchise it, allowing anyone to organize their own Nasty Women show, so long as they involve a diverse group of female-identifying artists and use it to fundraise for a women’s rights organization. Right now, 25 other shows are confirmed, in places from Lubbock, Texas, to Brussels, Belgium.
“It’s important for people to come to the idea of protest in a way that’s familiar to them,” said Jackson. “It’s important to have different kinds of protest — which is what this is. Art should not be underestimated. Art, in itself, is protest.”
Nasty Women continues at the Knockdown Center (52-19 Flushing Avenue, Maspeth, Queens) through January 15.