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In the many ways we gender the arts, few have been as persistent as the differentiation between fine art and decorative art, particularly in regards to works in metal. Smelting and welding, for example, are typically seen as masculine pursuits, whereas the delicate metalwork involved in jewelry-making is typically seen as feminine. This year’s Women to Watch exhibit, titled Heavy Metal, seeks to challenge these gendered false dichotomies by showcasing women artists around the world pushing the boundaries of this particular medium.
Held every two to three years at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, Women to Watch is a groundbreaking series that centers artwork by women around a particular medium or theme. The last exhibit, Organic Matters, looked at the use of plant and animal imagery, and was curated by Virginia Treanor, who curated this year’s exhibit as well.
To do so, the museum worked with twenty partner committees and curators around the country and the world to create regional shortlists of artists. This collaborative curatorial model is complex, but ultimately designed to cater to a shared vision: Finding promising voices in one particular medium.
For this year’s show, Treanor purposefully put out a vague call for submissions, providing little in terms of what she was looking for beyond the inclusion of metal. It was an intentional bid to cast as wide a net as possible. But even she was surprised by what that net ended up pulling in.
“You think, ‘It’s metal, there’s not that much room for interpretation’,” Treanor tells Hyperallergic. “[But] I was so overwhelmed by the variety of objects that I saw in those submissions. I wanted this exhibition to reflect that. I wanted to have really big things and really small things, really shiny things and really industrial-looking things.”
The scope of the exhibit is striking: the 20 artists featured contributed objects ranging from jewelry pieces to abstract sculptures, fashioned from materials like iron, steel, bronze, silver, gold, brass, and pewter. The vibrant minimalist work of Rana Begum, which is inspired by cityscapes, sits near Alice Hope’s coiled rope of soda can tabs, a piece that defies expectations for what metal as a material evokes. Caroline Rieckhof Brommer’s armor-like metal clothes and Katherine Vetne’s flattened casts of pitchers, as well as Holly Laws’ cage-like ironing board structures, introduce domesticity with a sharp, critical edge, while Carolina Sardi’s plated steel wall-mounted configurations are rich and minimalist.
“I’m very interested in breaking down that hierarchy between fine art and craft, because it’s heavily gendered,” Treanor says. “Metal is really interesting because it can so easily straddle both of those categories.”
Much of the work in the exhibit does just that, blending delicacy with imposing size or shape. Beverly Penn’s 2011 work Maelstrom is a strikingly beautiful, large-scale bronze casting of neatly arranged flowers, their subtle twists and turns captured to create a sense of chaos. The work of Lola Brooks, however, is perhaps the most engaging in the exhibit; her jewelry combines traditional shapes, like hearts or chains of gold and diamonds, with grotesque elements, like the bodies of quails or a small, carved piece of antique ivory. Her works seem to laugh in the face of attempts to distinguish craft from fine art, creating dramatic departures from the norm for either.
Leila Khoury, an 25-year-old artist from Cleveland, Ohio, is the youngest participant in this year’s exhibit. Two of her concrete and steel works are on view, “Palmyra” and “Summer House”, both created in 2015. The daughter of Syrian immigrants, Khoury began working on the pieces after the partial destruction of the ancient city of Palmyra in 2015, and based both works on her own memories of childhood visits. While “Palmyra” features the city’s ruins etched into concrete and hung from a steel frame, “Summer House” recreates the windows along the exterior of her grandparents’ coastal home. The effect is a striking juxtaposition between the industrial materials and the intimacy of memory and loss.
“Etching it into concrete was what I now consider a grieving process,” Khoury says.
San Diego-based artist Kerianne Quick’s work is also tied to the loss of a physical space. Quick was raised in California and had created work that explored the relationship between commerce and the US-Mexican border in the past, but when she moved to San Diego in the early 2010s, she found that the dynamic she had previously explored had changed.
“I moved to San Diego and noticed the border was something different now,” she explains. “There was so much focus on people moving themselves in a really profound and overwhelming way.”
A lifelong collector of keys, Quick began working with immigrant and migrant populations, and learning about the nature of the border in a region where the divisions in the community are at once more porous and more distinct than she’d encountered in the past. The granddaughter of a Cuban immigrant, she also considered the relationships immigrants forged with the places they left and could not return to. The resulting work, What Time and Distance Cannot Shrink and The Utility of Sentimental Emotions, and Perceived Value, both made in 2017, use keys to interrogate access to spaces and the ways in which memory keeps us in contact with our roots.
“It’s not only about protecting something that has perceived value, it’s about defining privacy,” Quick says of the significance of keys, including the keys to childhood diaries she used to fabricate those used in the pieces. “It’s a place that you create. We all know those diary locks don’t actually work. But it makes you feel like what you’re putting inside it is maybe safe, or more private, or yours more specifically.”
As Treanor points out, the exhibit’s breadth and depth belie any notions that women working in metal do so in ways that differ significantly from their male counterparts.
“I hope this exhibition is a reinforcement of this idea that, yes, women work in metal, they work in it in all different ways and different scales, and they can weld with the best of them,” she says. “I hope that in 2018 we’ve shed the vestiges of these grossly inaccurate stereotypes that metal is for men and jewelry is for women.”
The NMWA’s mission is to bring attention to the work of women artists from around the world, both past and present. In that sense, Women to Watch as a series and Heavy Metal as an exhibit points to the power of such a mission being put into practice. In addition to the exhibit in DC, museums and embassies will be holding their own exhibits of shortlisted artists, providing a platform for an intergenerational group of women around the world. Treanor makes clear that Women to Watch is not a competition, but rather a cross-section of the talent brought to their attention. It’s a platform to lift women up and celebrate artists who may otherwise be overlooked, and to create conversation around women working in innovative mediums.
“This is why we’re here,” Treanor says. “This is what we do.”
Heavy Metal—Women to Watch 2018 continues at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (1250 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC) through September 16, 2018.