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Political, powerful, pink: NYC gallery spotlights feminism at Frieze London

Since time immemorial, the struggle for women’s rights has played out on streets, cinema screens and in art

Saffiya Ansari

Published: Updated:

Since time immemorial, the struggle for women’s rights has played out on streets, cinema screens and in the upper echelons of political power the world over.

Now, New York-based gallery PWOW is hosting a potent showcase of five generations of feminist art at Frieze London, one of the world’s leading contemporary art fairs which sees galleries from far-flung regions congregate in London’s Regent’s Park for a four-day art and culture bonanza between Oct. 6-9.

The gallery’s booth centers on a powerfully pink piece by American artist Portia Munson, titled “Pink Project: Table” (1994).

Thousands of discarded items litter a table, all in varying shades of pink –fuchsia, to rose, to magenta. The end result is a visual overload of products created to appeal to women and girls.

(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)
(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)

From hair clips and pacifiers to fake nails, combs, kitchen tools and sundry similar items, the piece exemplifies the commercialization of traditional ideals of femininity and the time-worn concept that pink is strictly for girls.

The booth also pays homage to artist Betty Tomkins, who fills wide canvases with a litany of words commonly used to describe women.

“They’re descriptive words like honey, babe or sweetheart, to more insulting words like slut, b****, and all sorts of words. It’s overwhelming and she gives people the opportunity to add their words,” gallery co-owner Wendy Olstoff told Al Arabiya English.

(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)
(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)

From Munson to Tomkins, one can easily pick up on the lack of international names featured by the gallery.

“We don’t show any artist from the Middle East. There’s no reason why, it just hasn’t happened,” Ostloff told Al Arabiya English.

“We added Martin Wong, who is a Chinese-American male artist, so we were really conscious of being diverse in our exhibition… we’re really conscious of not just doing the white woman’s perspective, so we try to not do that.”

(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)
(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)

Ostloff further explained why her gallery had chosen to put on a retrospective of feminist art.

“The aim of our gallery and the aim of our booth and the aim of all the art fairs, including Frieze, is to show work that provokes conversation.”

To that end, PWOW is also featuring artist Carolee Shneemann, born in 1939, with stills from a 1960’s film she directed, showing the artist engaging in sexual intercourse with her partner but not “from the male point of view, it was very much from the female point of enjoyment.”

Young artist Erin M. Riley is being shown for the first time, according to Ostloff.

“She does these huge tapestries taken from internet images. I like the way that it’s a really big thing right now, with younger women, how they depict their bodies online,” the gallerist explained.

(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)
(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)

She renders sexually explicit imagery in impressive tapestries, using craft work historically practiced by women to turn the social and sexual imprisonment of the fairer sex on its head.

“So you have this young girl, you have these older women who’ve used pornography in their work in a feminist way, then you have the young girls trying to figure it out when they’re putting up Instagram photos up all the time. So we’re trying to also enter that conversation - how you use your body as a woman, being sexual and powerful without being used in sexist vocabulary,” Ostloff said.

The gallery is also spotlighting artist Aurel Schmidt whose installation is a break from the norm and consists of 8 x 4 wall-hanging paper panels layered with a gnarled mass of evocative forest imagery. Virginal flowers, twisting roots and venomous insects litter the scene, in a piece that drew onlookers in close to inspect the morass of fine detail.

(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)
(Saffiya Ansari/ Al Arabiya English.)

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