Special Exhibit | Their Bodies

Orla and Olinda
Sofia Bonati, Orla and Olinda, Pencil, black geese, and gold ink on paper, 10 x 14, $790

The spring hall exhibit, Their Bodies, was curated by MU intern Janae McGee as the culminating project of her time at the Sager Braudis Gallery. The show includes the work of five artists and examines and confronts traditional depictions of the figure, specifically through the lens of gender and the power dynamics associated with them.

Art that traditionally represented the figure, and mostly the female nude figure, did so in a way that was usually sexually objectifying: they generally depicted unrealistic proportions and were rendered without any autonomy to the women in the frame. The figure was at the will of the artist until it was looked upon, and then it was at the will of the viewer. While men could pleasurably view women in this manner, other people who might identify with the subjects but feel understandably uncomfortable. And this isn’t something we only see happening during the Renaissance; it continues well into modernity in film, comic books, video games, fashion, and photography, as well as in the art world.

How do we combat this? What does it mean to create art, and to create art depicting the figure, without the male gaze? The term ‘male gaze’ was coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” to talk about the way the female figure is objectified by the men creating movies but also by the inevitably voyeuristic practice of watching movies. Why would it be any different with art that has the same dynamic of a creator making something for the purpose of being interacted with visually?

The work of these five artists, then, gives us a chance to examine the figure in a different way. The way Sofia Bonati depicts the figure, as a woman from Argentina, shows women to be beautiful, complicated, and confrontational. Beautiful, in the extremely detailed way her models are rendered with graphite, complicated, with her repeated motif of mazes and optical illusions, and at all times confrontational in the way the women she renders look directly at the viewer.

Bonati’s work carries the same fantastical element that Emily Burns’s work does, although Burns’s work feels much more intimate and relatable despite the figures having deer heads. Both use graphite to render the figure but Burns’s pieces allow open space around her subjects. This, added to the fact that they’re wearing jeans and bras, conjures up feelings of loneliness combined with playfulness.

Claire Stigliani, Dreaming, Colored pencil and blocking on panel, 14 x 11, $1,500

Claire Stigliani’s work Dreaming is a textured self-portrait that reads like a selfie. The inclusion of self-portraiture as an important and valid way of representing the figure draws attention to the control granted to the subject (also the creator).

The inclusion of Kelsey Hammond’s pieces is important as a means to connect depiction, ownership, and representation.  Hammond’s ability to show a real body -as well as a nude one- shows vulnerability as well as power.

Tobi C.’s pieces, as the biggest works in the exhibit, act as a sort of focal point. As the only gender non-conforming artist in the exhibit, they offer a different but important variant on the depiction of the figure. The artist continues the fantastical element seen in Bonati and Burns with the snakes and the way the skin is rendered, but they add a dysmorphic element into the figure that isn’t seen in any of the other pieces.

Kelsey Hammond, Hip Mountain, Silver gelatin print, 11 x 14, $500

The figure is an important form of representation in art as people can literally see themselves in paintings. What happens when this view of themselves is objectified or they cannot find themselves represented at all?

This exhibit is important at this moment in time because while people may be able to recognize a declining but present deficit in female and gender non-conforming artists and artwork in conversation, gallery and museum settings, art history, and Instagram, they may not realize the consequences unless confronted explicitly and asked to consider this deficit. That is, they may not realize what that power imbalance of representation does to the way art looks. This exhibit asks that viewers consider: “Why is that?” Are no marginalized artists creating art worthy of acclaim?

Marginalized voices’ absence from mainstream media has much to do with systemic power structures that have been in place for a very long time that were set up to keep certain people in power and certain people disenfranchised. How many Picassos have been born at the ‘wrong’ time, born with a gender other than male, a skin color other than white, a sexuality other than straight? How many more are we willing to let slip through our fingertips?

This exhibit will be up in the hall gallery at Sager Braudis throughout May 14th, and will be celebrated on First Friday, May 4, from 6 – 9 PM