Each artist in “Female Trouble” takes the once-tired subject of the female figure and gives it new life, as each piece strays from the traditional female nude in ways that are subtle at times, and other times louder than a bomb. Co-organized by Elijah Wheat Showroom, the show includes artists Amanda Joy Calobrisi, Lilli Carré, Qinza Najm, Kathryn Refi and Frances Waite.
To say most of the work included in the exhibition is representational in style would be both true and false. Yes, each piece shows the viewer the female body, but each body varies so starkly, that this almost doesn’t register. The subject does not grow repetitive or redundant. If anything, it gets rejuvenated through the eyes of each artist. All five artists employ very different mediums, like the striking, patterned work of Qinza Najm, who uses acrylic paint on carpet to shape bodily forms, or the graphite drawings of Frances Waite. Although Waite’s work is made from more conventional material, it notably portrays intimate acts between women, both joyful and raw in their rendering. Sexual yet not necessarily pornographic, the works are honest, showing different body types and body hair. In contrast, the work of Lilli Carré and Kathryn Refi break down the body. Carré’s glazed ceramic pieces take just small elements of the subject and place them on unexpected objects, infusing a twinge of humor. In her piece “Loose Lock,” a ceramic chain lock hangs on the wall, with the knobby lock end resembling a nipple, complete with fleshy pink and brown tones. Her other wall hangings adorn minimal patterns that appear to be abstracted labia.
The photographic work of Kathryn Refi also strips the body into parts, but in a more literal way, as she cuts apart self-portraits and weaves them back together, like in her piece “All of Me (Double Body).” In what was for me the most compelling piece in the exhibition, a completely nude portrait of the artist, almost life-size, faces forward straight at the viewer. However, a second body was present, exactly the same as the first but turned upside down and woven within the right-side-up body. The figure gazed at me, confrontational yet ghostly, ethereal in its presence. The duality of the two figures not only hints at conflicting body standards and beauty expectations of women, but also the double-sided coin of being female. We must be strong, yet we must be reserved; we are human, yet we are “other.” But there is resilience in the piece, as the figures overlap at both sets of hands, making it seem as if they are holding: support, sisterhood, solidarity.
It is worth noting that all of the artists in the exhibition are women-identified. This may not seem like a radical notion, but I want to stress that it truly is. It is too often rare in the art world. For a gallery to exclusively show women artists portraying women offers a refreshing change in perspective, one that, instead of subverting the male gaze, ignores it completely. In this space, men are simply not part of the equation. The artists in “Female Trouble” are carving their own space, asserting ownership and authorship of the female body by exploring the subject on their terms, through their experiences and vision. Still, the act of looking at a nude female body automatically stirs my thoughts to the politics of the gaze, of sexualizing women. Feminist writer Zing Tsjeng has written that “when we finally put aside ideas of what female bodies should be—hidden or exposed, sources of embarrassment and censure—we can actually begin the task of looking.” “Female Trouble” unflinchingly compels you to do just that, to look in a new way. (Christina Nafziger)
“Female Trouble” is on view at Western Exhibitions, 1709 West Chicago, through February 22.