It’s a little known fact that the vast majority of all artists — men and women — remained anonymous until the 14th century; or so says one of the most highly respected art history tomes, Janson’s History of Art. It would be naïve to think this is the only reason few female artists were identified, although it’s also true that certain women are remembered historically as artists as early as the mid-16th century. One of these is Sofonisba Anguissola, a portraitist, who is said to have exchanged drawings with Michelangelo.
Which brings us to the University of Indianapolis — if indirectly. U of I is host to a four-women show, including Indiana-based artists Vennita Cantrell, Lorraine Sack, Cindy Wingo and Sigrid Zahner. None of these women have earned artistic recognition because of an association with a more famous male artist as far as I can tell; instead, their highly distinctive work is evidence that such gender distinctions should be unnecessary. And yet, we still mount shows that point out gender.
What, though, do these four women artists have to offer in terms of an artistic dialogue? Or can their work simply be appreciated for its thoughtfulness and/or its beauty? How about all of the above?
Lorraine Sack has nearly perfected the classicist style of figure painting, but with a slightly different take. Sack, as she herself has explained, distills the essence of each of her subjects (in this instance, all of them are women) in terms of a particular color. The portraits are lifted out of the realm of conventionality with this approach: The nude women, tastefully posed, are set in a background of a brilliant color such as purple, orange, pink or even red … and somehow it works. What is perhaps most compelling, though, about Sack’s approach is that it turns the notion of the “male gaze” on its head. Sack is a woman painting women, not so that we can gaze upon them as physical objects, but so we can appreciate their beauty in a deeper sense.
The work of Sigrid Zahner, on the other hand, does not seem to respond to the same historical trajectory — or if so, the connection is more subtle. Zahner’s work has a quirky confidence and a complexity that is welcoming instead of difficult. Zahner takes on another artistic notion and twists it around: instead of composing three-dimensional sculptures with found objects alone, Zahner incorporates the found pieces into ceramic figures — or objects made to have “human” qualities (a teapot with a photo-transferred eye, for example; or ceramic hands as “feet”). Zahner seems to explore identity, but not necessarily of the gendered variety.
Cindy Wingo creates equally wry work in the form of abstract expressionist paintings, explores psychological notions more directly: “clinical depression, alcoholism, political frustration, low carb frustration” as well as the loss of a loved one.
Vennita Cantrell approaches her art in yet another way: Relic boxes and collage paintings speak to gender identity, connecting her more closely to Lorraine Sack than the other two artists. Cantrell looks at women’s roles through recent history and steps beyond this into more ephemeral realms. “Hanging Natural History,” for instance, is a quiet and yet strong presence: a deer hoof, a shaving brush attached to a small animal skull, antlers, vertebrae — all are lovingly displayed as expression of the artist’s self-described “intuitive subconscious.”
As Sigrid Zahner puts it, “I just love to make work because I feel, in the words of Robert Rauschenberg, that it helps me to explain life to myself.” A noble endeavor, indeed, and one that easily applies to all four artists. While Zahner’s work could easily fill its own exhibition space, set against the highly diverse expressions of Cantrell, Wingo and Sack, it gives us even more to contemplate — female or not.
Four Women Show is on view through Nov. 12 at the University of Indianapolis, Christel DeHaan Fine Arts Center, 1400 E. Hanna Ave. Gallery hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday.