Visaul Art

Julianna Thibodeaux

Pamela Picasso's 'Les Desmoiselles d'Appropriated (detail),' based on Pablo Picasso's 'Les Desmoiselles D'Avignon'

When I read the other day in The Indianapolis Star (questions of front-page news value aside) that "strip tease aerobics" classes were becoming popular here (a well-established trend on both coasts), I was both stunned and disappointed. I'm stunned that, after so much consciousness has supposedly been raised among the sexes, many - perhaps even most - women still believe their No. 1 power card is sex. And I'm disappointed that some women believe this is what it means to feel empowered.

All this brings us to Peg Brand and Galerie Penumbra. Lecturing to a modest crowd at the gallery last Saturday, Brand didn't talk about strip tease aerobics, or even feminine or masculine unconsciousness; or at least not directly. Instead, she shared some hard facts - far more effective, admittedly, in getting one's point across when it comes to such touchy issues. And Brand had plenty of evidence that gender bias still exists in at least one surprising realm - that is, the art world.

Brand, a professor of philosophy and women's studies at IUPUI and an artist, is one of a few prominent women and men who still dare to call themselves a feminist in the classic sense, and she reminds us that we're far from no longer needing feminist activism to right imbalances.

When it comes to art, here are the facts, according to Brand's fact-gathering: In 1990, while 53 percent of art degrees went to women, 73 percent of art grants and fellowships went to men; and yet, before you suggest that there's a qualitative difference, consider this: Eighty-four percent of invited exhibitions - where gender is known - went to males while exhibitions juried for quality - gender unknown - included only 46 percent men. And here's a more recent statistic from Brand's file: In 2005, of the 861 works of art offered for auction by Christie's and Sotheby's, 13 percent were by female artists. Of the 61 pieces assigned an estimated price of $1 million or more, only six (less than 10 percent) were by women.

Helping us get to "why," Brand quotes Greg Allen, one of the few male critics writing about gender inequities today: "... as in almost every other field where money changes hands in society, women's production has been and continues to be valued below that of men, except in this field [of the art world], where the difference is sometimes tenfold or more." You read that right: tenfold or more. So what's at issue here? Why are the inequities still so great? Brand says, "It all boils down to money. Who's buying?" Brand asserts that men are buying - and when women buy, it's most often with their husbands. When men choose male artists, the value of their art goes up, and on it goes, up the economic food chain - ultimately, for those lucky few, landing them in museum collections, of which women artists are still a dismal minority.

Paula Gaugin's 'Spirit of the Nude Posing,' based on Paul Gaugin's 'Spirit of the Dead Watching'

But Brand is hopeful. There's her art, for one thing, directed towards drawing attention to feminist issues in a playful manner: On view in Galerie Penumbra, standing sentinel as Brand spoke, hung her paintings comprising the exhibition Picture Yourself Here, including spoofs of famous works of art by men. Among them: Sandra Botticelli's "Venus Surfing (On a Seashell)" (based on Sandro Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," after 1482), Paula Gauguin's "Spirit of the Nude Posing" (based on Paul Gauguin's "Spirit of the Dead Watching," 1892), Pamela Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Appropriated (detail)," based on Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon," 1907), to name a few. Theme park style, you can look through a cutout in the painting and become a part of it: Women (and men) can "see what it feels like to be the nude female in a painting," Brand says.

This, of course, suggests another issue in art, the objectification of women, which, of course, brings us full circle. When women perpetuate themselves as sexual objects, evidenced today by such things as strip tease aerobics classes and the increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery (it's not just for faces and breasts anymore), how can we expect to be taken seriously as being fully dimensional? Even women artists are perpetuating our objectification by depicting their own sexuality - another growing trend.

There are practical ways Brand suggests we address the inequities, at least the economic ones. No. 1, "Buy art by women." Brand also suggests supporting groups that support women artists, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts or the Guerilla Girls, the ones who discovered, in 1989, that less than 3 percent of the artists in the modern art sections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art are women, but 83 percent of the nudes are female. Sadly, the girls rechecked the stats in 2004, and even fewer women artists are represented today.

And for now, by all means, visit Brand's exhibition, Picture Yourself Here, and spread the word about In Her Element: The Art of Four Women, four consecutive solo exhibitions by Indianapolis female artists, including lectures and round-table discussions. Visit for more information, call 317-508-8043, or just stop by the gallery at 1043 Virginia Ave. Last but not least, kudos to David and Cheryl Mattingly for helping to bring us to consciousness on an important issue.


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