What exactly does it mean to be female? It’s not a simple question of biology, as the experience of transgender women and individuals who otherwise identify as female can attest. Nor is it a matter of sharing a particular sensibility — to say that there exists a specifically “feminine” way of looking at the world is general enough to be meaningless.
And yet we attempt to signify something when we speak of “the feminine.” A new exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center seeks to examine and in many cases challenge our collective notions as to what that really entails.
Created by Brooklyn-based independent curator Regine Basha, “Mark of the Feminine” brings together work by more than 30 New Orleans area artists in order to, in Basha’s words, “honor artists who are both embracing and/or questioning their femininity in individual ways that break open our stereotypes of what ‘feminine’ is as a quality.”
The CAC also describes the show as the first in a series of planned exhibitions that will spotlight “the remarkable community of artists working in New Orleans,” although how they will differ from dozens of similarly organized group shows over the course of the CAC’s almost 40-year history remains to be seen.
Right now, though, focusing on how the artists in “Mark of the Feminine” share a common working environment is probably the most useful way to approach the show, because trying to identify universal characteristics of “femininity” from such an eclectic assemblage can be a considerably more difficult task.
That may, in fact, be the point that Basha and the artists she has selected are trying to make.
After all, on the surface, there seems to be little in common between Cherice Harrison Nelson’s exuberantly colorful and detailed Mardi Gras Indian suit and Edna Lanieri’s moody black-and-white photographic portraits of half-undressed drag queens in domestic interiors. Yet both share a certain “New Orleansness” in spirit and subject matter, while on a deeper level both pieces comment on the ways that women (and those who pretend to be women) present themselves to the world at large.
Whether one chooses to view the show in terms of identity politics or geographical commonalities, there’s a lot of strong work here. Highlights include Monica Zeringue’s brilliantly spare and haunting graphite-on-linen drawings of feral mythological figures? a pair of paintings by Sarah Sole depicting Hillary Clinton as a frilly vintage housewife and haute couture femme fatale; and Carla Williams’ palimpsest of photographs of her female relatives, layered and arranged in a grid on the wall like a three-dimensional family album. And don’t miss Nikki Rosato’s stunningly intricate self-portrait bust made of a delicate web of paper painstakingly cut from a vintage road atlas in a manner that resembles a network of blood vessels or neurons. It’s a formal tour de force that literally and figuratively maps a deeply personal emotional landscape.
There’s also plenty of sly humor in “Mark of the Feminine,” including Vanessa Centeno’s over-the-top multimedia piece that looks like a cross between a cluster of giant sea anemones and an explosion of engorged condoms in a glitter factory, Alisha Feldman’s engaging autobiographical cartoons chronicling the history of her body hair and summer “fashun” issues, and two psychedelically patterned scenes by Susan Ireland that pay homage to Big Easy bar culture while reminding us of the uncomfortably sexist pickup lines encountered by women in what we usually think of as a carefree environment.
Despite some common themes that surface here and there among several of the pieces, however, viewers who approach the show hoping to find a definitive concept of what constitutes “the feminine” may be disappointed. The varieties of female experience are simply too varied to be pigeonholed under the kind of intentionally, if excessively broad, theme that the exhibition presents.
In that sense, “Mark of the Feminine” is similar to last spring’s group show at the CAC, “30 Americans,” which proved to be less about the shared threads of the African-American artistic experience than the multiplicity of viewpoints contained in it.
Yet, as a means of showcasing the tremendous vitality and variety of visual artists working in New Orleans these days, “Mark of the Feminine” hits its target admirably.