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Feminist works at Mattress Factory exhibit highlight gender issues

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 9:03 p.m.
BETSY DAMON Water Rules–Life sand, water, rocks, burlap, concrete, topographical map, audio, video 2012 photo by Tom Little
LORAINE LEESON Active Energy: Pittsburgh six-point projection video 2012 photo by Tom Little
CARRIE MAE WEEMS Lincoln, Lonnie and Me – A Story in 3 Parts video projection on mylar (duration: 18 minutes) 2012 photo by Tom Little
PARASTOU FOROUHAR Written Room acrylic paint, ping-pong balls, calligraphy pen 2012 photo by Tom Little
JULIA CAHILL Breasts in the Press video and audio; fiberglass, epoxy 2012 photo by Tom Little
AYANAH MOOR by and about screen print on newspaper, tables, preparatory materials 2012 photo by Tom Little
In Mexico children play in front of a reflective art installation in a botanical garden in Culiacan, a city in northwest Mexico. The Carnegie show stresses ways to integrate art, sculpture and architecture with landscapes. Credit: Iwan Baan/Carnegie Museum of Art
Near Belo Horizonte in Brazil pavilions for displaying art have been inserted into an existing nature preserve, This photo illustrates how the right architecture can enhance a natural landscape. Credit: Iwan Baan/Carnegie Museum of Art
In Japan, in the Seto Inland Sea, a small group of picturesque islands have become the home for a 'destination' art experience, combing new and imaginative architecture with the stunning views. Interestingly, some of the islands have an industrial past -- though that's not at all visible here. Credit: Iwan Baan/Carnegie Museum of Art
Children get to play at creating their own scupture with moveable wood blocks inside an educational building set within a botanical garden in Culiacan, a town in northwest Mexico. Photographer Iwan Baan, who is featured in the Carnegie show, specializes in showing architecture in use, and his architectural photographs are often full of people, as well as the buildings.

Feminist art may have sprung up in the 1960s and flourished as an art movement unto itself throughout the 1970s, but a new exhibit at the Mattress Factory proves that feminism still informs the art practices of many a female artist, even though notions of what feminism is have changed.

Organized by Hilary Robinson, a professor of art theory and criticism at Carnegie Mellon University, the exhibit “Feminist and …” features installation works by six female artists from around the world. Julia Cahill, Betsy Damon, Parastou Forouhar, Loraine Leeson, Ayanah Moor and Carrie Mae Weems each took a room in the museum and created works that are thought-provoking in their own way.

Robinson says she first got the idea for the exhibit about two years ago. It wasn't difficult to find artists working in the area of installation and able to work with a residency.

“In fact, I drew up a long list of artists, but the first six that I spoke to all said yes, and they are the six artists in the exhibition,” Robinson says.

Cahill's piece, for example, may well be the most overtly feminist work. Dealing specifically with the subject of the objectification of woman's breasts, Cahill's “Breasts in the Press” features at its core a larger-than-life Venus de Milo with larger-than-life breasts. Onto this big-chested version of the Venus de Milo, Cahill projects a music video in which she performs a parody of “My Humps,” a pop song by the Black Eyed Peas. For obvious reasons, Cahill's rewrite of the pop song cannot be printed here, but needless to say, Cahill's tongue-in-cheek version is both hilarious and sharply pointed at men in particular.

The remaining works are more subtle in their implications of feminist thought or theory.

For example, Weems' “Lincoln, Lonnie and Me — A Story in 5 Parts” is an 18-minute installation in which a video is projected onto a mock stage set framed in bright-red theater curtains. In it, a multitude of characters and voices conjure the past and the present, and remind us that history, and gender roles, are still being written.

Leeson's six-point projection video “Active Energy: Pittsburgh” tackles love and loss through dementia, through interviews with several Pittsburgh-area seniors. Moor's installation “by and about” has printed excerpts from the writings of black female writers, poets and musicians, on prints in a deep brownish-red color that cover the walls.

Finally, Forouhar's “Written Room,” in which the artist has covered the walls and floor of her appointed room with Farsi script, and Damon's “Water Rules — Life” in which she created an entire subterranean environment in the museum's basement, are not to be missed, for they add elements of brevity to what is otherwise a pertinacious exhibit.

Robinson has written a lengthy statement that accompanies the exhibit addressing the current state of feminism. In it, she contends that feminism is not a style, a method or a set of aesthetic concerns: “Rather, feminism is a set of politics, dedicated to the analysis of gender and the liberation of all women in support of the improvement of all humankind. To be feminist is to be actively involved with a process of thinking and acting and engaging with the whole world. To think feminist is not to think about women, but to think about anything and everything that has some form of gender-coding, or implications for the gender-coding of individuals one way or another.”

Robinson, who teaches a feminism art theory class at CMU, says, “The women's movement of the '60s and '70s sprung from issues of basic rights to control of your own body — these issues have again been at the forefront of many debates recently, with proponents of ‘small government' making the exception when it comes to women's heath and reproductive rights; with people from singers to televangelists implying that it is OK and sometimes necessary to physically abuse women; and still women earn less than men and are more likely to live and die in poverty.

“If you add up all the Americans who have been killed in war or through terrorism since Sept. 10, 2001 — well, the numbers of American women who have been killed by their boyfriends or husbands in the same time is larger. We talk of a war on terror, but what about the war on women?”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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