Review Title: The Daughters of Mother Nature Seek an Original State Prior to Patriarchal Oppression
by Chunbum Park
Installation view of the group exhibition
How must women artists respond to the challenges of inequality embedded in a society where patriarchy and capitalism converge? What can something as “standard” as a landscape painting reveal to us about the women’s perspectives and dreams, and Mother Nature, who Herself had been denigrated by the misogynistic idea in the Western mythology that culture is superior to Her? How can women artists express a sense of belonging to the Mother Nature even as the scientific gaze seeks a complete knowledge and mastery over Her, obliterating Her mysteries and legends? The Visionary Art Collective’s 2023 group exhibition, titled, “The Lens Through Which We See,” was on view at 72 Warren Street in NYC from April 20th to 27th, and the exhibiting artists are Bri Custer, Colleen Gleason Shull, Julie Avisar, Ekaterina Popova, Amanda Hawkins, and Sarah Boyle. The exhibition exclusively centers around landscape painting, featuring 18 works.
Installation view of the group exhibition
To contextualize the exhibition in the past and recent history of landscape paintings by women artists, we find Dora Carrington (1893–1932), an English painter who made “Mountain Ranges from Yegen, Andalusia.” This painting carried the association between landscape and femininity, expressing her interior desire and fantasies by giving the mountains the texture of a human skin. In the case of Louisa Matthíasdóttir (1917 – 2000), an Icelandic American painter, we see a stylization of representational imagery with clear and abstract, geometric planes, which were inspired by the clarity of light and colors of Iceland where she originated from. We also learn of Lois Dodd (1927 - ), an American who painted works such as “White Echinacea + Butterflies” based in direct observation and switching between representation and abstraction. Lastly, Latvian American artist Vija Celmins (1938 - ) has also dealt with Mother Nature as infinite spaces and vast, endless continuation of patterns and forms, which she depicted with graphite pencil.
Installation view of the group exhibition
As any meaningful analysis of an exhibition should begin with the press release, I summarize it as follows: the artist depicts the landscape(s) based on her own perception of reality and her emotions and memory; the paintings, which celebrate the land and the “interiority” or inner character of the artists, go beyond the basic act of observing to deal with feelings and individual experience of the artists. But what really differentiates these landscape paintings from the other works – contemporary and modern? How do the women’s viewpoints differ from the traditional male gaze of the landscape? How do they push the genre beyond what has already been achieved?
"Campfire" by Ekaterina Popova, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, 2023
First thing to note about the paintings in this exhibition is that they depict land or nature that is truly free, unbound from any kind of manipulation, control, or subjugation. There is absolutely no trace of farming, no people, and not even animals which may suggest a predator and prey dynamic on the land. The only exception may be Ekaterina Popova’s work titled “Campfire,” which depicts a campfire and a cylindrical object of some sort. However, this could also be understood as a remnant image of a tribal gathering or women’s paradise.
"Hawk Eye" by Sarah E. Boyle, oil on canvas, 52 x 60 inches, 2023
The fact that there are no people being depicted in the paintings means that the landscape is viewed directly by the viewer rather than through the gaze or perspective of the figures in the paintings. It is this immediate contact of light from the landscape with the viewer’s pupil that allows for a direct and transcendental observation and/or communication between the landscape and the viewer.
"Short of Expectations" by Bri Custer, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, 2023
Second, because there are no creatures and no visible people, no sign of civilization and no cultural or geopolitical specificity in terms of the location of the landscape and the viewer, the paintings maintain the secrets and the myths of the Mother Nature beyond any scientific and rational calculus or understanding. The paintings deny the hunter a chance to use his gun and make a kill. There is no gun or bow and arrow for the hunter. There is no hunter and the hunted. There is only the infinite continuum of the cosmos in space and time. Imagine a Minecraft game that spans over a space that is infinitely large and goes on and on forever. Perhaps you are all alone with no trace of NPCs or other players. The main purpose of this game (and the paintings) is to remove the political, social, cultural, and the economical from the considerations. What we have left is the pure landscape and a chance to have a dialogue with Mother Nature.
Top: "Crabapple" by Colleen Gleason Shull, oil on linen, 12 x 12 inches, 2022
Middle: "Crystal River" by Colleen Gleason Shull, oil on linen, 12 x 12 inches, 2022
Bottom: "Resistance" by Bri Custer, oil on canvas, 11 x 14 inches, 2022
Third, the paintings can be divided into two types: large snapshots within an infinite continuity and local portraits with a singular focus on a feature or object (such as a tree). In the case of Sarah E. Boyle’s “Hawk Eye” or “Orange Field,” the artist suggests that the land expands infinitely off the edges of the canvas. In “Crystal River” and “Crabapple” by Colleen Gleason Shull, the paintings appear to be intimate portraits depicting the reflections of nature in the water and the flower tree over grass, respectively. The two opposing directions in the works show the dual sides of Mother Nature – She can be infinitely big and powerful, yet a portrait of Her qualities can be intimate and/or personal.
"August 5, 2022 No. 2" by Amanda Hawkins, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, 2023
What is apparent is that the paintings have a quality of un-staged rawness that many other landscape paintings may lack (in my opinion). This is because other landscapes, such as those by the American painter Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848) – see “A View of the Two Lakes and Mountain House, Catskill Mountains, Morning,” and the British painters, Frank Auerbach (1931 - ) – see “The Origin of the Great Bear,” and David Hockney (1937 - ) – see “Untitled No. 12,” often utilize framing devices that are heavy to one side of the painting. The framing devices, which may consist of a large tree or other types of structures at a corner of the painting, suggest a kind of mental staging of the scenery or a process of idealization, just as a painter exercising the male gaze might stage and idealize the female body. An exception might be Bri Custer’s “Love Me in My Silence,” which is also “framed” by the larger tree elements on the left and right. However, Bri’s painting feels natural precisely because the framing elements are on both sides, and their even distribution results in a repetitive, rhythmic quality (of up, down, and up) that is true to nature. This contrasts the rather artificially “dynamic” composition marked by forcefully diagonal relationships often involving the placement of a framing device in a corner or on one side of a picture. I am very much drawn to the fact that the paintings in this exhibition are free from a certain preconceived notion of what makes an interesting landscape.
Left: "Sanctuary" by Julie Avisar, acrylic on canvas, 23.6 x 35.4 inches, 2023
Right: "Speckled" by Julie Avisar, acrylic on canvas, 23.6 x 35.4 inches, 2023
On a side note, the exhibiting artists have preserved in their works the lessons of painting developed since Modernity, whether they are the materiality and physicality of the paint - like Bri Custer - or the believability of an illusion or an illustrational quality – like Sarah E. Boyle. The case of abstraction is strong in the works of Julie Avisar and Bri Custer, and the use of fresh paint and loose handling of the brush are visible in Amanda Hawkins’ works.
"Love Me in My Silence" by Bri Custer, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 inches, 2023
As it is generally agreed that females can distinguish more colors than males, and as I was born biologically a male (but my pronouns are they/theirs/them), it is fair to say that I can only guess of what the women painters have seen and what they have depicted on the canvas. The male artists will never be able to see the additional depth of colors that the biologically female artists are able to engage within their works. If patriarchy placed a glass ceiling on women, Mother Nature gave biological males a color ceiling that they can never penetrate.
"River + Forest" by Colleen Gleason Shull, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, 2023
This leads us back to the women’s perspective and the issues of Feminism that I find as being present in the works. I contend that the women painters are symbolically or metaphorically the daughters of Mother Nature, and, within this sisterhood, they are looking for Her original state prior to the history of misogyny and patriarchal oppression. They are seeking a true representation of Mother Nature that vehemently denies the filter of the “patriarchal gaze” that seeks to distort Her image with calculations, which contrast the Mother Nature’s infinite and uncountable value. Furthermore, the artists are also pursuing their own original states prior to the same experiences of oppression within history and the present. They achieve this through the very act of painting, which can provide an interpretive lens to re-examine Mother Nature and the feminine self to arrive at their true representation. A relevant metaphor for painting is the process of healing that thickens the protective layers that form on the wounds (incurred by patriarchal oppression). The paintings, which reject the distractions of the social, political, economic, and cultural elements of what is considered or made desirable, become a tool for self-empowerment for the artists. The artist reflects and ruminates upon her own character as an artist and a woman through the recognition of Mother Nature’s sublime beauty and power, which counter the finite transactional powers of capitalism and patriarchy. Thus, the landscapes become vehicles or mirror mechanism that reproduce the women artists' understanding of their own power (for love and positive change that cannot be turned into a mathematical sum) that is internal to their being and in opposition to the patriarchal power structure.
"September 8, 2022 No. 2" by Amanda Hawkins, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, 2023
Healing may involve the unleashing of tension through the act of spreading the paint with a palette knife or the meditative, labor-intensive touch up to create an illusion. It may also occur at the most basic step of color mixing, which is a psychologically and emotionally involved process. It may happen at the level of perception of and dialogue with nature, in which color harmony and the quality of a meditative infinity can be perceived. An original state prior to patriarchal oppression could only be achieved by a positive process like healing, conversing, and meditating because both Mother Nature and femininity transcend the finite calculations and transactional nature of patriarchy and capitalism. No amount of negativity or defiance would be able to restore these innately positive entities and/or concepts to their original states.
Left: "A Propensity for Growth" by Bri Custer, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, 2023
Right: "For Every Season" by Ekaterina Popova, oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, 2023
The all-women group exhibition of landscape paintings may have begun, metaphorically or spiritually speaking, as a collective response to the negative facts and/or trauma of patriarchal oppression. But the exhibition has quickly evolved into something greater, with the artists concerning themselves with the immense beauty and power of Mother Nature, as well as her mysteries and meditative depths of her infinity. The artists also similarly celebrate the same qualities found within femininity as the landscapes become vehicles for reflection and deliberation on the self. The exhibition catalyzes the healing process, allowing for the search of an original state of the feminine self by the women artists prior to the state being manipulated and distorted by patriarchy and capitalism. In the future, this original state may materialize as a time or place where Mother Nature returns to reclaim the landscape from the pursuits of capitalism and the patriarchal gaze. Her daughters, this sisterhood, may eventually help facilitate this return and the process of healing by leading the people and the larger society to reject the ideas of money, power, and fame and the fetishistic nature of the capitalistic economy (which are purely social constructs). In conclusion, the exploration of landscape painting provides an opportunity to re-interpret and re-examine Mother Nature and the feminine self to arrive at their true representation, free and unrestrained from any distorted understanding that patriarchy and capitalism may try to impose.
"Orange Field" by Sarah E. Boyle, oil on wood panel, 9 x 12 inches, 2022
Visionary Art Collective:
Colleen Gleason Shull:
Sarah E. Boyle: