It is almost impossible to ignore the irony that one of 2018’s biggest trends is the female voice – an entity previously squashed and shifted by trends themselves. However, like most trends, female empowerment has been exercised for decades prior, particularly within contemporary art. Be it with the radical feminist activist group, The Guerilla Girls, shedding light on the gross misrepresentation of women in museums and galleries, or the racial controversy and backlash stirred by Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till at the Whitney Biennial, the female artist’s voice generates a force for change. In the wake of Me Too movements and the revival of feminism, the responsibility of the female artist grows to encompass a new spread of awareness and to create a paradigm shift in our societal constraints. The women listed below not only added to the dialogues circulating today, but have allowed the conversation to even take place. They have consistently challenged the male dominance in the art world, and on a global scale, to promote social change, justice and understanding.
1) Barbara Kruger
Barbara Kruger has become a living icon within the art world as an American conceptual pop artist. Her background in graphic design is apparent in her compositions and text/image relationships. Kruger uses found images from media sources to create impactful images often using only black, white and red. Her 1981 masterpiece, Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, is as relevant then as it is now, as she confronts the male gaze as poignant as Manet’s Olympia. 1985’s Your Body is a Battleground is one of the most iconic feminist pieces of our time, blatantly addressing the same issues of control and regulation placed on the female body. Her recent work has become that much more politically charged and her focus on text magnifies the female voice to an unavoidable magnitude.
Photo Credits: The Broad Museum, High Line Art
2) Andrea Bowers
Los Angeles based conceptual artist, Andrea Bowers, creates gorgeous politically thoughtful work as a “service to the cause of activism” even when feminist art was considered passé. Her work carries the conversation we have been having for years in an elegance often not seen in political art. Triumph of Labor shown at Susanne Vielmetter in 2016, continued her analysis of the labor movement and her extensive archive of protest posters, while also bringing attention to feminist themes within the same context. Her series Whose Feminism Is it Anyway?, shown at Andrew Kreps gallery, carries a similar theme and does not shy away from how feminist struggles overarches to race, class and equality. Bower’s work holds the viewer accountable for understanding and acknowledging our political climate.
Photo Credits: Susanne Vielmetter Projects, Kaufmann Repetto
3) Jenny Holzer
Another text-based artist, Jenny Holzer uses the art world as stage to express her political views in an effort to disrupt society’s passive reception of misinformation. Holzer uses public art as social intervention and is cited as one of the first artists to use information technology as a platform for political protest; her LED signs use the same technology that transmits dates, temperatures, speeds and more impersonal information in public places. Her phrases become instilled in the viewer’s psyche and statements such as, “ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE” have seen a resurgence as a timeless and repeated sentiment. Holzer is not scared to work outside of gender constraints to question male driven authority. Her text-based works strips the images from gender identifying imagery and act as one strong, critical, universal voice.
Photo Credits: Jenny Holzer
4) Akunyili Crosby
Nigerian-born and Los Angeles based artist, Akunyili Crosby, uses more traditional artistic media to create intimate scenes that center around the shifting identity of displaced African citizens in cities throughout the world. Her works are as densely patterned as an early Matisse painting, but challenge racial identities and moments of personal change. She does not shy away from the issues of casual racism that she herself faces on a daily basis. Her work challenges not only what it means to be a female in Western society, but the further nuance and challenge of being an outsider in a dominant culture. She places that same perspective on the viewer, as she uses imagery more easily recognized by African viewers. Crosby has quickly made waves within the art scene and in 2017, received recognition as a MacArthur fellow.
Photo Credits: The Los Angeles Times
5) Louise Bourgeois
Louise Bourgeois’ work exudes broody feminism and pioneered the feminist art movement of the early 1960s and 70s. Her deeply personal pieces draw on the therapeutic process of creating art, as she essentially created her own language using objects and creatures to symbolize the feminine. Her father’s infidelity is the most apparent trauma, which she brutally addresses in her first installation The Destruction of the Father. Despite its deeply personal nature, Bourgeois’ work addresses the universal themes of betrayal and the lasting damage to the female psyche.
Photo Credits: The Hammer Museum
6) Nicole Eisenman
Nicole Eisenman has emerged as a prominent voice for the LGBT community as well as a MacArthur genius. Her earlier pieces exude a raw angst, not so different from her early punk scene roots, and challenges the authority of the male driven art world and education: “I was just pissed off because I didn’t see a place for myself in that world.” Eisenman uses humor and allegory to explore sexuality and an overwhelming fed up sense of the male dominated world. Her painting Commerce Feeds Creativity says it best with the leechlike and lofty male (Commerce) spoon feeding the sickly and bound female (Creativity). Humorous, dark and clear of its repulsion of the patriarchal art world and excess, Eisenman’s voice does not shy away from that which makes us uncomfortable.
Photo Credits: The New Museum, Susanne Vielmetter Projects
7) Cindy Sherman
Cindy Sherman is perhaps the queen of reinventing oneself as a female and artist. Her artistic process has not wavered from creating new personas addressing the infinite array of identity stereotypes instilled by advertising, media and art. She breaks down these stereotypes using photographic series exposing the mechanics of their production. Her first works from the late 70’s called Film Stills challenged the image of women in films from the 1950s-60s addressing the overarching personality type, rather than the individual female actress. She carries this same concept into subsequent work addressing the gamut of feminine roles, be it the housewife or artistic muse, to dismantle the masculine vision of the feminine. Her more recent work offers a caricature of hyper-vanity and a critique on women’s own behaviors – a statement only a woman could make on her own gender.
8) Shirin Neshat
Iranian multimedia artist, Shirin Neshat, poetically explores radical issues from Iranian and Muslim life, specifically addressing the mistreatment of women. Her 1993-1997 Women of Allah series examines all sides of the female, male, public and private conditions and secular identities in both Iranian and Western cultures. She declares the female presence in a male dominated culture, as the female gaze becomes a powerful instrument for communication. Neshat’s imagery transcends the art world by addressing the larger issue of human rights. The artist’s work has never been shown in Iran, despite global recognition, as she overcomes ex-communication from her home country in artistic martyrdom.
9) Kara Walker
Kara Walker’s now iconic and consistent artistic language remains a challenging and impactful voice on race and gender roles outside of the arts. Her pieces confront American history and antebellum slavery, all while examining overarching gender stereotypes. Her stark silhouettes borderline humor and the grotesque, but command a second look and meditation on our own image gestalts. The work may nod to the cultural past, but it remains audacious and challenging as she demands we examine the origins of racial and sexual inequality that persist in society. Walker’s awe-inspiring structure, Sugar Baby, was installed in Brooklyn’s defunct Domino Factory in 2014. The piece grandly presented satirically biting imagery relating to both art history as well as black stereotypes, ultimately responding to the context of the sugar factory space and the conflicted history behind the sugar trade.
Photo Credit: VICE
10) Jenny Saville
Jenny Saville’s techniques may be traditional, but her subject matter challenges our notions of beauty and figure painting as a whole. Her paintings are highly tactile, sensuous and exude a fleshy quality that celebrate the artistic media. Her female voice speaks volumes across mammoth canvases and flesh. She shows how bodies can be changed and celebrates the unidealized female nude so typically painted by the male artists that dominate our art institutions.
Photo Credit: The Broad Museum
Co-authored by Nicole Kutz