Gavlak Los Angeles Offers Nasty – and Terrific – Group Show
Closed December 12
Written by Genie Davis
If “Karma is a nasty woman,” as Lisa Anne Auerbach proclaims in her textile artwork of the same name, then Gavlak’s exhibition Nasty Women is filled with that karma. The 8-artist group exhibition closing this weekend, is an inclusive and exciting show that displays the work of female-identified artists in this place and time – and in the past.
Commemorating both the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment’s ratification guaranteeing women’s suffrage, the exhibition also represents this year’s presidential election, the tense run-up to it, President-elect Biden’s victory, and the ongoing assault on democracy by the outgoing presidency. Trump coined the phrase “nasty women” during the 2016 election. But it has been reappropriated over time, as it is here, to serve as a catch-all phrase for the bold, defiant, and powerful voice of all women. An additional and vital element of the Gavlak exhibition is that it serves as a way to exhibit solidarity for LGBTQ+ and female artists together in the face of the Supreme Court’s loss of Justice Ginsberg.
Along with the majority of contemporary works displayed, there are historical pieces, making a fascinating and even unusual turn for a gallery show. There is a fabulous 18th-century pastel portrait by the Scottish artist Catherine Read, and a painted self-portrait from the Italian Renaissance that is anonymous. That anonymity was likely endemic during the time period, preventing common knowledge today of gifted work by female artists from that era.
The entire exhibition is dedicated to the memory of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which has led to another unique aspect of a powerful space: an interactive reading room. Curated by gallerist Sarah Gavlak, the small salon style “room” is positioned in the center of the gallery, offering access to literature and essays covering everything from critical feminist theory and art history, to politics and philosophy.
This small library within a gallery setting adds an additional air of gravitas and importance to the exhibition and is in itself inclusive and exciting in its selection. But the art easily stands alone as a signature collection of works. Kudos to the space for mounting it.
With a central positioning of sculptures – including a mammoth ceramic figure of a nude female form, “Stubborn Woman, Orange Hands” by Viola Frey, the show is museum-quality in terms of layout and in creating a memorable dialogue among the works themselves.
The standouts are numerous. Among them, April Bey’s “Atlantic Archives, (Earth’s Feminism II)” particularly resonates. Her use of materials continues to be exciting, here it is a digitally printed woven blanket with hand sewn faux-African wax fabric and glitter. She uses Chinese knock-offs of traditional material that are available for purchase in African countries. The medium adds a rich nuance to a well-balanced piece, an image in which two women hold a banner that reads “Votes for Women.” It is both current-day political poster and an antique heirloom quilt. The banner/quilt square is held by two beautiful, queenly women of color in elaborate headdresses and jewels. The piece, taken as a whole, is an anointing.
Catherine Read’s softly sensual, ivory-skinned self-portrait evokes an authentic past. It is delicate, lovely, glowing; a graceful image. The eyes, a bit askew and a bit sardonic, provide an interesting, even ironic contrast. It is as if the subject is saying, yes, see me because I am lovely, but see that I am more than that. And – see that I see you. From an earlier period, the anonymous Italian painter chooses a golden, burnished color palette, and her self-subject is looking only at her work. Her half-smile indicates a deep pleasure in her task, dipping her brush in the paint on her palette, answering to no one but her own muse.
Lisa Yuskavag’s “Dancer with Blue Tutu” is also responding only to her muse as she stands poised in mid-dance, alone on a grassy stage under an ink-black sky. With features primarily obscured, she is all caught-motion. Like the artist in the anonymous Renaissance portrait, this figure is dancing for no one but herself, experiencing the fluidity and strength in her own movement. In short: the piece embodies a literal example of a “woman’s movement.”
Both monumental in size and meaning, Viola Frey’s aforementioned “Stubborn Woman, Orange Hands” is riveting. This is a truly formidable figure – height, expression, those orange hands. Did she put a certain orange tyrant out of his misery? Did she slap him hard? Her very nudity makes her even more powerful, as does the directness of her gaze. The imperfections of her skin, what appears to be a streak of blood on her leg – this is potent. You want this giantess on your side in whatever battle – for the vote, to win the vote, to fight repression and evil – that you are engaged in.
Both the exhibition and the subject of “Nasty Women” rule. The exhibition can viewed online.
1700 South Santa Fe Avenue, Suite 440, Los Angeles, 90021