Roswell Space, los Angeles
If you want a thing done well, get a couple old broads to do it.Bette Davis
Written by Betty Ann Brown
In 2014, Los Angeles artist Karen Ruth Karlsson decided to create a community of older female artists and schedule regular group exhibitions in various area venues. She presented Old Broad exhibitions in museums, commercial galleries and alternative spaces, always focusing on women over 50 years of age.
It is patently clear that women suffer from implicit–and explicit–bias in our culture. Women over 50 are doubly oppressed, being subject to the stereotyped thinking of both misogyny and ageism. Social scientists tell us that forming heterogeneous communities is one of the best ways to counter bigotry. Karlsson’s community-building curatorial project functions in precisely that way, drawing together diverse women and empowering them as creatives.
The first Old Broads exhibition was at Red Pipe Gallery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. I remember attending the opening and thinking that there was some good art included, but the title of the group made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know that the term came from the fact that women’s hips are generally wider–or broader–than men’s. I hadn’t read Bette Davis’ statement about old broads. Nor had I read Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement about ageing: “Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art.” Having just seen the most recent Old Broads exhibition, at Roswell Space in LA’s Glassell Park, I would amend that statement to read: Old people (in this case old women) make beautiful works of art.
The Roswell show features 15 artists, most of whom are represented by two artworks: Marthe Aponte, Anne M. Bray, Ada Pullini Brown, Brenda Hurst, Debbie Korbel, Susan Lasch Krevitt, Jonna Lee, Stevie Love, Snezana Petrovic, Anita Ray, Michelle Robinson, Catherine Ruane, Caryl St. Ama, Jill Sykes, and Robin Tripaldi. This essay is too short for in-depth discussions of each of the artworks, so I will only address a few standouts. (Mind you, this is such a subjective process that if any other writer were to respond to this exhibition, she would probably focus on completely different artworks!)
Marthe Aponte’s Self Portrait is rendered in picote, the French folk art form involving the use of awls to pierce small decorative holes in paper. She presents a frontal face framed by three hair “bumps” that are adorned by curvilinear ornamentation. The background is midnight black with a scattering of stars formed by pierced holes and tiny beads. It is a regal, iconic depiction that derives much of its power from the bilateral symmetry and measured use of abstract forms.
Painter Ada Pullini Brown submitted a gorgeous cloudscape with sunlight slipping through shadowy areas and a thin gold line accenting the horizon. Brown’s careful articulation of light and dark recalls the cloud paintings of British artist John Constable. With his dual interests in emotionalism and new views of the natural world, Constable is often considered a practitioner of Romanticism. Brown’s work adds a layer of nostalgia to historic Romanticism: a reminder that our environment is no longer a pristine paradise, but instead a threatened, endangered realm.
Performer, sculptor, and installation artist Snezana Petrovic created a curiosity cabinet for the Roswell Space exhibition. The cabinet’s three glass shelves hold brilliantly pigmented crystalline forms. And the top of the wooden cabinet is lined with a frieze of white shapes that recall the artist’s work with sea coral. Starting during the European Renaissance, collectors would assemble notable objects from nature and arrange them in a room or, less ambitiously, in a piece of furniture containing shelves for display. Cabinets of curiosities (kunstkabinett or wunderkammer) comprised the first steps to what we today call Natural History Museums. They often contained the spoils of imperial warfare and colonialism; they served as justifications for European conquests. Today, Petrovic uses her curiosity cabinet to remind us how such colonialism led to cultural and natural erasures.
Jill Sykes and Catherine Ruane are both known for their sophisticated depictions of plant life, but their goals are disparate. Sykes negotiates the shapes of leaves against solid backgrounds of color. She underscores their contours with shimmering lines of contrasting hues, allowing viewers to consider the biomorphic patterns as fascinating abstract forms. In contrast, Ruane has often depicted memorable trees, e.g., the so-called Hanging Trees that were used for historic lynchings. For the Old Broads exhibition, Ruane submitted the portrait of a rose taken from the garden she abandoned when she recently moved to the desert. Precisely limned in graphite, charcoal, and walnut ink, Ruane’s rose floats on a circular surface like a heraldic badge. (In the 15th century, the heraldic rose symbolized hope and joy to the House of Lancaster in England.)
I hope these few examples give you an understanding of the remarkable diversity in the Old Broads Exhibition. These artists may be “old,” but they are immensely talented “broads.” I would add that they are lucky ones, as well, since they have found a creative community that supports their artwork. I will close with an appropriate affirmation from a beloved American actress and comedian:
I have no regrets at all. None. I consider myself to be the luckiest old broad on two feet.Betty White