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Art Chat

A discussion led by Linda Mackey Lang and guests on art related topics and our own experiences that continue to impact our artistic journeys from both a historical and contemporary perspective.

Our First Blog Entry

1 July 2021

Today in the studio, Mary and I were talking about famous Canadian female artists. We started with Emily Carr, then Doris McCarthy (who I was lucky enough to be studio assistant to). Then we paused. Why can we ramble off Group of Seven members and other male artists? 

Perhaps the answer has been written. Linda Nochlin (1931-2017) was an American feminist art historian who, in 1971 wrote an article "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? (1971 ARTnews magazine). This article has sparked a generation of feminist artists and the field of feminist art history. The following are some quotes from the article showing how she attempts to answer this question:

"The assumptions behind such a question are varied in range and sophistication, running anywhere from "scientifically proven" demonstrations of the inability of human beings with wombs rather than penises to create anything significant, to relatively open-minded wonderment that women, despite so many years of near-equality– have still not achieved anything of exceptional significance in the visual arts."

"What if Picasso had been born a girl? Would Señor Ruiz have paid as much attention or stimulated as much ambition for achievement in a little Pablita?"

"The fact, dear sisters, is that there are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cézanne, Picasso or Matisse, or even, in very recent times, for de Kooning or Warhol.

The fault, dear brothers, lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education ... everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs and signals."

Thoughts to ponder. Well, Mary - let's change all of that! And then I remember that Mary really has been working hard towards changing all of that. She did an amazing series of paintings that rewrite the narrative of some historical paintings from the perspective of a female artist. 

Mary Williams artist statement follows:

"This body of work as a whole is a series that explores the role of women in well known stories. Ultimately, each piece takes a female figure from either literature, mythology, religion, or folklore and depicts them in an unexpected way to better fit their narrative. The goal of portraying each woman in a different environment is to get the viewer to confront what they think they know about these stories. Each story has shaped or informed our society in some way which is why it is important to take a closer look and see how they are still relevant to the way we think about women today (i.e. news, social media, workplace etc).

For the purpose of this work, I drew inspiration from art history and looked at visual depictions of each woman since I was technically repainting their narrative as opposed to rewriting it. Each piece has nuances of elements from famous paintings, such as colour palettes, scenes, and objects. The paintings reclaim these elements to turn the antagonist version or helpless version of these women into something stronger. Although the figures are given stronger identities, a reference to their perceived depictions are paid.

To contrast the new depictions, the pieces also feature elements of evil. In "Modern Day Medusa", as she reads Helene Cixous's feminist theory rooted in the story of Medusa's tainted identity, her famous snakes lurk facelessly around her calm expression. "Why Did Ophelia Have to Drown?" shows the woman herself gazing serenely toward the viewer against a backdrop of chaotic natural landscape. Eve and Lilith sit relaxed against wallpaper with a hint of the Garden of Eden, the place where both were exiled. Eve toys with the idea of eating the forbidden fruit and the darker world lives below their table where the serpent is not obviously friend or foe. Morgan Le Fay heads her own round table, similar to King Arthur's trademark, where she showcases her power in what could be the Oval Office over antagonist Donald Trump.

These works aim to challenge what society has told the viewer about how they should think about women through the use of seemingly harmless tales. Each piece re-envisions these female figures to better suit not only their true identity, but also how women should be seen in each story's circumstance today. It is important to critically analyze stories that have shaped societies because they have informed today's and are still relevant in the way we view women in these same situations, fictional or not. The works serve as a reclamation of female identity and question how far we have really come if ancient stories can still be used to speak to today's worldview of women.

     -- Mary Williams, 2020

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