An art exhibit planned before Trump and #MeToo takes on heightened meaning amid social change
By Christina Campodonico
Ever since Eve took a bite of the apple, being a woman has hardly ever been easy. The past couple of years have been especially fraught for women in America.
Instead of what would have been our first female president, a womanizing businessman accused of sexual harassment many times over was elected to the highest office in the land. The fall of a Hollywood kingpin triggered an avalanche exposing rampant sexual abuse at the highest echelons of media and entertainment. A new Supreme Court justice accused of sexual assault may pose a threat to reproductive rights.
In response, we’ve also seen the rise of the global Women’s March movement and the creation of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to combat sexual harassment, and in November a record number of women won seats in Congress. Yet to call either 2017 or 2018 “The Year of the Woman” would be too jubilant — many would argue we still have a long way to go to reach gender parity — but undoubtedly American women are having a moment.
#MeToo, Time’s Up, Harvey Weinstein, Brett Kavanaugh and the rollercoaster Trump Era didn’t exist when Venice artist Kathy Taslitz and painter Deirdre Sullivan-Beeman proposed the all-female exhibit “Life in this Ocean” to the Annenberg Community Beach House over two years ago. But now that the work is on display, it’s impossible not to read the exhibition through the lens of #MeToo and Trump Resistance.
Taslitz’s aluminum giclée of a pink cat peeking through a vulva-shaped aperture, aptly titled “Pussy Anxiety,” recalls the pink pussy hats that became synonymous with the inaugural Women’s March.
The predatory sea creatures circling artist Lena Rushing’s figures of women in peaceful contemplation read as symbols for men who’ve threatened defilement or destruction.
Sullivan-Beeman’s Old Masters-style paintings of young ladies on the brink of womanhood remind of the pleasures and dangers of young adulthood.
And Donna Bates’ “American Warriors” wear the American flag majestically, like battle-tested heroines for a new era. Armed with arrows or capped by crowns, their hair strewn with curlers or wrapped by the stars and stripes, Bates’ “Badass Chicks” (as she also calls them) radiate power and regality like goddesses of the New World and a new world order, taking the iconography of America’s historically patriarchal power structure and reclaiming it as their own.
In Bates’ universe, a riff on the Statue of Liberty’s legacy is not some lily-white beauty queen, but a young black woman with raging red hair and pink sunglasses. The woman in “War Paint and Curlers,” who wears arrows in her hair and holds a bitten apple, isn’t Eve thrown out of the garden, nor a victim of some William Tell-like assault, but a lipsticked maven who’s spiked the symbol of American capitalism — the dollar bill’s Eye of Providence — with one of her sharp hairpieces.
“Those things that are your battle scars,” says Bates of the arrows in her subject’s hair, “you can also use them as weapons.”
Themes of independence and survival have pulsed throughout Bates’ work over the years, she says, but have been especially resonant in our current social and political moments.
“People are more receptive to the work,” she says, noting a very successful year for selling paintings. “It seems to be hitting a note.”
The same goes for Rushing, who says she’s had more opportunities to showcase her work this past year.
“I’ve had a fantastic response,” she says, even though she didn’t intend for her images spiked by malevolent sea creatures — eels or sharks mostly— to be read in a #MeToo light. “Before #MeToo, I was painting powerful women who were kind of saying say f**k the patriarchy … [but] I’m drawn to creatures that maybe have a bad reputation … predatory animals, which can often mean men.”
Even so, Rushing hopes people notice the powerful women in her images.
“Most of them feature women with some sort of creature, but those creatures have been tamed or the women are just not fearful of them,” she says. “One of the pieces in the show, she’s floating on this bed with all these hammerhead sharks underneath: she’s overcome her fears. She’s feeling strong and brave.”
Bates, 71, also hopes her paintings echo a sentiment of empowerment.
“The war paint is like your makeup,” she says. “We put on our makeup every day. We fix our hair. We carry our purse. We slosh through the primordial ooze with the slings and arrows to battle another day, and we’re facing a lot of disparity. … It’s OK to go out there and do battle. Just getting through this life is not easy. Be loud and proud about being strong, and also don’t go looking for answers from men or expect a Prince Charming to come and save you.”
“I think subconsciously [#MeToo] does come out in everybody’s work,” adds Sullivan-Beeman. “I think there’s also great conversation between all the works. What I love is not just the styles are different, but I really feel like all the people in the pieces are sort of talking with each other across the hallway. I love that you sort of hear an echo.”
Struggle, says Taslitz, whose work often deals with the unrealistic lifestyle and beauty standards put upon women, is also a major theme of the show.
“The struggle to be heard, the struggle to fit in, or to make a name, or place, for yourself,” are all present within “Life in this Ocean,” she says, citing Sullivan-Beeman’s paintings of young ladies in that “eternal struggle” between girlhood and womanhood.
Emblematic of that transition is Sullivan-Beeman’s “Seahorse Girl,” which depicts a young woman in a frilly frock gazing into treasure chest held open by the tail of a seahorse — a metaphor for the awakening of her subconscious, says the artist.
“I’m always investigating that moment when a girl becomes a woman, and that naiveté, and the ‘A-ha!’ moment,” says Sullivan-Beeman. “To me, it’s not sexual. It’s just, there’s a moment that happens. So I’m always sort of playing with it, and I do feel like I’m investigating that moment.”
Whether we are post-#MeToo or just at the beginning of our cultural reckoning with violence against women is still up in the air, but Sullivan-Beeman believes that we are entering an Aquarian Age. In astrological speak, that means a women-driven era of change overtaking the present or, in some astrologers’ estimations, the very recently departed Piscean Age “dominated by a Christian patriarchal system,” according to astrologers with Elle.com.
“Aquarius is all about water. And Aquarius is also about the female energy,” says Sullivan-Beeman, who ran her own event design company in the 1990s and 2000s. “Women are becoming stronger, becoming themselves more. And not having any fear to speak their minds. … The younger women, like 20-year-olds and 30-year-olds, are much stronger than the 40-, 50-, 60-year-olds. They really own their voice. … So I find this really an amazing moment in time, because I think we’re really on a bridge to changing into this Aquarian era.”
Perhaps this watery symbol is tailor-made for a seaside show speaking to a cultural moment that’s still in flux but, like a wave, unstoppable once it has formed.
“Life in this Ocean” remains on view from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Jan. 7 at the Annenberg Community Beach House, 415 Pacific Coast Hwy., Santa Monica. Call (310) 458-4904 or visit annenbergbeachhouse.com to confirm gallery hours.