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Carolee Schneemann, "Portraits/Partial," 1970

radical femme artists join forces for survivors of gender-based violence

Blair Cannon

Chloe Wise, Hannah Black, and Vaginal Davis are among 40 artists coming together to benefit NYC's Sanctuary for Families.

Carolee Schneemann, "Portraits/Partial," 1970

While Eye to eye’s opening at Arsenal Contemporary last week proffered the anticipated beer-handed Bowery art crowd, a few steps deeper into the white space, it became clear that something more was happening here. Some 40-odd artists appear together — not fighting for eyes, but rather, building on a continuous narrative that snakes through sculptures, up walls, and round the back (where the massive group dialogue concludes with Hannah Black’s powerful lone film All My Love All My Love). There is no prompt, but there are two prerequisites to be in the show: to be a femme and to feel invested in the work of Sanctuary for Families (NYC’s leading service provider for survivors of gender-based violence), which the exhibition benefits.

Chloe Wise, "Mood Is When," 2018

The artists are individually radical, but together, the reverb of long-silenced voices is palpable and the tension of female near-explosive expression is layered on thick. By the entrance, Jay Miriam’s lumpy, clumpy Demoiselles-esque women peer scraggle-faced from their oil paints across the room at Juliana Cerqueria Leite’s commanding lifesize plaster casts of her own body. Setting the stage, this sculpture, Cinq a Sept 2 — looking almost like a three-dimensional analog of Miriam’s women — is a hacked-together, drippy, twisting form that rejects the comparison one is compelled to draw between it and a Greek goddess.

Ambera Wellman, "Things Change," 2017

In the next room, works by trailblazers Carol Rama, Carolee Schneemann, and Rita Ackerman seem to acknowledge one another from across the aisle — Eye to eye, indeed — representing so many generations of female artists who pushed for decades to get someplace like here. Vaginal Davis — another icon who shaped the relationship between art, sex, and gender in the 70s — shows three surprisingly delicate, yellow, little watercolors, named after Madames of the Marie Antoinette age. “I create abstracted portraits of historical and mythic women using everyday items from the home,” Davis explains of her uncharacteristically domestic creations. These works in particular represent a necessary expansion of the vocabulary of femininity as well as a soft, introspective moment from LA’s most notorious drag performer.

Vaginal Davis, "Madame du Barry," 2015

Similarly introspective is Chloe Wise’s portrait of her friend and trans fashion model Dara, who the artist describes as possessing “elegant hand poses which she has effectively mastered beyond the skills of any hand model.” Decorated with fake food in typical Wise fashion, the portrait reflects the purpose of the show: a group of women who, while under varying degrees of oppression, developed incredible skill. After all, “fear and hatred of the profound sacred secrets embedded in all things femme,” Davis explains to i-D, “is what propels gender violence in our world.” Wise thanks Arsenal’s director, Loreta Lamargese, for using their work to support victims culturally and directly — as both are what we surely need.

"Eye to eye" is on view at Arsenal Contemporary through February 25, 2018.

Louise Sartor, "read 3:06PM ✓," 2017
Ivy Haldeman, "Heel to hand," 2017
Shuvinai Ashoona, "Untitled," 2017