Offering a feminist perspective on the divine, art historical tradition, as well as widespread issues currently plaguing our planet, including climate change, consumer waste, terrorism, and the downsides of technology, The Feminine Sublime, currently on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, highlights the socially and politically charged work of five prominent Los Angeles-based female painters Merion Estes, Yvette Gellis, Virginia Katz, Constance Mallinson, and Marie Thibeault.
This inclusionary collection subverts traditionally male-dominated subjects, including landscapes, still-lifes, and mid-century abstraction in order to challenge preconceived notions about the environment, religion, and gender roles. Although women were always encouraged to dabble in the arts as that was considered to be a “lady-like” hobby, female artists were rarely taken seriously or included in the history books.
In an effort to combat this age-old sexism and tackle such monumental issues as climate change, the artists in this exhibition are all vocal supporters of ecofeminism, a movement aiming to highlight female voices in this issue. Indeed, all of the paintings in this collection feature this theme in some capacity. It is impossible to ignore the plea within these works urging the viewer to respect mother nature and the female side of the divine. Since the 1700’s, men in the western world have attempted to display their wealth and power through dominance over nature. Looking at the gardens of Versailles as an example, the Age of Enlightenment valued male-centric reason and logic over the more female-centric emotion and religion. This series hopes to correct that imbalance with dire warnings about what happens when women and the environment are left neglected for long periods of time. These painters stress that if humanity continues down its current path, even more instances of extreme weather and violence will be inevitable. Despite all of this, these endlessly talented women have imbued their paintings with a sense of hopefulness. If humanity can learn to value women, the natural world, emotions, and the feminine sublime, it can perhaps survive these trials and tribulations and emerge stronger than before.
Exploring themes of rampant consumerism in our modern society through the lens of the beloved 17th century Dutch still life, 2017’s Still Life in Landscape depicts a realistically and elegantly rendered scene of trash strewn about. Created by prominent landscape painter and The Feminine Sublime curator, Constance Mallinson, this exhibition highlight is filled to the brim with discarded goods, including pictures of Disney’s Ariel and Cinderella, plush toys, deflated balloons, and mini soccer balls. Perhaps the juvenile nature of this garbage reflects the childish and impulsive way we consume and dispose of goods. Although there is an American tone to this painting with its inclusion of The Star-Spangled Banner as well as Wendy’s wrappers and Diet Coke cans, this image is deeply inspired by the Dutch still-life in its dark, richly detailed aesthetic and morbid symbols. In this painting, we can make out a jawbone and toy gun. Instead of mixing the luxurious with the macabre as the celebrated Dutch male painters did, Mallinson here infuses banal, kitschy, and childlike items with disturbing ones as a memento mori or reminder of death. In addition, we can also think of this Dutch Golden Age as the advent of modernism and consumerism in the West with its wealthy merchants flaunting their status and riches in these now iconic paintings.
Looking at the issue of climate change from a landscape perspective, painter Merion Estes borrows imagery from ancient African prints and fabrics in 2016’s The Great Defrost to underscore the fragility of nature’s ecosystems. Here we see what look like icebergs, but orange flames threaten them from above and below. This dystopian landscape is a clear allusion to global warming and mankind’s hubris in its exploits.
Similar in theme and style, Oil, Wind, Fire, Water (2017) by Yvette Gellis is a landscape featuring Willem de Kooning-esque gestural abstraction with what seems to be thick, black clouds of smoke along with eerie orange and crimson red flames. Full of loss and longing, this image is a heartbreaking portrait of decay, a theme Gellis has wrestled with ever since seeing her childhood home bulldozed. As a triptych, Oil, Wind, Fire, Water also boasts religious undertones as this was common for altarpiece paintings in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Adding to this spiritual quality, this abstraction adds a female touch to male-dominated, but metaphysical world of mid-century Abstract Expressionism.
The three-dimensional abstract painting Land – Recomposition with Topaz, Amethyst, Ametrine and Quartz Crystals (2017) by landscape artist Virginia Katz subverts the traditional two-dimensional realm of pure abstraction by adding crystals to the canvas. Fragmented, angular, and fractured, these beautiful and hearty stones are piled up like rubble here. The painting resembles the aftermath of an earthquake. Due to the association of women with crystals, the message becomes clear, do not harm mother nature. We can see evidence of her revenge in this destruction.
Finally, Marie Thibeault’s geometric color field abstract Eclipse (2017) further hints at historical gender imbalances and the female side of divinity. Seen in the background of this painting are loosely rendered triangles and rectangles in a pastel hue, which actually bear a strong resemblance to Katz’s crystals. On top of these forms, we see what looks like either an infinity sign or an hourglass. With the symbolic resonance of these forms, one cannot help about think about notions relating to time with this piece. This orbital shape conjures images of the infinite, finite, and cyclical all at the same time. While we do not know if this eclipse is solar or lunar, masculine or feminine, it does help us think about balancing these two sides ourselves and society.
The Feminine Sublime is an incredibly poignant, timely ode to balance, of nature and technology, creation and destruction, flux and stasis, human morality and divinity, and of course the masculine and feminine.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.