Organized by artist, writer, and curator Rachel Reese, You, Me, We, She explores the ways in which contemporary female artists work with, or respond to, community and collective identity [Fleisher/Ollman Gallery; February 23 – March 21, 2012]. Explicitly not a feminist art show, though dealing often with issues of gender and sexuality, the exhibition focuses on works and documents dating from 1965 to the present that “act as social interstices.” In other words, the exhibition’s photographs, objects, videos, gatherings, and ephemera attempt to provide breathing spaces within which to think about the ways we interact in groups. In the process, the show’s artists sometimes, gently, intervene in the lives of their subjects.
At the front desk are a collection of twee soaps next to for-sale sign. Incongruous with the commercial gallery’s brisk, clean lines, the soaps made by Benedictine nuns form part of artist Julia Sherman’s anthropological investigations. Sherman has been helping the sisters to rebrand their wares, while photographing aspects of their community. In the gallery, she exhibits six unframed color photographs depicting acid treated mirrors. Their pale purple, yellow, and green crystallized surfaces appropriately have the appearance of shattered, stained glass, and supposedly conserve mental energy for forms of internal reflection, rather than promote vanity. Stacked in groups and mounted behind glass, the images of redundant looking-glasses are huddled and anthropomorphic.
Two photographers capture modern utopian scenes. In Justine Kurland’s Sisiku Mountain Tea Party, 2006, three nude women roam with their children and dog, pale skin gleaming against a vast, dark green landscape. The image is composed like one of Poussin’s mythological paintings, and was captured during a lengthy roadtrip, suggesting the impossibility of this tribal-type freedom within the commitments of everyday life. Tammy Rae Carland visited lesbian women’s intentional communities for her Outpost series, 2004, but her three exhibited photographs depict unpopulated model encampments installed at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, not lived-in spaces. In her humor-tinged images, inflated white latex gloves hang from branches as decorations, and a pair of domestic toilets complete with plush purple and red seat covers sit in the open air for use by the unashamed.
Jennifer Levonian’s Rebellious Bird, 2011, sensitively approaches the complexities of gender identity, exploring women’s attempts to participate in two staunchly masculine collective acivities: the historical civil war and its present day reenactment. In the short animated film, several storylines interweave. A jolly woman, Wendy Ramsburg, describes breast-binding and adopting masculine body language in an effort to be accepted by her local chapter of reenactors; she also shares a collection of letters detailing similar activities on the historical front. These scenes intercut with images from the artist’s pregnancy. Levonian uses watercolor carefully to depict everyday details – a dainty, white and blue umbrella stand in the interviewee’s ladylike home; the cool, silvery squirt of ultrasound gel – and to create a fluid, nonjudgmental atmosphere.
References to peaceful protest recur throughout the show, tracing engagement with this cultural form across generations. Corita Kent’s bright orange and blue serigraph posters, such as people like us yes, 1965, allude through text to racial and political power divides and worker’s rights. A black and white photograph by Donna Henes, Streams for Conscience (chants for peace), 1985, shows women walking and pushing strollers amongst trailing, white paper streamers scrawled with idealistic phrases. It documents a 40-hour performance marking the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Shani Peters picks up this articulation of social struggle through typography and low-fi production values in her recent screenprints, Alternative Gold Paper Chains (Power and Knowledge), 2010. The curvy, bling identity tags associated with displaying wealth here become a call to embrace the values of self-improvement and learning.
Philadelphia has a rich history – and a vibrant present – of political and artistic communal activity. In 1971 the Life Center Association, a Quaker led organization for non-violent protest, bought its first building in West Philadelphia, which gave rise to a still-existent food co-op, publishing collective, anarchist space, and community-owned housing. The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Philadelphia exhibitions First Among Equals, 2012, and Locally Localized Gravity, 2007, were catalyzed by the area’s collaborative art scene. Reese is also a committed member of this extended community via her storefront venue Possible Projects and quarterly publication Possible Press, both playing roles in the current ICA show.
You, Me, We, She traces webs of connection between artists. For example, video clips of feminist art punk group DISBAND’s 1970s performances play on a monitor in one corner of the gallery; claps, stamps, acapella vocals and onomatopoeic sounds punctuate the space, while works by the group’s members are in the exhibition. A few blocks away AUX Performance Space, part of long-established collective gallery Vox Populi, hosted DISBAND’s packed reunion show, one of several related events that serve to reinforce the city’s collaborative ethos.