I would say I was less than a minute into the film program Hard Edge, Hard Work, which explores the abstract film and video works of women artists, when all of my preconceived notions were unceremoniously shattered by the tastefully high-heel clad foot of Kate Gilmore, kicking the shit out of a Sheetrock wall.
Some thoughts after the Jump. (Though I still haven't figured out why I had built those preconceived notions to begin with. I'm still working on that, and probably will be for a while, thank-you-very-much.)
I’d known something was coming, because the sounds of destruction preceded the foot. There was something terribly violent happening behind that very professionally tapped and prepared wall, I just didn’t know what. Then, there was Gilmore’s foot bursting through. She kicked again and again, forcing herself through with the kind of savage verve shown by Jack Nicholson in The Shining. She threw elbows and punches, ripping the walls away to revel others behind it she'd already set to work on.
Slowly, an abstract composition began to form from the destruction, as the other side of the wall, painted a glossy red, was pushed into the cameras view. Gilmore continued to punch and rip and kick her blasted scene, which was flecked with color from painted debris, but we were never really allowed to take it in. Gilmore inhabited the piece so completely, a brutal destroyer/creator in a black dress, black hose, and black gloves.
So this was the Hard Edge, Hard Work? What had I been expecting? Something softer? Had I actually been that chauvinistic art asshole who thought I'd be watching animated watercolors that looked like vaginas? Yes. I had been. And here I was both ashamed and yet deeply satisfied on a visceral level by watching Gilmore tear the fuck out of her surroundings.
Would I have been as thrilled if a man had been in Gilmores’ place? Not at all. I would have seen it as some kind of rip-off of Mathew Barney’s intentional physical barriers to creativity. I would have seen it as hackneyed and overdone.
It’s odd to think that in order for me to give Gilmore’s work my approval as “good art” it must necessarily play on my concepts of gender roles in the artistic community. It’s even more odd, when Gilmore’s work could easily be taken on it’s own creative merits. There’s brilliance in unseen painted surfaces being revealed in the destruction to create mosaic-like images; Gilmore’s own style of dress and its colors becoming more a part of the scene as the destruction grows; the sound and rhythm of the piece as Gilmore struggles in her work. If a man had been in the frame I may not have recognized these things.
Of course, Gilmore isn’t the only artist represented in these films, curated by Reed’s Stephanie Snyder as a companion to an ongoing show ABSTRACT: Léonie Guyer, Ruth Laskey, Lynne Woods Turner at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery. While the films will change over the course of the festival, this program (and subsequent programs) also included works by artist Maya Deren, who worked decades before Gilmore was even born.
The pairing of these two artists is excellent programing from Snyder. While Gilmore is noise and brutality, Deren’s silent films swirl and spin and move gracefully through images built from the world of abstract art and surrealism that came from her generation.
Deren's films are absolutely gorgeous. They have that aged, silvered, quality and the kind of artistic exuberance that could be seen in the work of her contemporaries like Man Ray and Luis Buñuel. But unlike the films of those two directors, Deren’s works have women at their center, and the movement and pacing seems particular concerned with that perspective. Which is not to say I couldn’t get into them. I absolutely could.
Aside from issues of gender, the films of these two women put side by side have something larger to say about contemporary art. The sculptural documentation of Deren’s work, at its heart, speaks to the sculptural documentation in Gilmore's work. There are wonderful echoes here which may not have been caught had they not been placed on the same screen.
These films were so wonderfully curated, I can only hope the trend continues in the coming screenings at the Witsell on Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 6:30 pm.
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