When the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth announced the exhibit Women Painting Women, art fans and artists in my circle collectively rejoiced. In a historically male-dominated field, an all-women show seemed like a revelation. Interestingly, in Fort Worth, women oversee most major arts institutions such as Fort Worth Public Art, Fort Worth Opera, Fort Works Art, Performing Arts Fort Worth, and Artspace 111. At the Modern, two women currently hold the top leadership positions — Marla Price as director and Andrea Karnes as the recently appointed chief curator. So, it seems like the perfect time for a Fort Worth exhibit that puts women artists in the spotlight.
The exhibit includes approximately 60 pieces from 46 painters. The most globally recognizable artist in the show is Amy Sherald, who created Michelle Obama’s iconic portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. Sherald’s piece, “A Midsummer Afternoon Dream,” depicting a woman and her dog taking a break from a bicycle ride, greets viewers at the top of the grand staircase. The almost-superhuman details of the dog’s hair blowing in the wind transported me to a lovely summer day, antithetical to the oppressive Texas heat nearby.
Clear categories divide the exhibit. These divisions act as a guide, telling viewers what aspects unite the pieces in each category, beginning with Color as Portrait. Large portraits created with bold blues and reds fill this space. The shock of vibrant colors felt like a zap to my senses. Suddenly, the foggy brain of a lazy Sunday lifted, and my excitement was reignited.
Three more categories separate the rest of the show: Selfhood — States of Being; Nature Personified; and The Body — Political, Sexual, and In the Flesh. Each distinctive collection brings to order a veritable wonderland of art created by women. Sizes range from a 20-foot-tall tryptic that fills the space to an 8-inch piece that pulls you close to see its detail. Art styles vary from abstract to absurdist. To ensure diversity in the work and perspective, the exhibition features women from 13 countries of various ages and races. Lines blur between decades as you follow clear coupling of past and present work.
Selfhood — States of Being includes several standouts that demanded extra attention from me. In the incredibly detailed oil painting “Yayoi: Arrangement in Yellow Lake and Vermillion Clair,” Christiane Lyons fuses together images of three women, including a photo pulled from a fashion magazine of Lupita Nyong’o and Kirsten Dunst as Marie Antoinette from Sofia Coppola’s film of the same name. Evenly placed dots referencing Yayoi Kusama cover a background taken from the movie. In the same section, from the Modern’s permanent collection, Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s “Dwell: Me, We” elevates collage. Layers of paper combined, including images of familiar faces like Angela Davis, Colin Kaepernick, and Ava DuVernay, serve as a foundation for an acrylic self-portrait that fluidly incorporates different styles.
Within the smallest section, Nature Personified, female form contorts in ways that seem almost (as you may glean from the title) like landscapes. Two pieces drew me into the spacious area: María Berrío’s “Wildflowers” and Hayv Kahraman’s “The Tower.” These works exemplify how great art creates a narrative. Elaborate layers of people, animals, and flowers face the simplistic imagery of a pattern of several figures, demonstrating two unique ways to tell a story.
An assortment of nude portraits comprises The Body — Political, Sexual, and In the Flesh, bringing an exploration of women’s figures to an apex. It prompted me to contemplate why women wouldn’t use their bodies as material for their work. These artists reinvent the standard for art usually measured by the male gaze, focusing attention on what women see. Considering the current political climate for women, especially in Texas, it feels powerful to see women take full ownership of how they depict their bodies, a stark contrast to the modern American woman’s continually threatened loss of autonomy.
The edges of the exhibition reveal a few pieces that don’t quite fit the established categories. Nancy Frank’s sinister and surrealist “Up the Stairs” includes a lifelike image of a snake that will truly haunt me in my dreams. Although I don’t subscribe to the concept that to enjoy art is to “get” it, Dana Schutz’s pieces seem like stereotypically modernist head-scratchers that make little sense.
For some work, the vignette quality of the corridors leads to an enhanced experience. As you step into the area housing Lorna Simpson’s “Black Darkness” and “Murmur,” the intense and rich blue shade envelops you and brings a quiet solace to the space.
Simpson’s pieces are two of a handful of permanent collection works weaved into the exhibit. Karnes’ inclusion of these familiar works highlights the Modern’s efforts to bring attention to women artists, especially Black women artists.
The show successfully tells the story of women’s art from the 1960s to the current day with approximately one piece per year: a monumental effort! I hope that Karnes created this show to set a precedent for an equitable spotlight in future exhibits at the Modern and throughout the Cultural District. As for this small-town gal, I felt grateful for the chance to see this inspiring work without traveling outside of the place I now call home.
Shasta Haubrich is a Fort Worth artist and executive director of Art Tooth, a nonprofit dedicated to creating opportunities for artists in North Texas.
Women Painting Women
Thru Sep 25 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St, FW. $10-16. 817-738-9215.