By VITTORIA BENZINE March, 2022
LA-based Case Gallery got an early start on girl power with the Feb. 18th opening of “The Tenth Muse,” a group show celebrating feminine enigma, allure, and power. Curated by NYC-based art advisor Ludovica Capobianco, this intergenerational all-women exhibition explores multiplicitous takes on beauty through works grounded in text, texture, and history. Where the show shines in technical variety, it remains relatively focused in its artists’ backgrounds, a potent look into the idealized femininity subliminally sold by our society over centuries.
The show’s title is an homage to Sappho, who Plato famously called “The Tenth Muse.” Ancient Greeks regarded Sappho as Homer’s female counterpart, and she’s sometimes considered the first recorded female artist. Case Gallery’s press release calls Sappho “an epitome of how intellectual women have striven to have a voice of their own over the centuries.”
Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2015 article in the New Yorker lends nuance–a looming figure, Sappho most certainly has a voice in current culture. However, this voice is hardly her own. As he writes, “Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies—about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her ‘sublime’ style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works.”
In the absence of substantial surviving work from Sappho she’s stepped into a time-tested role, acting as a blank screen for projections of the collective desire. Passivity is a hallmark of feminine energy in the milieu we’re growing through. A muse, after all, creates simply by being looked upon.
The women depicted throughout these this show mostly appear like Ms. Bellum from the Powerpuff Girls–present, but also not. Valentina von Klencke’s 2013 photo “Lindsey” allows only a snippet of the woman’s body–a vice for others–but here the subject carries her own vices. War and Peace (2022) by Samantha Rosenwald echoes Ms. Bellum’s character design. This composition could be perceived as a slight or a power move–withholding is a traditional feminine route to winning. Rosenwald has depicted talismans of war and peace in her subject’s fists, perhaps a subtle nod to picking a side.
Fawn Roger’s 2021 series “The World is Your Oyster” invites viewers to “consider life, sex, and death,” as the press release explains. Her subjects are also seen from the neck down, but in action–slurping oysters, known aphrodisiacs whose physical appearance evokes the vulva. “Whether perverse, innocent or anything in-between, everyone has a deep sexuality, “ Rogers says of the series. “My work is about the love I want to give to the world.”
In his piece about Sappho, Mendelsohn points out her very limited remaining work only “[stokes] our appetite for a body of work that we’re unable to read, much less assess critically.” What’s lasted, he says, lives up to its hype. A set of four sapphic stanzas Classicists call “Fragment 31” inspire linguistic admiration as the poet shares her jealousy of men who can achieve closeness with the young women she admired. “Slyly, the speaker avoids physical description of the girl, instead evoking her beauty by detailing the effect it has on the beholder,” Mendelsohn remarks. “The whole poem is a kind of reaction shot.” Passivity on its own is not a bad thing. In the right environment, it’s a strong suit.
A balance of feminine and masculine energies exists in everything. Alexis Myre’s sculptures for “The Tenth Muse” illustrate this reality with uncanny aplomb, phallic in some spots (sorry if that reveals something about me) but still still soft and fluffy, pairing porcelain with thread and felt. Stale binary thinking has suppressed the opposite influences in people according to their biology. Men and women suffer similarly, forced into one energy and denied expression of the other–rather than thriving in the balance Myre’s work strikes.
Nicolette Mishkan’s Electric Sun (2021) marks one of the few artworks in “The Tenth Muse” to feature an unabashed female form–a parched mermaid on cracked earth. “The mermaid’s suspension between human and inhuman echoes women’s position in patriarchy,” Case explains. “The mermaid is innately sexual, and in history and mythology she has come to represent the dark side of female wantonness–the mermaids represent nature and the ‘yin’ or feminine life force which can be dark and destructive when repressed or receptive and creative when respected.”
Evolving beyond outdated binary frameworks won’t just benefit female-identifying individuals. Evolution should liberate everyone of the expectations we tacitly hold each other to. Masculine energy is one of exertion–a healthy animus allows feminine psyches to snatch ideas from the unknown into undeniable material reality–a liminal space bridged by Cait Porter’s four ghostly interiors across “The Tenth Muse.” Equal regard for masculine and feminine energies opens a world of possibilities.
“Feel is something you do with your hands,” declares Untitled (1985) by Barabara Kruger, whose work grounds the show in historical precedent and raw clout. Olga Ozerskaya’s 2020 C-Print on canvas reads “You are in my thoughts,” in a striking style that both mimics and responds to Kruger. More yin and yang.
The exhibition collects further legends from earlier eras in art history to remind viewers of the ongoing and uphill battle women have fought to exercise their own abilities. The press release quotes Swiss painter Miriam Cahn, “one of the pioneers of feminist art,” as she states “female artists have a lot to do because art history is mostly done by men, and they have their vision on females.” In Nicht (2012) two androgynous, foggy figures express physical closeness bordering ownership. Conceptual artist Louise Lawler adds abstract works that blend humor and contempt to levy critiques “at established myths and motives of prestige in art” and “tap energies of truth, however partial, and beauty, however fugitive.”
Sydney Vernon’s Diva painting 1 (2022) comes closest to a comprehensive picture, part and parcel to her practice spanning painting, drawing, video, and performance. Here viewers find a complete face, a strong insinuation of hands, and abstraction embodying the chaotic, competing projections that women shoulder. “I want people to understand how everything I do is connected to living as a Black woman, living in the Internet age, living in the wake of slavery and living in culture while simultaneously trying to create it,” Vernon states.
In highlighting “the beautiful and unique complexity of the female being,” this show omits direct intersectionality–there is no overt reference to the trans experience, to the ways race and class and neurodivergence lend critical sheens to the full patchwork quilt of female experience. Case Gallery, based in LA, unpacks the tragedy of idealization in the home of Hollywood glamor. Contradictory, concurrent truths prevail. At the same time, the show’s press release remains correct in its claim: “Each artist in the show expresses herself through a unique and powerful artistic language. To strive for equality while maintaining our own voices and distinctiveness is the main struggle women have faced over the centuries.”
Mendelsohn’s dive into Sappho makes one passing, critical point about our current obsession with individual psychology as opposed to the hyper-communal Greek culture the poet hailed from. While “The Tenth Muse” fights for womanhood’s right to a voice, its artworks show there are threads shared by large proportions of female-presenting individuals. Maybe relinquishing our vice grip on the self could counterintuitively open further freedom for all. Stop by the gallery and exercise your own ability to find a conclusion on the topic. “The Tenth Muse” remains on view through March 27th. WM
Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // firstname.lastname@example.org // vittoriabenzine.com
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