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Art by and for women in Pelham and New Rochelle
(Original publication: March 30, 2007)
We've come a long way, baby. But apparently, not far enough.  Provocative exhibits that celebrate Women's History Month have arrived in Pelham and New Rochelle just as the Brooklyn Museum opens The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, featuring Judy Chicago's landmark 1979 installation, "The Dinner Party."
That work exults in the accomplishment of historical women - and by extension, women artists like Chicago - by giving a sexual charge to that most mundane and domestic of female symbols, the dinner plate.

Almost 30 years later, the shows at Iona College in New Rochelle and the Pelham Art Center have no need for such exultation. The accomplishments of women are a given.
But the concerns depicted in Iona's "The Female Gaze: Women Artists Interpret the World" (through April 3) and Pelham's "Lovely Dark and Deep: Women Artists Retake the Fairy Tale" (through April 28) suggest that even now, women have not transcended the traditional traps of their gender.
Indeed, you come away from both shows convinced that women are inextricably bound up in their bodies - their beauty, adornment, media status and vulnerability to disease, violence and time.

The female gaze in these shows may consider such generic concepts as world peace, sadness, liberty and fear of sexuality. But it never alights on the male as object. Instead, it turns inward on its corporeal, visual self.  "The motif of, say, Cinderella - even though girls say it is a story of self-determination - that motif of the girl with the gown and the slippers ... stays in the mind," says Titia Hulst, who curated the Pelham exhibit with Barbara Mundy.

Both "Lovely Dark and Deep" and "The Female Gaze" contain images that play with this motif.In "Lovely," it's Allyson Lubow's color photograph "Kayla and Tammy" (2004), which portrays two girls sitting on a couch in white-trimmed black gowns that would be suitable for a prom or a wedding.

In "Gaze," it's Tara Engberg's digital collage "Cold Feat," a composite of a bride holding a bouquet with her back to a sea of saluting midshipmen.
Your prom, your wedding day -these are supposed to be happy milestones in the life of any woman, we are told. So why are Kayla and Tammy so glum? And, for that matter, why are they sporting chipped nail polish when they're all gussied up? God is in the details, ladies.  Engberg's bride doesn't look any more delighted. Indeed, she looks downright fearful. Perhaps these women realize that no matter how dolled up they get, they can never measure up to media expectations.

One of the most brilliant works in these exhibits is Pelham's "Tonya and Nancy," a 2002 pencil and oil canvas by Michela Griffo that explores the 1994 scandal of Olympic figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan as the tale of the Wicked Stepsister and Cinderella. That's how the press played Harding's attempt to eliminate her rival by allegedly hiring a thug to whack Kerrigan's knee.
Except that the coltish Kerrigan was not quite the Hepburn-esque blueblood her looks suggested. (And she proved to be a most ungrateful fairy-tale princess. Remember her whining at Disney World: "This is so corny"?)

Harding's behavior, meanwhile, was decidedly trashy. But Griffo's cartoon panels state that she was the greater talent. Nothing, however, defines a woman more than her own body. In work after work in "Gaze" it is on display - swollen with child; bowed in grief; arrogant and ignorant in youth; offered up as a pinup, however ironically; embellished with fabric and accessories; and marred by illness, especially breast cancer.

Michele Firpo-Cappiello's "Survivor" is a bonded bronze bust of a bald woman, whose face wears an expression of contemplative sorrow. Seeing it, you can't help but think of Britney Spears. For a long time, she's been on what a friend of mine calls the

Anna Nicole Smith Highway

. But it wasn't until she shaved her head that everyone - men and women alike - realized she needed help

To be shorn and female is to disrupt the seeming natural order of things. Long hair is so much a part of the female identity that you will have no trouble distinguishing woman from man in Susan Manspeizer's fabulous abstract bent-wood sculpture "Man and Woman," also part of the "Gaze" show.

The woman is the Rapunzel-like cascade of wooden curls, sheltered in the standing angular structure of the man. Or is she contained by him?
It's no surprise that "Gaze" should include Renata Manasse Schwebel's "Trapped," a wood and aluminum sculpture in which two small red balls face each other on a bridge over a cage filled with other red balls. The red ball dovetails beautifully with the little red dot between the wing-like legs that gives birth to a child who will not survive in Robin Tewes' oil painting "Tiny Little Thing" (1996/2006), part of the Pelham show.

To be female, then, is to be intimately acquainted with the cycle of life and death. But that doesn't mean women have to be limited to, and by, the four Ms - men, marriage, motherhood and media representation.

So constrained, women will forever be the frightened little girls in Adela Leibowitz's forests at the Pelham show. Or like the girl in Susan Kaufman's fascinating Surrealist "Reverence" at Iona, who stands on a detached staircase looking out a window at a blue beyond that can represent either freedom or annihilation.
Reach Georgette Gouveia at or 914-694-5088.

If you go ...
What: "The Female Gaze: Women Artists Interpret the World."
Where: Iona College Arts Center's Brother Kenneth Chapman Gallery, 715 North Ave. in New Rochelle.
When: Through April 3.
Hours: Noon-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 2-5 p.m. Sunday with evening hours 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday.
Information: 914-637-7796, artscouncil

What: "Lovely Dark and Deep: Women Artists Retake the Fairy Tale."
Where: Pelham Art Center, 155 Fifth Ave., Pelham.
When: Through April 28.
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.
Information: 914-738-2525, www.pelham
In the essay accompanying her Iona College exhibit "The Female Gaze," curator Sheila Kriemelman quotes the famous question feminist art historian Linda Nochlin posed in 1971: "Why have there been no great women artists?"

Nochlin responded to that question with her moving, revelatory 1976-77 Brooklyn Museum exhibit "Women Artists: 1550-1950," which convinced many of us that it was possible for women to have careers in the arts.
Thirty years later, the museum has opened the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. The heart of the center is Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" (1979), a triangular installation of 39 place settings representing various women in history, including Elizabeth I, Emily Dickinson and Sojourner Truth. It was donated to the museum in 2002 by The Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, which promotes women's contributions to culture.
The inaugural exhibits include "Global Feminisms" (through July 1), organized by Nochlin and Maura Reilly, the Sackler Center's curator. From a glance at the catalog, it appears to contain many of the same obsessions of the Iona College and Pelham Center shows, although it also considers, for example, how the female gaze interprets men, a fascinating, underexplored subject.  Georgette Gouveia

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