My youngest sister moved to Chicago two years ago to study painting at Columbia College. As she develops her aesthetic, she's been looking to both art history and contemporary pieces for inspiration. She's only 20 years old, and she's already discouraged: In her classes, she tells me, the students mostly read about male artists—it's only in discussions about feminist art that women are mentioned. During her critiques, she says, anything she creates relevant to her feminine identity is scrutinized by her professors in a way that none of her male peers experience. And as she builds a portfolio and learns about careers in the field, she's constantly worried that she won't be taken seriously because of her gender. Even as she pushes through and continues working, she's stymied by the possibility that there may be no place for her in the present-day art world.
A new exhibit at the MCA supports the notion that my sister's predicament isn't an isolated one. "Riot Grrrls," a collection of work by eight female abstract painters, was curated in direct response to art's continuing gender gap. According to the National Museum of Women in the Arts, only 28 percent of museums featured solo exhibitions by women during the 2000s, even though 51 percent of all working visual artists are female. Activist group the Guerrilla Girls' traveling exhibition reports that less than 5 percent of the material featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Modern section was created by women (they are, however, the subject of 85 percent of the nudes). And according to ArtNews, only one female artist was included in the top 100 art auction sales of 2015. I don't blame my sister for being worried—looking at those numbers, I would be too.
"It is amazing how quickly, either with acquisitions or exhibitions, you can start falling into an Anglo-European white-male theme, because that's just what's out there in the marketplace and being promoted," says Michael Darling, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art. "And maybe you can even see that in our collectors and peer museums." In the six and a half years he's held the position, Darling's led an effort to correct the gender imbalance at the museum, especially with large solo shows like last year's "Run for President"—featuring the work of multidisciplinary artist Kathryn Andrews—and "The Sympathetic Imagination," a current exhibit of Diana Thater's video installations.
For "Riot Grrrls" Darling pulled selections from the MCA's existing collection (some of the more recent acquisitions are on display for the first time) as a representation of overlooked but important paintings created by women. The exhibit is bold and aggressive throughout, illustrating the frustration of being marginalized. Even the piece that appears the brightest at first glance, Judy Ledgerwood's Sailors See Green, conveys a feeling of struggle. Silver paint is applied in zigzagging lines across a colorful pastel background; it reminded me of the pattern on a young girl's dress. But upon a closer look, the silver paint visibly drips, and the artwork sags. The zigzags no longer feel vibrant, but manic and disorderly.
Ellen Berkenblit's Love Letter to Violet directly subverts feminine ideals. A rough depiction of the profile of a woman's face is weighed down by thick strokes of eyelashes, and a small hair barrette restrains a few thin, dark strands amid an outburst of colors and patterns. A more conventional interpretation of femininity is evident in the oldest piece in the collection, Ree Morton's One of the Beaux Paintings (#4). Created in 1975, Beaux features a delicate bow in the center surrounded by different textures created through paint and canvas manipulated to resemble pleated fabric.
"[Morton]'s another person who's not a household name, and most mainstream collectors, they wouldn't even put her in an auction catalogue," Darling says. "It's one of those type of pieces that we thought was really important that we could put into a context like this, or a museum in general, and try to create more recognition for her."
Other institutions in Chicago are also recognizing female artists: Jessica Stockholder's installation Rose's Inclination is up at the Smart Museum of Art, Diana Guerrero-Maciá's tapestries are on display at Carrie Secrist Gallery, and Joyce Pensato, one of the figures represented in "Riot Grrrls," has a simultaneous solo show at Corbett vs. Dempsey, "The Godmother." But even "Riot Grrrls," powerful as it is, showcases only ten pieces, tucked away in a corner of the MCA's fourth floor.
I can see themes my sister wants to explore and some of the methods she's experimenting with in all the work by women displayed in "Riot Grrrls." And I'm somewhat reassured—despite what she's hearing in her art history classes or studio critiques—that there's room for her in contemporary art. It's just a space that needs to get a whole lot bigger. v
Correction: An earlier version of this article included an estimate for the number of women artists featured in Chicago museums and galleries. While the National Museum of Women in the Arts research reflects the U.S., local data was not available.