In recent decades, critics have increasingly focused on how different genders are represented in film, TV and video games. But the critique can go much further into history, and the paintings, drawings and sculpture that also influence how we view each other.
That’s the premise of This Is Not Ideal: Gender Myths and Their Transformation, a new art exhibit curated by museum-studies students at the University of Pittsburgh. Led by assistant professor of art history Alex Taylor, the students combed through some 3,000 artworks in Pitt’s own art collection (yes, like most universities, Pitt has an art collection). What they found was largely “not ideal,” to say the least, says Taylor.
The artworks, dating back four centuries and originating from across the globe, included lots of female nudes, for one thing, and plenty of works that perpetrate conventional standards of how people of different genders should look and act.
Taylor noted two works by William Hogarth, the famed British painter. The pieces “represent the moment[s] before and after a sexual assault,” he says. “The students and I really liked the idea of presenting these works in the context of the #MeToo movement, and thinking about how these at first slightly innocuous-looking early-19th-century prints are in fact incredibly disturbing.”
The 40 works in the exhibit, at the University Art Gallery, also include portraiture from the 1600s, images by Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse, woodblock prints by Japanese master Kitagawa Utamaro, images by street photographer Garry Winogrand, and Bundu Society masks from West Africa. There were even some portraits that depict dandies and cross-dressers from centuries past, he said.
“So, students have been thinking about this kind of variety of forms of gender presentation and representation over time, and making connections across time to see how gender norms have changed across history,” he said.
“The fact that … we could find objects that resonated so directly with this current moment, I think, has been really exciting for the students to connect those history objects to contemporary events,” he said.
Most of the works in the exhibition date back a century or more; most are also by men. So while those works will be contextualized by accompanying wall text, the students felt additional perspective was warranted, Taylor said. So they invited two local contemporary artists to contribute work: Katie Ott, who calls herself “a radical feminist furniture-maker,” and Adam Milner, who presents a series of new video works exploring “the kind of borders between real bodies an sculpted bodies,” along with online dating culture, selfie culture and more.
The exhibit opens with a reception from 5-7 p.m. Thursday, at the Frick Fine Arts Building, in Oakland. The reception is free, as is admission to the exhibit, which runs through Dec. 7.
WESA receives funding from the University of Pittsburgh.