Volume 78 - Number 42 / March 25 -31, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Curated by Jan Van Woensel
Through April 11
Chelsea Art Museum
556 West 22nd Street (at 11th Avenue)
212-255-0719 or www.chelseaartmuseum.org

Berlinde De Bruyckere, Marthe, 2008

The United Nations, Barbie & I

Socio-political exhibit explores identity, conflict & resolution


This past March, I unintentionally celebrated Women’s History Month for the very first time, and between the ‘Barbie 50th Anniversary Beauty Pageant’ I entered and a ‘socio-political’ art exhibit I went to (UN-SCR-1325 at Chelsea Art Museum), I finally made up for decades of ignorance.

As a child, I loved playing with Barbie (think “I Enjoy Being a Girl” by Peggy Lee), and because I’m also turning 50 this year, both events sounded interesting — even though I’ve finally come to the conclusion that Barbie was in fact the role model that inspired ‘Divine’ (see “Female Trouble” by John Waters). Yes Virginia, Barbie has a dark side. Granted, she’s held some remarkable careers; but surely,. her unrealistic body proportions (and all those full heads of perfect hair) are the cause of personal angst — subliminal or otherwise.

Identity — plus conflict and resolution — is one of the central themes in the UN-SCR-1325 exhibit. It’s a diverse collection of artwork about critical issues that concern women all ages, throughout the world and history (not just one month per year). Curated by Jan Van Woensel, it explores the impact of war on women. And though it reflects horror, violence and sexism, the underlying message is positive. The show’s title refers to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, which addresses and advances ‘conflict prevention and resolution,’ fundamental rights and sustainable peace.

Featuring eight Belgium and eight American artists with strong academic foundations, UN-SCR-1325 confronts the viewer with a wide range of interpretations on trauma, femininity, devastation and discrimination, past and present. Most of the works are ‘figurative,’ and the artistic mediums and techniques used throughout include sculpture, video and audio, paint, ink, metal, fabric, photography, assemblage and mixed media. All are personal, symbolic visions about the protection and advancement of women’s issues.

For me, the most disturbing yet masterful piece in the exhibit is Berlinde De Bruyckere’s classical (wax) sculpture of a bruised and inflamed nude ‘Marthe,’ who’s withering, mutated arms are melting into the ground, taking root; from behind, you see that she is in a crouching position, and cannot help but notice a disturbing and abnormal ‘violation.’

A far more entertaining display of art is an assemblage by Kathleen Hanna and Becca Albee that contains ‘to go’ kits and survival tools, from knives and box-cutters to paperback books like “How to Meditate” (which I’ve never been able to do), “The Worst Case Scenario,” a personal favorite, and “Gift of Fear,” a #1 national bestseller. As a former Girl Scout of America, I must say I was impressed by the wide range of thoughtful supplies: coffee, keys, flashlights, tissues, a mirror, sneakers, a white umbrella, water, a packet of Emergen-C powdered vitamins, writing materials, a NYC subway map, one! tiny tampon and a whistle (even though matches, a radio and batteries were not included).

Two separate and exemplary oil paintings/portraits by Cindy Wright and Karin Hanssen capture the intense essence of a woman who doesn’t look like she’s had an especially good day, or life (neither is in any mood to make eye contact). One of them wears a necklace of thorns, her neck bleeding. A much larger piece of mixed media on paper by Kati Heck is composed of three topless females: a creepy ‘shadow-person’ in the background (who’s hand is holding one of the women’s breasts) and one big (rather anonymous) green vegetable. Small, immature and obscene drawings/cartoons are scribbled beneath this ‘triptych.’

Jen DeNike’s ‘After the Gold Rush’ is a skimpy bikini made out of precious and semi precious metals, but it’s much more than just a fashion statement (a nearby padlock and chain are the unfortunate accessories). A sparse, oval mirror by Adrian Piper with the block-lettered, gold-leaf words EVERYTHING WILL BE TAKEN AWAY makes you stop, look and think — as does Leah Singer’s unusual mobile/wall-hanging of colorful doilies punctuated with ribbons and scraps of latex balloons.

The image that is used on the cover of the exhibit’s promotional show card is a poem by Yoko Ono entitled ‘Snow Piece.’ Jan Van Woensel feels these words are an “emblematic announcement of peace and love...symbolic of conflict, resolution, stress, relief, hope and belief. It sends out a strong message, and is an extension of the exhibition.” According to Mr. Woensel, an independent curator, critic, scholar and musician based in New York, next year will be the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and he will be doing a similar show in the main hall at the United Nations here in NY (the first UN-SCR-1325 exhibit, organized by Yasmine Geukens and Marie-Paule De Vil, took place last year in Belgium). Woensel is also the founder, curator and editor-in-chief of New York Magazine of Contemporary Art and Theory.

Chelsea Art Museum is located in a 30,000 square-foot renovated building in a neighborhood I’ve never particularly liked. Having lived in the East Village since the early 80s, I hated when all the cool galleries packed up and went Hollywood/Chelsea. But even though this ‘distant’ environment and exhibition wasn’t nearly as fun as the Barbie 50th Anniversary Beauty Pageant (which I did not win), I’m glad I made the trip (by bus; subways don’t go there and these days, I certainly wasn’t going to waste money on a cab).

Kofi Annan, former UN head, once stated “If women suffer the impact of conflict, they are also the key to the solution of conflict.” The entire UN-SCR-1325 collection (which also includes two videos and several pieces of photography) fully embraces this important concept.

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