Against the current

Like a cluster of Muses, a host of feminist visions held wordless sway over the tide of people coursing through the recent opening of From the Gut: A Feminist Fine Art Show.

Those images — ranging from a collection of mermaids to contemplations of the vulva — hinted at the range of potential interpretations of a concept that still excites vivid opinions.

The show (which continues through March 22 at Gallery 31) is designed to offer a biennial venue for local women artists, plus a chance to explore the idea of feminism. Twenty-eight women artists (and one dog) contributed to the multimedia collection that covers the walls and floor of the tiny gallery on Carolina Lane in downtown Asheville.

“I think what I love about an exhibit like this is there’s no one answer about what is feminism,” offered writer Kim Taylor, who brought her two young daughters to the show. “Feminism is like — what is a woman? You can come in this room and get a glimpse of it.”

A few of the works address traditional feminist concerns, including Patrizia Fritsch Provenzano’s “Hidden Messages,” consisting of handmade scrolls depicting inequities in the workplace. And two versions of “Laundry Day” by Kimberly McFadden deftly turn the conventional sense of the phrase on its head in color photos showing a woman who has stripped off her clothes, hung them on a line and set fire to them.

That seemed to intrigue Lois Jolly, who appreciated the humor and rebellious stance of “Laundry Day.” “It’s freedom,” she suggested.

Most of the other pieces, though, seem more affirming than overtly political. On one wall, mermaids swim about in a dreamy series of black-and-white photos embellished with shimmery acrylic, collectively titled “Movement 6.” Artist Laura Cardwell outlined her thoughts in an accompanying artist’s statement: “I have chosen to leave these prints basically untitled to represent the mermaid’s misunderstood, almost lost, place in mythology and legend,” Cardwell wrote. “These images are meant to be brief glimpses into that unknown world.”

Across the room, Aicha Amahre put forth an abstract view of the vulva in four vibrant paintings (acrylic and oil on wood) that are part of a series of 12 titled “The Vulvo-Vaginal Landscape.” Amahre (one of several exhibited artists in attendance) said she’s trying to impart multiple levels of meaning through the almond-shaped forms.

“They’re opening into deeper parts of myself — emotional or parts of my psyche,” the artist revealed.

And on another level, Amahre posited that women’s bodies are still seen as something to be ashamed of — a perception she hopes women will overcome, both for their own good and for that of the world at large.

“My sense is that if we care about our bodies, we’ll care about our planet,” Amahre posited.

Nonetheless, even Amahre admitted that she still found it difficult to confess to her parents exactly what it was she was spending her time painting.

Some submissions have no feminist (or specifically women-oriented) theme — though Jen Hamilton’s “Colon,” a red-and-white model of, uh, a bloody colon, would seem to fit the From the Gut theme quite literally.

Taking the edge off

Now in its third avatar, From the Gut is co-curated by Gavra Lynn and Ellen Pfirrman, who’ve picked up on an evolution of sorts since launching the project in 1998.

“The art’s not quite as edgy as in past years,” Lynn reflected, pausing to accept delivery of a long-stemmed pink rose (apparently a perk of coordinating an art show).

In the first year, for example, Lynn and Pfirrman felt compelled to turn down a depiction of a penis in a noose. However, they did accept Shelly Lowell’s “Gratification” — a fire-engine-red “fresh candy” machine with pull-knob dispensers offering packages of penises, vaginas, breasts and anuses. And the second show included Leslie Burnside’s “Harness,” a pink-and-red-painted fetus saddled with an actual, aged leather harness.

Lynn isn’t sure whether this year’s more restrained tone reflects an altered promotional approach (she didn’t put up fliers around downtown this year soliciting submissions) or a gentler atmosphere sparked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Whatever the cause, Lynn and Pfirrman lavished praise on the submissions and insisted that it’s important to provide a venue for emerging artists.

“A lot of emerging art is from the gut — it comes from their soul,” said Pfirrman.

And both think it’s important to provoke an artistic dialogue on the meaning of the word “feminist.”

“I just don’t think the word ought to die,” Lynn declared, though she also noted that young women sometimes reject the term. “They’re living it, but they’ll refuse it — because they don’t want to be some kind of stereotypical man-hating bull dyke.”

As if confirming that assessment, Rosetta Rzany (who’s preparing to open a vegetarian restaurant) said she’d hesitated about attending a feminist art show because she thought the offerings might be too negative. She was pleasantly surprised.

I asked her what she thought the exhibit says about feminism.

“Perhaps that feminism is embracing all aspects of being a woman, whereas, in the ’60s, to say you were a feminist pushed forth so much anger and angry issues,” mused Rzany. “Now it’s becoming more normal and commonplace to express that you are a feminist, and it’s considered normal rather than radical.”

But there can be pitfalls in taking things too seriously. I gravely considered a battered high-heeled pump by “Spike” titled “An Evening Out” — pondering the hoops women jump through to meet society’s expectations of appropriate feminine beauty. But with the help of Taylor’s daughters, 11-year-old Jai and 13-year-old Tori, I learned that Spike is Pfirrman’s beagle, who must have had a big old time gnawing on said shoe one night. (By virtue of being a dog — and a male dog, to boot — Spike devilishly flouted the show’s entrance requirements as well.)

Both Jai and Tori seemed fairly turned off by the various vulva depictions and (to a lesser extent) the nudes, though Tori noted: “I think if they’re gonna do naked women, they ought to do naked men. I think it just seems more fair, for some reason.”

Bring on the naked men. Now there’s a self-assured feminist thought.

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