Guts and glory

Don’t let the dried-blood-colored letters in the vestibule scare you off.

Though the sign advertising From the Gut — a feminist fine-art show now on view at Urthona Gallery — is painted in precisely that shade of red (aptly named by show curator Gavra Lynn), the show is not about being angry, or anti-male, or lashing out against society.

It’s about giving women a chance to express themselves.

Or so say Lynn and fellow curator Ellen Pfirrmann. “Having a venue where women can show their work is just wanting to help women. It’s that simple,” declares Lynn, an artist and musician who noticed the need for such a venue when she moved to Asheville several years ago from Chapel Hill. “I realized there was no place to show my paintings here, and I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll have to make one.'”

And did she ever. Lynn teamed up with local dramatist Pfirrmann two years ago; their mutual dream of birthing a women’s-art show was realized with the first From the Gut exhibit, which premiered in January 1998. Although it featured only 18 artists in a much smaller gallery space (Urthona, now removed to the River District, started out in a slot on Patton Avenue), the show nevertheless drew a healthy crowd, making it clear to Lynn and Pfirrmann that — for both artist and art-lover — this was a void aching to be filled.

Now firmly ensconced in their sophomore effort (“It took us two years to recover from the last one,” Pfirrmann admits) the pair is more convinced than ever that gallery space for women’s artwork is in high demand.

“Someone said it was like a parking-lot ballet, with all the cars circling around and around out there,” says Lynn, recounting the overwhelming success of the show’s opening night (March 3) when an estimated 300 crossed the threshold of the old brick warehouse to view the work of 30 mostly local female artists.

But if you didn’t participate in that vehicular waltz, not to worry — most of the evening’s treasures remain on view. Lisa Sarasohn’s insightful black-on-blue collage series provides the perfect introduction to a show illuminating from-the-gut art. Inspired by the “Honor Your Belly” workshops she leads, the images entice visitors up the stairs to the gallery space via a visual progression of postures and phrases centered around the belly.

The exhibit — ingeniously displayed on the gallery’s newly whitewashed walls and an array of suspended doors, standing sheets of dry wall and creamy canvas flats — showcases a wide range of media and themes. A nude, pale torso by Sue Millon, painted in soft whites and rosy pinks on the back of a sheet of framed glass, is one of the first pieces to greet the eye. To the left, Bonnie Temple’s life-size (and every bit as energetic) oil pastel “Death of a Whore” hangs beside enlarged, scripted images from Lisa Morphew’s family photo album, which narrate the evolving relationship among the artist, her daughter and Morphew’s female partner.

Anna Callahan’s work — a stream of small, horizontal canvases that record the quotes of women aged 25 to 28 with brush strokes and collage — stretches across one wall. Meanwhile, Leslie Burnside’s “Harness,” a pink-and-red-painted fetus saddled with an actual, aged leather harness, broadcasts its message from across the room.

Kathryn Temple’s “Vulva Box” series features three square wooden boxes, each larger than the next, painted to resemble a woman’s genitalia. Hinged doors on the top of each box are shaped every bit like the body part they aim to represent, and open neatly to reveal a red-velvet interior. The contents address a 1981 El Salvador massacre (the event that inspired the series), as well as instances of childhood sexual abuse, rape and female genital mutilation.

A small TV in the corner also makes noise, giving voice to the soundtracks and images of a pair of projects by local independent filmmaker Kirsten Peterson. “Asheville Hose,” a 10-minute short, teams spinning, speeding and slow-motion, black-and-white images of Asheville’s urban and rural spaces with a Twilight Zone-esque soundtrack, while “Summer’s Last Hurrah” treats viewers to a 30-minute color feast of experimental visual effects. Both films will premiere at Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company on March 16.

The one piece of art you definitely won’t see if you missed opening night took the form of an earthly goddess. Local performance artist Melissa McKee donned a shower-curtain skirt, glittery tank top and long black gloves to express her live vision of feminism. With a wire-mesh fruit basket over her face and a homemade torch in each hand, she paced the loading dock in front of the warehouse in a slow, spiral pattern influenced by the Japanese dance-theater form called “butoh.”

“A goddess type of image, to me, is feminine,” says McKee. “One image that popped into my head was a photo of a goddess figure from Crete who was holding snakes in her hands in the air. I did something similar with the torches.”

The extensive range of styles, themes, and media presented in From the Gut inevitably raises the question of what, exactly, qualifies as “feminist” art? In the minds of the show’s curators, the distinction is simple: If it was created by a woman, it’s feminist.

“I don’t know how either one of us could say what ‘feminist art’ is, because everyone has their own ideas to express,” stresses Pfirrmann.

“We went with our gut as to what work to select — we went with our women’s intuition. There [were] no real criteria,” Lynn adds significantly.

And, according to some of the artists involved, there don’t need to be.

“I think it’s really great for women to … have a show together, whatever name they put on it. I guess ‘feminism’ is as good as any,” offers Fleta Monaghan, a local painter whose work appears in the exhibit. “The main thing is the support and the camaraderie and the community and the sharing of ideas — all of those things are important.”

Callahan agrees: “Having the feminist gallery space gives women the opportunity to be strong, to show who we are and what we think, but it almost doesn’t feel like a ‘feminist’ thing,” she says. “I believe in women and I believe in myself, and I believe there’s nothing that we as a gender can’t do. If that’s what feminism is, then, yes, [I’m a feminist].”

“To me, being a feminist means I just want to live my life,” Pfirrmann proclaims, adding, “I should be able to expect the same treatment as a man.”

Indeed. But the overwhelming response of both artists and gallery patrons to this show suggests that galleries may not be giving women’s artwork equal attention. Notes Pfirrmann: “It’s nice to be able to [put on a show like] this for people, but it’s also kind of sad that there’s a lack of venues for women artists. They’re disproportionately happy to have their work shown.”

Despite the fact that there are more women graduating with fine-arts degrees than men, “It’s harder for women to be acknowledged,” laments Monaghan. “There’s always that label of ‘woman artist’ for women, but you don’t get a show that says, ‘Five Men in the Arts.’ It’s almost like it’s a curiosity, like it’s out of the norm.”

Interestingly, some other local arts figures don’t consider sexual discrimination a problem at all.

“It has not been an issue for us,” announces Wendy Outland, the manager at Blue Spiral 1 on Biltmore Avenue. Though the gallery does tend to show more male than female artists, Outland says that gender is not a consideration in the gallery’s selection process: “We don’t ever go into a show saying, ‘Well, we’ve got four males and only one female in this show.’ We just want to put together the strongest exhibitions that we can, and gender doesn’t affect that. It’s based on the quality of the work.”

Nor does Seven Sisters Gallery, a woman-owned venue in Black Mountain, notice a significant gender gap in the artists it represents.

“In my gallery, they’re not [underrepresented],” insists co-owner Sara Marcia Rafter. “In fact, in the upcoming show, all three of the painters are women, the metalworker’s a woman, and the potter’s a woman.”

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