Beyond Boundaries: Female Artists Reconfigure Traditional Gender Norms

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By JULIA HABLAK, Staff Writer

Feminist philosopher Judith Butler writes, “Gender is what is put on, invariably under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure.” Her words find new resonance in Canaday Library’s latest exhibit, “Beyond Boundaries: Feminine Forms”, which imagines femininity as a performance that resists traditional gender stereotypes.

Beyond Boundaries is a dual-sited art exhibit hosted by Bryn Mawr College (BMC) and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). Between the two sites, there are over 80 artworks by 72 artists, including Kara Walker, Lesley Dill, Betye Saar, Edna Andrade, Eleanor Heller, Nancy Spero, Joan Mitchell, and Kay Walkingstick. Two graduate students in Bryn Mawr’s History of Art Department, Mechella Yezernitskaya and Laurel McLaughlin, curated the project.

The artists in this exhibit understood that gender expanded beyond societal constraints, curator McLaughlin explains in her essay “Performative Forms.” The art pieces in the exhibit are grouped into seven “constellations,” each of which describes a strategy which the artist uses to defy gender stereotypes. The groups are “(w)riting,” “musing,” “(not) at home,” “(un)earthing,” “(un)veiling,” “(r)evolving,” and “(de)forming.”

A particularly powerful piece is Mary Nomecos’ “Swan,” which is painted over a reproduction of John James Audubon’s “Trumpeter Swan”. This piece is under the constellation “musing”, referring to the masculine fantasy of the objectified muse. Nomecos hides the swan under bold strokes of paint, protecting the muse, McLaughlin explains, from “the objectifying gaze of art and science.”

Immediately to your left upon entering the exhibit is John Singer Sargent’s portrait of BMC’s second president, Miss M. Carey Thomas (1899). Though the portrait is not part of the collection, it is strongly tied to it. Sargent gives Thomas a dark academic dress and serious face, portraying her with a firm strength that departs from his usual soft style of painting women. By painting Thomas in clothes that would have been considered masculine, Sargent shows an understanding of and poses a direct challenge toward gender norms.

The exhibition utilizes BMC’s William and Uytendale Scott Memorial Study Collection of Works by Women Artists and PAFA’s Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women. It is the first time the two have been displayed in the same exhibit.

Bill Scott and Linda Lee Alter’s collections constitute a departure from collections that feature mostly male artists. Scott considers the collection “a good step towards the college’s goal to have a much larger and more inclusive collection of works by contemporary artists.” Alter hopes that her collection of art by women will “right the imbalance” of male-dominated exhibits and increase the recognition of female artwork.

The Beyond Boundaries exhibit remains open daily from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. until Jan. 28th, 2018 at BMC and until March 18th, 2018 at PAFA. A calendar of events related to the exhibit can be found online at or outside the exhibit in Canaday Library.


Photo by Abby Webster

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