Artist Statement for portrait series in progress; first group of portraits created in 2014:

Craft in Time: A Celebration of Essential Labor

A group art show highlighting work in a variety of creative mediums.

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Artists: Jenine Bressner, Priscilla Carrion, Ian CozzensSuzy GonzalezCorey GrayhorseHilary Jones, Cheryl Kaminsky, Yvette Koch, Jaime Lowe, Reba Mitchell, Sakiko Mori, Kartina Richardson, Shey Rivera, Meredith Stern, Tatyana Yanishevsky

Presented at: 186 Carpenter Street Gallery, Providence RI

Show duration: May 1-May 25, 2015

Art opening with performances: May 1, 2015

This show presents a series of large linoleum block print portraits created by Meredith Stern in 2014. This is a work in progress: the ultimate goal is to work with dozens of creators from a variety of disciplines living in many places, and to showcase their group work at multiple locations. These pieces depict a selection of her colleagues: individuals who work in proximity to her and who inspire her. These portraits amplify the dedication and creative magic that individuals express while practicing their craft. Subjects are depicted in their studio, workplace, or home where they build, practice, or express their artistic craft. These pieces celebrate the complex, dynamic lives of our contemporaries who can teach, inspire, and inform our own work.By presenting people I interact with, rather than depict celebrities or strangers, the narrative is shifted away from objectifying individuals and instead emphasizes the importance of loving and celebrating our creative community.

 

This linoleum block printed portrait work centers on interrupting the current framework of discourse on gender and creative identity as it is typically represented in the art world and mainstream cultural sphere. Typically discussions of gender are presented as a dichotomy of man versus woman. There is a presumed “male gaze” where women are presented as objects and men as the viewers. Critical responses to this problematic discourse tend to argue for a “female gaze”- which is often presented as the inversion of the male gaze- which argues that at the core, women secretly sexualize men, and therefore when women are given the space to express our voice we simply reverse the power dynamic. However, this inversion simply perpetuates an unequal power dynamic between two genders. Such a framework completely ignores that gender exists on a spectrum and completely ignores the experiences of people whose gender does not fit into a dichotomy. Instead, this project creates a “feminist lens” to investigate individual expressions of identity, which I define as celebrating and reflecting on the complexities of human experience from a place of respect, equality, and justice. This work relies upon engagement with these ideas within the context of a creative community so we can collectively interrupt the current gendered dichotomy within our society, and view cultural expression outside of the tradition of art as “viewers” and “objects.”

 

Within mainstream culture we are presented with a very narrow range of “normative” gendered experience that tends to categorize individuals by how closely we fit into a “masculine” or “feminine” dichotomy. Women are almost exclusively depicted as sexualized objects (even in the occasions where they may also be depicted in powerful political or economic positions) while men are expected to conform to a narrow definition of masculinity or be pigeonholed as a “nerd.” This representation of gender marginalizes, ignores, and invalidates the experiences of people who identify as gender queer, transgender, non-gender conforming, intersex, or define themselves outside of a rigid male/ female binary. People are presented as “failing their gender” if their presentation does not match our presumption of their gender. Once we engage with gender as a construct which actually operates on a spectrum, we can allow all our personal interests, professional pursuits, aesthetic expressions, verbal and physical language, social behavior, and all states of being to be free from binary thinking. We are all damaged by living in a culture that expects us to conform to a rigid classification of gender. Instead, we need a range of models that encourage us to think outside of the current prescriptions of normative gendered behavior. Actress Laverne Cox has been quoted that she doesn’t see herself as a “role model” but rather as a “possibility model” to demonstrate to other people that it’s possible to live our dreams. This form of thought encourages individuals to find their own path towards self definition and identity construction rather than be limited by current restrictive expectations of gendered behavior.

 

Further, the current narrative norm in this country is that white, cis-gender, straight men are the central model through which all experiences must be measured. (Cis- gender is defined as a type of gender identity where a persons’ experience of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth). All other voices are considered a “minority” or “special interest group” operating at the margins, and our lives and experiences are treated as such: we are therefore undervalued, misrepresented, or completely ignored. Rebecca Mead wrote in a New York Times article in 2014 that, “to demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play; she expects the work be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” This project aims to interrupt this requirement of self reflectivity within cultural production, to instead portray a range of personal experiences which are presented alongside other narratives to broaden our understandings of the real complexities of human experience. Additionally, the work acts to remind us of what all humans share- a desire to have space within which we can explore our desires, create our identities, and hone our craft (whether this be at a workplace, within an artistic studio, in the natural world, or beyond) and to strengthen the bonds of solidarity which travel across space and time.

 

Those of us who are marginalized, ignored, or mis-represented in cultural production find ourselves lacking accurate representations of our friends, our families, and ourselves. Our voices and experiences have been systematically ignored, stolen, and written out of mainstream historical narrative and continue to be ignored within much of the mainstream current cultural dialog. We live in a society that has constructed biologically inaccurate and socially and psychologically damaging (mis) understandings of gender, race*, ethnicity, economic class, and sexuality. Our true and complex lives and narratives are rarely represented accurately (or presented at all) within the art and cultural sphere and thus I put us at the center of this work. In order for anyone in our society to create a healthy identity and develop self- respect, we need models who inspire us as we carve our own paths. This project is one attempt to depict and amplify the creative expressions of people creating their own identities in part through practicing their crafts. These individuals are my own “possibility models” and by amplifying our lives I aim to expand the current cultural conversation of gender, identity, and creative expression. By celebrating the work of people in our city working in a variety of cultural workplaces, we can visualize and articulate a more complex understanding of the infinite ways we develop our own identities that are not reliant on rigid dichotomies, stereotypes, or tropes. These portraits are collaborations, where the individuals decide how they would like to be represented as they engage with their practice.

(*I use a qualifier as I mention ‘race’ to draw attention to the fact that while the concept of distinct races of humans-which originated in the 19th century as a means of justifying systemic inequality based on skin color- has been biologically disproven, the historic and contemporary effects of racism in the US is very real; not only within the thinking of individuals but also deeply entrenched within our government, public policies, and social practices. Far too many white people continue to perpetuate and validate the ignorant notion that there are different races, thus I feel the necessity to draw attention to its invalidity as a biological concept. For further exploration on the historic classification of humans into distinct races and the destructive long term effects of such through history and contemporary systems, I recommend the documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”)

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These pieces celebrate the lives of our contemporaries who teach, inspire, and inform my own work. They depict the strength, concentration, and peace that individuals often experience when practicing their craft. People are depicted in their studio, workplace, or home where they build, practice, or express their artistic craft. By presenting people we can all interact with by living in Rhode Island, the narrative is shifted away from objectifying or sexualizing people and instead on celebrating individuals from a place of love and to expand our perception of “community.” Judith Butler discusses the ethical obligations of cohabitation in her article from 2011 titled, “Precarious Life and the Obligations of Cohabitation.” She writes, “Since we do not choose with whom to cohabit the earth, we have to honor those obligations to preserve the lives of those we may never love, we do not know, and did not choose… Those forms of cohabitation characterized by equality and minimized precarity become the goal to be achieved by any struggle against subjugation and exploitation, but also the goals that start to be achieved in the practices of alliance that assemble across distances to achieve those very goals.”

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The most immediate goal of this project is to celebrate the work of people who inspire me. This is an ongoing project, of which this first set of portraits is simply the beginning. The other main goal of this project is to introduce the idea of using an “intersectional feminist interruption” for shifting the current framework of discussing gender as a binary. I define intersectional feminist interruption as a strategy for disrupting the continuity and uniformity of power through the creation of cultural production that celebrates and loves human complexity. An intersectional feminist interruption works to create a path towards gender equality that operates beyond binaries, that specifically addresses the intersections of domination and discrimination between various forms of oppression. This framework depends on us working collectively and actively to shift our thinking, our institutions, our society and our culture. One aspect of carving this path is to shift our attention away from cultural celebrity and to refocus our view of success and inspiration: to acknowledge our fellow humans as possibility models, regardless of their direct proximity to us and not dependent on a perceived shared identity, so we may start interrupting the current power structure and carve a pathway towards intersectional equality. In order to do so, we must support and engage with accurate representations of our extended communities. This path requires that we shift our engagement with art and culture away from a “viewer” versus “object” model, which on a political scale functions in an “us” versus “them” mindset in regards to personhood, statehood, and nationhood. This project works to inspire a continued interruption of what is presented as “normal” within mainstream cultural narrative, and to actively combat stereotypes and tropes that are presented as reflecting our society, that fail most of us and encourage us to struggle with each other for power. In contrast, by engaging with individuals as possibility models, we recognize the strength of those around us and can work cooperatively and value the necessity of mutual aid. This celebration of our cohabitants can inspire our own path towards self-determination and our construction of a healthy and complex identity, and allows us to work together rather than struggle with one another to create a healthy, diverse, loving culture to live within.

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