A conversation: Chrysanne Stathacos and Susan Silas

CHRYSANNE:

A number of years ago I kept seeing the words Daddy in various art publications, exhibitions and websites. The term imparted a favorable aura within a new gay art aesthetic, a departure from the usual big tough macho stance, resulting in an embrace of male identification which included sensitive mutual support—hence Daddy! Daddy takes care, Daddy can be big, old and sexy—one finds solace in looking for Daddy. Daddy is powerful and sweet—Daddy art—every time I saw or heard this phrase, I thought—what about Mommy?

Mommy however is a much more loaded term for us in the arts—whether one has children or not—that was the genesis—where is Mommy or what about Mommy—as there can not be a Daddy without a Mommy—ha! A new version of the question “where are the women artists?” For me that means looking at and appreciating the women artists of my generation.

That as I recall was the beginning of our conversation.

SUSAN RESPONDS:

My first thought about MOMMY as you presented it to me, was graduate school culture and the recollection that the permanent faculty were all men and the most interesting adjunct faculty, all visiting artists, were women. They were among the small handful of women whose careers were just about to explode, and none had children, then or now.

My second recollection was that during a serious challenge to the status quo by women students, the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler actually told us that of course there were women artists worthy of a permanent post in the art faculty at Cal Arts, but sadly, all of those stellar and deserving women artists were already dead. He pronounced this observation in all earnestness and looked mortified when it was met with gales of laughter. This was the early ‘80s. And it was an indisputable fact that there were many more women studying for MFAs in the arts than men and yet once out in the “real” world, there were very few women artists whom the system supported. They were simply subsidizing the professional aspirations of the male students by paying graduate school tuitions.

In reading Linda Nochlin’s article again today, I am struck by the ongoing difficulty of framing basic questions. And oddly, the Mommy question can thread its way into a more general question or problem. A Mommy has to devote an enormous amount of time to the demands of her child. As a consequence she has less time to devote to the single-minded pursuit of her career. But all women tend to share this problem because one of the key ways in which artists are able to devote all of their attention to their careers is patronage, and always has been.

In the contemporary art world, this means a collector base. And collectors are by and large rich men and divorced women and neither are inclined to favor granting that freedom to women. In general, they are more comfortable investing in the freeing of men from the social and cultural constraints and obligations that allow them to develop an artistic practice unhindered. So even if a woman is not a Mommy, she is still confronted with nearly the same problem, unless she has independent means.

CHRYSANNE RESPONDS:

Yes, all what you say is true.

I know of many examples of the young female art students being disempowered often through subtle actions, such as affairs with professors and not being taken seriously in 70’s–80’s. That said, my gay male friends were not taken seriously if they revealed or projected their energies in an unusual manner (exploring the feminine). As I lived in Canada, the climate was of artists creating new social structures—art families—and non–profit artist run spaces. It was a time with low rents and experimentation without any heed to market forces—which I feel lucky to have experienced.

My move to NYC became a turning point. A profound awakening of the problems faced by women artists was at the 1984 reopening exhibition, The International Survey of Recent Painting & Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. This exhibition had so few woman included, 151 men versus only 14 women, that the agenda became palpably evident. This exhibition was the seminal eye opener—one could see the “glass walls”  in the museums/galleries mirroring the glass ceiling so many women faced. That opening was a breakthrough breakdown moment for me; seeing the “glass wall” for the first time. There were protests by many groups—however it took another generation before MOMA really started to change.

I see MOMMY as a reflection of my experiential DNA over the years that I share with so many women artists of my generation. Yes there are successful women artists, yes it is better, that said many of the same issues resonate today—but in a different more clouded blurred manner. MOMMY—a way to start a dialogue of appreciations of women. We live in a world—rampant with copying, forgetful of recent art history—lost lineages. This is why I commend how the gay artists/collectors/gallerists support each other with such a strong voice—art community shall we say. That so interests me.

SUSAN RESPONDS:

When you speak of a community working to empower itself—I respond to that. Empowerment for women is not going to be bestowed but rather wrested. But that is always the case with shifts in visibility. I think identity politics have been very important but I would like to see us thinking beyond those strategies at some point. What has irritated me in the recent past is seeing feminism appear on a long list of movements or minority groups looking for recognition and equality from the larger society. Feminism is neither an interest group nor an overlooked minority. It represents the rights and concerns of 50% (actually, I think it’s 51% statistically) of the world population. It is the most threatening of these movements to the status quo and it is lumped with many other movements representing the rights of smaller groups to diminish its claims on all of us. I have argued and would still argue that if women had equal rights and equal access the world would be so changed as to be unrecognizable to us. There was a sweet interview with Paula Cooper about her first exhibition in Soho and the invitation card flashed on the screen and the camera panned a list of all male names. While gallery access has changed a great deal since then there are still huge disparities in the levels of success achieved by men and women. Complaining about this becomes problematic because such complaints are always repackaged as “sour grapes,” which functions as a form of censorship, because no one wants to stake out the territory that automatically defines that observer as an unsuccessful and less meritorious shrew. Because money is such a huge part of the equation in the art world, and also a microcosm of larger cultural values, the market has an outsize influence on which artists will rise to the top and it is easy to forget that this was not always so.

 

 

One thought on “A conversation: Chrysanne Stathacos and Susan Silas

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