For ‘Taking Space’ at PAFA, women artists are as monumental as they want to be
More than 60 artists have works on display in “Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale” — all from the museum’s permanent collection.
Artist Clarity Haynes has grown accustomed to having her work censored on social media. The images she posts — whether of her own paintings depicting the nude torsos of women, trans and nonbinary people, or the work of other queer and feminist artists — are routinely deleted by the algorithms of sites like Instagram.
It’s a frustrating echo of a broader invisibility in mainstream culture, Haynes says. “Disabled artists, fat bodies, all bodies that do not fit in — especially if they are read as female — are just literally erased.”
In 2018, after Facebook suspended her account for sharing an online catalog of her art, Haynes penned an essay for Hyperallergic protesting such censorship and its marginalizing effect on artists who depend on social media to promote their work.
Haynes’ large-scale portraits, infused with care for their subjects, are undeniably works of art. The nude torsos of her models — their curving bellies, moles, scars, and breasts of all shapes and sizes — are rendered as luminous, lived-in landscapes, sometimes adorned with tattoos or a necklace. She spends up to three years creating a five-foot-tall painting in painstaking realist detail. But that doesn’t stop the bodies she venerates as paradigms of beauty from triggering deletion from social media.
Haynes brings her own queer and female gaze to the rich tradition of figure painting that she absorbed as a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in the early 2000s. Through September, her work is on view alongside that of more than 60 other artists who are women in the PAFA exhibition “Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale.”
Spanning the late 1950s to 2020 and spread across two floors, the exhibition probes the gendered dynamics of occupying space in both art-making and life. Much of the work on view consists of large-scale painting, mixed-media, and sculpture, playing on assumptions about who has the means or the audacity to create art that is unapologetically expansive (a question of ego, perhaps, but also of the practicality of selling, storing, and exhibiting art throughout its life cycle).
And, remarkably, all of the work in “Taking Space” is drawn from PAFA’s permanent collection, boldly underscoring the museum’s efforts over the past decade to diversify its collection.
A 2019 study by In Other Words and Artnet News placed PAFA among a small group of national leaders when it comes to purchasing work by artists who are women, outstripping other art museums with much larger budgets. In the U.S., the average number of artworks by women collected by museums remained (at the time of the study) at a disappointing 11% of total acquisitions, and a dismal 3.3% for African American women. In striking contrast, 58% of the art collected by PAFA between 2008 and 2018 was by women. The museum recently announced that of 168 works acquired in 2020, two-thirds were by women or African American artists.
“Taking Space” showcases the kind of institutional shift that requires deep commitment and realignment of resources. Around half the artwork in the exhibition has been collected since 2015, through efforts led by Jodi Throckmorton, PAFA’s contemporary art curator, who has also brought in three NEA grants for projects with women artists in the past three years.
Throckmorton co-curated “Taking Space” with Brittany Webb, PAFA’s curator of 20th century art, who joined the museum in 2018. Their recent efforts build on a pivotal 2010 donation by Philadelphia artist and art collector Linda Lee Alter of 500 artworks by women, as well as the museum’s 2013 sale of a painting by Edward Hopper to enable acquisitions of work by underrepresented artists — an initiative begun under former PAFA director Harry Philbrick and further supported by current director Brooke Davis Anderson. Throckmorton calls the “Taking Space” show “a moment for us to reflect on the work that we have been doing.”
“We’ve been trying to communicate to visitors that this isn’t one moment in time,” Throckmorton says. “There will now be a presence for these female artists at PAFA for a long time.”
Some of the works in “Taking Space” offer poignant reminders that such presence has been hard won. The exhibition opens with a 2009 color lithograph by Deborah Willis — created at the Brandywine Workshop — that conveys her experience of being admonished by a male professor in the 1970s that, as a student, she “took the space from a good man.”
Willis, who went on in her career to become a MacArthur Fellowship-winning curator and historian of African American photography as well as an artist, revives the sexist remark in the lithograph to transform it. Next to a filmstrip of black-and-white photographs of her as a mother-to-be during the same period, she writes “I made a space for a good man,” a reference to her son, artist Hank Willis Thomas.
Webb describes the piece as “a lighthouse” within the exhibition. It beacons to anyone who has ever been told that they’re not enough, yet gone on to succeed and, in Willis’ case, to make space for many others.
The exhibition includes many pioneering artists who protested loudly for art world equity during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, in a struggle that is somewhat forgotten today.
At age 90, Faith Ringgold is increasingly recognized as a central figure in American contemporary art and for her role as an activist demanding the inclusion of women and Black artists in museums. “Taking Space” features a classic Ringgold work, Tar Beach #2 — made in 1990 at the Fabric Workshop — a colorful narrative quilt illustrating a young girl’s playful flight of imagination from a Harlem rooftop in the summer, while her parents dine with neighbors nearby.
Also here is Ana Mendieta, a Cuban American artist known for works like a black-and-white photograph depicting the silhouette of a female body traced into the earth, whose unexplained death at age 36 in 1985 rendered her a feminist martyr.
The exhibition’s roster of trailblazers — Louise Nevelson, Nancy Spero, Betye Saar, Alice Neel, Lee Krasner, Miriam Schapiro, and the Guerilla Girls, among others — alone makes “Taking Space” worth a visit. “We’ve had older artists say, I would have had a really different career if there had been shows like this when I was in art school,” Webb says.
The biggest thrills are provided by a younger generation, now in mid-career, who have come up in the path forged by the exhibition’s pioneers.
Mickalene Thomas is represented by a 10-foot-tall, rhinestone-studded portrait of a woman whose stately pose fuses historic royalty and 20th century Black power. Wangechi Mutu’s collage, If we live through it, She’ll carry us back, summons a female water-dwelling deity, both seductive and fearsome, composed from fragments of found images. Njideka Akunyili Crosby, a decade younger and once a PAFA student, layers photographs drawn from Nigerian mass media onto paintings of her domestic life in the U.S., which often portray her and her husband (who is white) in tender-yet-enigmatic moments.
Ebony G. Patterson, whose work is also part of the public art project Staying Power in North Philadelphia, supplies an indelible visual impact at the exhibition’s entrance — a monumental installation of pink polka dot wallpaper, beads, toys, and tapestry portraits of Black youth, a tribute to the innocence often denied them by racism in society.
These artists — all Black women working in unique mixed-media formats that they’re known for — have risen to heights of success that had scant precedent 50 years ago, and PAFA has been a collector of their work. Then there’s a next wave of talents, emerging by contrast, who — like Haynes — the museum is betting on.
A wall-mounted ceramic sculpture by Brie Ruais shows the sheer force of the artist’s pulling pieces of clay apart with her fingers and shaping them into a radial burst that glimmers with metallic glaze. A stunningly detailed, large-scale watercolor by Elizabeth Colomba places a Black female protagonist at the center of a scene of 19th century European aristocracy and leisure. María Berrío’s collage The Oracles’ Silence, made from handmade Japanese papers, depicts two Indigenous women standing with their backs to the viewer, a gesture of quiet authority.
Given the number of graduates PAFA’s art school produces each year, it’s rare for the museum to collect the work of alumni. In recent years, donors had given PAFA two paintings by Haynes, including a triptych depicting three different women’s torsos across stages of life, one with a mastectomied breast.
In 2020, PAFA purchased Janie, the monumental portrait in “Taking Space,” in which Haynes flips the script on women’s bodies as diminutive and vulnerable, even as she tenderly documents every freckle, fold, and scar on her model’s skin.
Earlier this year, Haynes wrote publicly for the first time about how surviving a sexual assault led her to paint women’s bodies at large scale. “Part of the construction for her is making an over-life-sized painting as a protective impulse,” Webb says. “It doesn’t feel like a woman’s body that the viewer can conquer. It feels like a woman’s body that might be in a position to conquer you.”
The PAFA purchase was especially significant to Haynes because her model for Janie, actress and body positivity activist Janie Martinez, died in 2019. Martinez was “very conscious about what it means to take up space in a world that is constantly telling you that you should take up less space with your body or in a conversation, with your work, or in your career,” Haynes says.
For Haynes, the museum purchase felt like a memorial for Martinez as well as a validation of her art, with its deep ties to PAFA tradition and radical revisioning of it.
“When you put money down, that’s a real solid commitment of saying you believe in this artist. That means so much,” Haynes says. “I am an alum, and they’re showing support for me at a time when my career is expanding. I came from them.”
Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale
Through Sept. 5 at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Hamilton Building, 128 N. Broad St. Museum hours are currently 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thurs. & Fri. and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat. and Sun. Details at pafa.org