Women to the Fore at the Hudson River Museum

In Dialogue with co-curators Laura Vookles, Chair of the Curatorial Department, and Victoria Ratjen, Curatorial Assistant

Installation view. (Front) Ola Rondiak (American, b. 1966). Motanka Installation, 2019. Papier-mâché, plaster of Paris, and other mixed media. Courtesy of the artist. © Ola Rondiak. Photo: Steve Paneccasio

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s voting rights, Women to the Fore, the current group exhibition at the Hudson River Museum features more than forty female-identifying artists, spanning one hundred and fifty years. The two curators, Laura Vookles and Victoria Ratjen, selected diverse artworks across media —paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, collage and sculpture— from the Museum’s permanent collection, regional artists, galleries, and collectors. The exhibition includes works by renowned artists like Marisol, Judy Chicago, Louise Nevelson, and Mary Cassatt among many others, and less recognizable contemporary and 20th century artists. For instance, one of the highlights in this show is Anna Walinska’s self-portrait which not only marks her first return to the walls of the Hudson River Museum in over 60 years, but also brings to light her significant role in the art world of her time, including her dedication to promoting the work of other artists, like Arshile Gorky, who got his first New York City solo show in the mid-30s at the Guild Art Gallery, an art venue she founded and ran.

AS: How did you come up with the idea for the show?

LV: It’s a dream that’s been geminating for a while. For the past few years, we have had a goal to feature more women throughout the galleries and programs. We were working on a plan for a display highlighting women artists as part of the collection gallery, and it didn’t take long before it just seemed obvious—why think that small? Even with more than 40 female-identifying artists in Women to the Fore, there wasn’t room for all the artists we would have liked to include, either from the collection or artists we admire in Westchester and New York City. No single exhibition can ever cover the multifaceted story of women’s art history. We aimed for a broad range. I was thinking a lot this year about the fight for women’s suffrage—all the meetings and planning, speeches, and conversations. In my mind, the museum gallery was like one of these conventions—diverse artists from different times and places brought together for a common purpose.

VR: Of course, we wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Though it’s an imperfect victory, it was a large step forward for women and we wanted to do something to acknowledge it. We’ve also been working on an extensive inventory of the museum’s collection that allowed us to rediscover some of the women in our own collection. From there the exhibition grew to include loans as a way to diversify and enrich what the museum already had in its collection, making for a stronger show all around.

AS: The show features work by more than 40 artists spanning over 150 years. I imagine that at times your research process resembled detective work, coalescing disjointed pieces of puzzle into a cohesive image. How did you choose the artists and what would you like to share about your curatorial research process?

LV: The collection provided a framework—not just in terms of artists—but also the themes and connections that started to emerge. And we are always following the work of artists in our community and actively seeking to broaden that picture. So, we are definitely detectives, though during the pandemic, this research was limited to our own collection and research archives, and the virtual realm: online resources and Zoom calls to confer with artists or other colleagues who might have recommendations of artists we should meet.

As the list developed, likely pairings and groupings started to emerge and that, for me, always helps with refining the checklist. I’ll make a wall plan with scaled images, to help us visualize how things work together. This method led to an “ah ha” moment for one of the collection artists: I was having trouble seeing how Hannelore Baron’s collage fit in, and I really wanted to find a place for it. Suddenly, I saw a connection to the loan from Judy Giera—they both use used textiles and string. I needed that prompt of the puzzle pieces side by side.

We were lucky to be working with so many living artists, who could speak directly about their work. Once we settled on the idea of using their own words and images of them on each label, that gave Victoria and me a very definite goal. We both love this kind of research, even if it can be time consuming and sometimes frustrating. You can’t always find what you hope, but sometimes you find something even better.

VR: It really did feel like detective work at times, especially since we learned first-hand how women artists have been pushed aside academically. Some of our decision-making process was led by who we could find research about. Many of the women in our own collection are either unknown now or have papers in archives that aren’t digitized at all. It was a frustrating process to say the least. In terms of outside loans, we really wanted to include the work of local artists and women whose voices and experiences needed to be represented in the exhibition, such as Tuesday Smilie, Jessica Spence, Judy Giera, and Shanequa Benitez.

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Shanequa Benitez (American, b. 1988). Black Women’s Workforce, 2019. Acrylic paint and acrylic molding paste. Private Collection. © Shanequa Benitez
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Jessica Spence (American, b. 1986). Sunday Evening, 2017. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the artist. © Jessica Spence
Judy Giera (American, b. 1988). just a t gurl from brooklyn, 2019. Mixed media on canvas. Courtesy of the artist. © Judy Giera. Photo: Steve Paneccasio
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Tuesday Smillie (American, b. 1981). S.T.A.R., 2012. From the FREE OUR SIBLINGS///FREE OURSELVES series. Watercolor on paper, collage on board. Courtesy of the artist. © Tuesday Smillie

AS: The diversity in this mega scale show runs the gamut from age, background, career stage, time-period and media. Let’s take a closer look at some of the artworks. I would like to start with Anna Walinska’s story and some background on the featured Self-Portrait: Flamenco, an oil painting from 1939.

LV: Anna Walinska played an important role as an artist and art organizer in the New York art world of the mid-20th century, so we were really excited about the opportunity to include her in the exhibition. I specifically asked her niece, Rosina Rubin, to show me self portraits, because we had none in the collection. Given the themes of the exhibition, I believed showing an artist’s view of herself would be essential. The dance element in this painting also intrigued me. The dynamic composition perfectly expresses movement, and it also relates to other works in the exhibition by Barbara Morgan and Mary Frank. Rubin, who has now donated this painting to the Museum, provided the painting’s fascinating backstory from her aunt’s own memoirs. Walinska offered to paint a portrait of Spanish dancer Nunez de Polanco in exchange for dance lessons. She enjoyed the lessons very much and even ended up performing in a benefit concert for the Spanish Loyalistas, because her instructor’s partner had sprained her ankle and could not dance at the event.

VR: We were lucky enough to be in contact with Anna’s niece, who gave us some great insight into her life and the piece. I think trading art for dance lessons is ingenious.

Anna Walinska (American, b. England, 1906–1997). Self-Portrait: Flamenco, 1939. Oil on canvas. Collection of Atelier Anna Walinska. © Atelier Anna Walinska

AS: Susan Leopold, Julia Santos Solomon, Seongmin Ahn, Vinnie Bagwell and Camille Eskell are contemporary artists who work in photography, drawing, and sculpture. Can you tell me a bit about their work in this show?

LV: Susan Leopold used photographs of Bannerman’s Castle, mounted at projecting angles from the wall, to bring the viewer a more dimensional experience of these romantic ruins on an island in the Hudson River. The sculptural form incorporates mirrors, which she says create a changing kaleidoscape as we pass by, suggesting our constantly changing view of the world as we move through it.

The works by Julia Santos Solomon, Seongmin Ahn, Camille Eskell, and Vinnie Bagwell convey powerful messages about feminine identity, caregiving, and protection. Julia Santos Solomon is represented in our collection, but I wanted to show something more personally connected to her life than the subject of our painting The Floor Scrapers, which was inspired by French artist Gustave Caillebotte. As with Anna Walinska’s niece, I asked Julia to suggest loans of self-portraits, and the works showing her as a four-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a mature woman really make a powerful grouping. Implicit in the youthful portraits is the presence of her grandmother, who raised her when she had to stay in the Dominican Republic for many years after her mother emigrated. Reflection upon homelands is also a major concern of Seongmin Ahn, who combines a distinctive Korean food, noodles, with traditional Korean landscape painting, as an ode to “the deep connection between physical pleasure and spiritual fulfillment.”

With our juxtapositions in the exhibition, we wanted to expand the concept of women’s roles as nurturers, from caregivers to protectors and advocates. Camille Eskell sculpts a damaged body as metaphor and testimonial, yet the beautiful floral tattoos are part of this self-perception and suggest transformation, transcendence, and rebirth. To me, the teeth embedded in her gaping torso suggest means of defense, not just destruction. We are fortunate to have Vinnie Bagwell’s maquette for Victory Beyond Sims, a monument that will replace the Central Park statue of J. Marion Sims, formerly revered as the father of modern gynecology and well known to have cruelly experimented on women of color. The victorious angel radiates hope for a better future under her protection, and the women’s faces sculpted on her skirt memorialize these unwilling victims.

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Julia Santos Solomon (American, b. Dominican Republic, 1956). Caribbean Thoughts Mashup, 2019. Digital print on metal. Courtesy of the artist
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Seongmin Ahn (South Korean, b. 1971). Aphrodisiac 30, 2019. Ink, pigments, and wash on mulberry paper. Courtesy of the artist. © Seongmin Ahn
Vinnie Bagwell (American). Model for Victory Beyond Sims, 2019. Bronze resin. Courtesy of the artist. © Vinnie Bagwell. Photo: Steve Paneccasio
Camille Eskell (American, b. 1954). Tattooed Lady: Comin’ Up Roses, 2003. From the TRUNCATED series. Resin, graphite, colored pencil, false teeth, watercolor, and mixed media. Collection of the Hudson River Museum. Museum Purchase, 2018 (2018.12.2). © Camille Eskell. Photo: Steve Paneccasio
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Susan Leopold (American, b. 1960). Castle (Bannerman’s Castle), 2005. Digital prints, wood, glass mirror, and foam hinges. Collection of the Hudson River Museum. Gift of the artist, 2008 (2008.11). © Susan Leopold

AS: The Hudson River Museum commissioned from Nancy Mendez, Patricia Santos, and Katori Walker a mural – The Garden of the Divine Feminine. Please tell me more about this mural collaboration.

LV: Our director, Masha Turchinsky, and I have been following the work of all three artists for some time. Nancy Mendez and Patricia Santos have painted amazing street murals in Yonkers, and Katori Walker has created wonderful collaborative art programs, including at the Museum. We were all excited to have the chance to work with them to create a work for this special exhibition. It was a privilege to witness the planning process and the production of this mixed-media work in the gallery. Together, the artists wrote: “This mural represents spirituality; sensuality; beauty; intuition; power; creation; birth; energetic awakening; evolution, creation, ascension; community; collaboration; wisdom; love, and infinitely so much more.” Walker drew a parallel between the figures in the mural and the artists in the exhibition: “These women had the courage to express their creativity and honor the artist within. Let us celebrate and acknowledge their courage, fortitude, and strength.” It seems fitting that the exhibition begins and ends with a statement about women as a life force, in so many creative ways: The Garden of the Divine Feminine by Mendez, Santos, and Walker, and Guided by the Goddess, by Judy Chicago.

Nancy Mendez (American, b. 1985), Patricia Santos (American, b. 1989), Katori Walker (American). The Garden of the Divine Feminine, 2020. Tempera paint, spray paint, and mixed media. Commissioned for this exhibition by the Hudson River Museum. Supported in part by ArtsWestchester. Photo: Steve Paneccasio

AS: What impact do you think this show has made on visitors and what is your takeaway from it?

LV: I often say that an exhibition, whether one I’ve curated or visited, has a real impact on me if I don’t look at the world the same way after experiencing it. It is also my wish for visitors. I’ve given tours and had a chance to hear first hand how much women feel proud and empowered by this scope and treatment—this includes several of the participating artists. I want people who see the exhibition not just to leave with a sense of appreciation for the art and the artists in Women to the Fore, but also with a framework and questions that have broader application. I hope they will look at art and exhibitions, and really any area of life, with a greater understanding of the contributions of women. I feel uplifted and hopeful after working on this exhibition, and I want that for everyone.

VR: I think the show has had a really positive impact on people, especially women and young girls. For some it’s the first time they have seen someone that has had similar life experiences to them represented within a museum. I love seeing the images of kids posing with Ola Rondiak’s Motanka army; it’s heartwarming and really makes you feel like the exhibition matters. I don’t think many people realize when they walk into an exhibition that most, if not all, of the pieces are created by men. Women to the Fore, and any women-only exhibition, makes you stop and think about that. I hope our visitors take that away with them and start to question where the women are in museums. It’s the type of exhibition I would have wanted to see as a kid, and I’m proud to have been a part of bringing that to people.

Women to the Fore credits atHudson River Museum co Curated by Laura Vookles and Victoria Ratjen, through January 3, 2021

Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: artspielblog@gmail.com