Exhibit | Amy Bessone: A Century of Women

Amy Bessone, installation image from “A Century of Women”.

Ah, feminism. I first fell for you in college, and we’ve been together ever since. You were on my mind when I strolled into Amy Bessone’s show, In the Century of Women, on view through March 5, 2016, at Gavlak Gallery, where viewers witness a variety of feminine portrayals that are arranged in a gallery space, circling one another in unclear ways. The artwork in the show reminds me of both essentialist female film and media archetypes a la Cindy Sherman, and that more voluptuous female form that we remember from the days of Modernism. Does a show about women’s bodies and images a feminist show make? No, it does not. Feminism, I thought this show was about you, but I was mistaken.

It’s easy to call this show “feminist” based on the fact that the photographs are of women; the artist is a woman, and the sculptures littered throughout the gallery are busts of womens’ torsos. (Lest some archetypal masculinity is left out of the mix, we see a variety of Magritte-like pipes on the ground, all of which are untitled.) There’s also a fourth arguably feminist element of this mixed-bag show: discarded images of divorcees from newspaper archives (1930s-70s). There’s no real reason any of these elements have come together. It’s not interesting that they are so loosely connected, either; in fact, the vagueness therein is boring.

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Amy Bessone, “Number 8: Joan,” 2015.

L.A. artist Amy Bessone’s show says that the 20th century was a century of women, and it existed. Never mind that we currently are in a century of women, or that every century is a century of women, depending on how one thinks about it. In the black-and-white photograph Number 2: Mary (2015), we see a woman who looks like she could have starred in the Todd Haynes movie Carol. She sits smiling in a chair, heavily lit, wearing black leather gloves and a painted smile on her face. She’s also donning a large black hat and a heavy necklace. But why is she here? What does she have to do with anything that’s going on? She could be any (white) American woman from that decade — someone sitting on the bus, waiting for her stop. The other black-and-white portraits of women in this show share a similarly stranger quality to them. The woman in the portrait entitled Irmgard (2015) wears a polka dot blouse with white buttons; she reclines on a patterned couch, her eyes obstructed by her top hat, from which a lacey veil flows. We know nothing about her essence. She is just another woman, plucked from this particular century of women.

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Bessone gets more literal with the figurative, literally creating figurative ceramic busts of female torsos. She scatters them throughout the gallery, draping them with various patterns or full-length color and placing them on their individual stands. A glossy black torso is named S1.6 Scorched Earth (2015) while another white torso with black streaks painted in various crevices — and across the nipples — is referred to with a similarly bland title of S1.3 (2015). All of these sculptures suggest the obviousness of women as objects. Another torso, this one painted white and with a rope tied across the stomach multiple times, is titled S1.2. The Magician’s Assistant (2015); there is obviously a magical power play between the two. What’s more interesting about this series, however, is that from afar, some of the torsos just look like giant ceramic bowls, which casts a more ominous vibe over the idea that womens’ bodies are merely containers to be owned and handled, ultimately waiting to be filled.

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Amy Bessone, “Wanted Unwanted”, 2015.

Which brings me to the Magritte-esque pipes that are strewn throughout the gallery. They do not have titles on them, either. They recall the infamous painting The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe) (La trahison des images [Ceci nest pas use pipe]), but larger than life and with a pipe bowl so big you could fit one of Bessone’s female torso sculptures into it, creating entirely new art amalgamations. The pipes lurk on the floor, nearby the nude torsos. Their floor-level position gives one a sense that the female form is more powerful because it is, literally, higher up than the subordinate pipe. Could this be a subtle feminist move here? If it is, I’ve read into it so far because I miss my friend, feminism, and I’m dying for some connection with her despite the fact that she’s barely in the room. But then we have the divorcée prints, which also imply a 70s-style feminist rage component. It’s like a collision of archetypes and moments, but without any real purpose.

Amy Bessone, installation image from "A Century of Women"

Amy Bessone, installation image from “A Century of Women”.

All of the elements in this exhibition seem to connect with one another, but only under the vague umbrella of “women from the 20th century.” The actual females in this show offer little more to the viewer than a vague encyclopedia about the history of (white) women in the 20th century might give a hasty reader. This sort of vagueness allows for exploration of form but leaves the viewer wanting more from the conceptual premise of this exhibition. After all, isn’t every century in some way a century of women because women were there and continue to be? And furthermore, if this show is going to declare that it’s about “a century of women,” it would be nice to see some diversity in the photographs of women rather than photographs of familiar, white female archetypes, and a plethora of busts that would honestly be just as interesting if they were bowls or vases, because there’s no real reason that they have become women’s torsos. This show is a century of women, but it could just as easily be a century of things to look at, staggered into various decades, without any purpose for existing. Dear Feminism, where are you now when I need you?!

In the Century of Women is on at Gavlak Gallery through March 5, 2016. 
All images courtesy of the artist and Gavlak Gallery, Los Angeles. (Photo by Jeff McLane).