Exhibit at de Saisset Museum reflects on connection between women and the Wild West
January 26, 2017
During these incendiary times in which women’s rights are being questioned and challenged, the newest exhibition at Santa Clara’s de Saisset Museum is more timely and relevant than ever.
Curated by Dr. Bridget Gilman and her Spring Quarter 2016 students and running until March 19, “Virgin Landscape” juxtaposes images of the natural, or rather virgin world of the American West with feminist symbols of rebellion and individualism expressed through the human form.
“This exhibition examines the power structures implied in representations of the landscape and gender,” Gilman wrote in the introductory description posted outside of the exhibit.
Lauren Baines, the Assistant Director for the de Saisset, explained that the exhibit was created as a work of outreach to students.
“When we can, the de Saisset Museum looks to collaborate with the Department of Art and Art History as a way to bring new perspectives to the museum,” Baines said.
The exhibit is full of wildly accomplished photographers known for reimagining how we view the relationship between nature and people, specifically women. Among them was Dorothea Lange, the iconic photographer of the Great Depression, who had many of her best works on display.
Lange’s images of mass migration impart feelings of sorrow to onlookers, showing cracked skin and soiled clothes worn by those who lost their livelihoods in the downturn. By looking at the images, viewers can almost hear the spirits of the people warning us of the dangers of greed and antipathy.
Imogen Cunningham’s “Rubber Plant” and “The Magnolia,” which both compare the abstract female form to vegetation, also presented provocative images. In “Rubber Plant,” several long leaves streak across the page in black and white, while “The Magnolia” presents a macro shot of a magnolia flower.
Yet, Cunningham’s perspective in these two photos expresses more than sexuality. “Rubber Plant’s” sharpness and stark black and white contrast morphs the photo into a sensual abstract painting, while “The Magnolia’s” perspective creates a ballroom with the stamens and pistils as the dancers.
Similarly, Edward Weston’s “Nude” plays off the theme of vegetation and the female body. Sitting next to a separate image of a bell pepper, the woman’s body contorts to match the pepper. The pepper faces two possibilities: to be eaten or to flower. Similarly, the woman is either eaten by the male gaze or will blossom independently.
While the majority of the nature photographs came from well-known and widely-admired photographers, they felt too familiar—canonical even—as if the exhibit was acting as some sort of hall of fame celebrating the best in nature photography. It would’ve been more interesting if the exhibit displayed the work of local or lesser-known artists to provide new perspectives, as Baines previously mentioned. I love Ansel Adams, but he’s everywhere.
But don’t let this criticism deter you from the exhibition, as it remains a real treat. The explorations of the body and the commentary they present prove thought-provoking and poignant. Make sure to stop by the next time you are near the museum, open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Contact Max Eberhart at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4852.