“We all need to pressure the art world gatekeepers—galleries, curators, critics, historians—to tell the history of art as a history of all of us,” Frida Kahlo tells me, “not just a history of the taste of the rich and powerful collectors who control so many museums.”
Frida is one of the original Guerrilla Girls, the anonymous feminist art collective devoted to fighting discrimination in the art world. The Girls use pseudonyms—typically in reverence to dead female artists—to protect their identities. They also wear gorilla masks.
“We have found shame, ridicule, humiliation and humor very successful strategies in the struggle,” she says.
That the Guerrilla Girls exist is crucial—systemic gender inequality in American (and worldwide) institutions remains a major problem. Solo exhibitions, visibility through gallery representation and press coverage, auction price differentials: parity is nonexistent. In 2014, for example, solo shows by women at the Guggenheim were only 14 percent. Back in 2000, they were zero. It’s no mystery that there exists an upper-level stronghold on our institutions—a white, male, heterosexual stronghold.
So, that the Guerrilla Girls exist is crucial. That they must exist, here and now, is absurd.
We recently visited Kolman & Pryor Gallery in Minneapolis for their No Boys Allowed exhibition, part of the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover (now through March). The exhibition features work by Twin Cities artists Betsy Ruth Byers, Farida Hughes, Kelly Jean Ohl, Jil Evans, and Jodi Reeb, against the backdrop of Christopher Atkins’ haunting and claustrophobic photography (“I noticed I was having a really hard time going to and then staying asleep,” Atkins tells me. “Finding something productive out of that time is what [the work] came out of.”).
“Since we opened, we’ve worked more with women than men,” says Anita Sue Kolman, co-owner of the gallery. “The point is, art should be judged on the basis of the artwork, not whether you’re male or female. So, what people are going to see [here] is very finely made art by very talented artists.”
Jodi Reeb’s kaleidoscopic works of molten beeswax and acrylic, inspired by Fibonacci sequences, seem to shapeshift on their own accord. “These pieces are based on the Golden Ratio,” she says, “the 3.168 ratio that’s found in nature. Bees use it as a way to build their hives, moths have the same trajectory when they’re flying toward a flame.”
The abstract works of Jil Evans are filled with energy and fluid movement. She’s “interested in bringing [together] different things that are disparate—big things with small things, quiet things with loud things,” in a unifying way. Forms melt, lines bend. A bouquet of snapdragons or an abstract take on Tintoretto. “[The work] is filled with little tensions and battles,” she tells me. “I want it to finally be resolved, and everything can work together.”
Farida Hughes, on her frenetic and masterful compositions, explains that she’s “thinking about universal, non-exclusive experiences. All of my work, in general, has been about relationship building, community engagement, human interactions in public spaces. My idea of feminism today is that all-inclusive experience, not just women and not just men, but everybody sharing voices. In my oils, I have a lot of repeated forms, but each one is different, each one is its own distinction. But they work together and form a unit.”
Finally, the textured and amorphous landscapes of Betsy Ruth Byers feel as if you could step inside and explore them. “I’m very interested in how the body interacts in space,” she says, “the physicality of expressing experience through referential abstraction. I’m interested in communicating this physical sensibility, or feeling something tangibly through making a painting.”
“I’m also interested in the fact that this is a painting. It’s surface and color. There’s a formal thing that happens when I’m making a painting, and I can’t lie about it. I don’t think any painter can. I’m putting surface to color, surface to color. What I’m doing isn’t real, but I’m trying to make a reality for people to experience.”