Art and Social Messaging in More is More: Multiples

Artists’ multiples combine the temptation and affordability of retail with the creativity of fine art. More is More: Multiples, on view through September 22, presents dinner plates, totes, sunglasses, toys, and more by artists including Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, Barbara Kruger, Helen Marten, and Jiha Moon.

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Many of the artists whose work is on view in More is More: Multiples have challenged stereotypical notions of womanhood since the 1970s, and their messages are still relevant today. Artists like Sophie Calle, Mickalene Thomas, Barbara Kruger, and the Guerrilla Girls have collaborated with design firms to produce objects that carry their social messaging forward. Working for gender and racial equality, these artists extend their ideas onto accessible retail objects, blurring lines between feminist art and consumer culture.

The topics of feminism and consumer culture call to mind the commodification of feminism over recent years. Big corporations may find success with “femvertising,” branding themselves as feminist while simultaneously ripping off female artists and underpaying employees. In an era of hashtags and campaigns, slogans like “The Future is Female” can be hollow signifiers: originating from the lesbian separatist movement, the phrase has become a symbol of superficial feel-good feminism.

Calle multiples

Sophie Calle, The Pig dinner service, 2013; Set of six porcelain plates with platinum text, each 10 5/8 in. diameter; Produced by Bernardaud; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; Image courtesy of Artware Editions

kruger your gaze

Barbara Kruger, Sunglasses, "Your gaze hits the side of my face", black with red arms; Plastic, 2 x 5 1/2 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Chief Curator, Kathryn Wat; Courtesy of Artware Editions

mickalene tote multiples

Mickalene Thomas, Tote (front), 2009 (based on Mickalene Thomas, Lovely Six Foota, 2007); Printed cloth, 15 x 13 ½ x 3 ½ in.; Produced in partnership with the International Center of Photography; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

thomas multiples

Mickalene Thomas, Pocket mirror (front and back), 2016 (based on Mickalene Thomas, Din Facing Forward and Qusuquzah Standing Sideways, 2012); Brushed bronze with epoxy-coated artwork, 2 5/8 in. diameter; Produced by Third Drawer Down; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of National Museum of Women in the Arts Chief Curator Kathryn Wat; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

GG eraser single 2

Guerrilla Girls, Erase Discrimination, 1999; Ink on rubber, 1 1/8 x 2 1/2 x 1/4 in.; Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Museum Acquisition Fund; Image courtesy of the Akron Art Museum

How do these multiples differ from other retail objects? First, the objects in More is More are created by feminist artists, not corporations. They are authentic and witty, prompting reflection from viewers. In The Pig dinner service (2013), Sophie Calle (b. 1953) tells the story of an uncomfortable encounter with a man who insulted her. The story unfolds in small platinum type across six porcelain plates. “He leaned in to me and sought my lips. I pushed him away. ‘What makes you think I’d want to kiss you?’ I protested. ‘Well, anyway,’ he answered, ‘you eat like a pig.’” The demeaning nature of Calle’s experience stands in stark contrast to the delicate, pristine plates.

Sunglasses (2013) by Barbara Kruger (b. 1945) confront gender inequity with a simple message from her 1981 piece Untitled (Your gaze hits the side of my face). Printed on the sides of the shades, the phrase reminds us how women are objectified, while the sunglasses act as a shield—protecting the wearer from the “male gaze.” A tote bag (2009) and pocket mirror (2016) designed by Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) address black beauty standards—by printing photos of black women on everyday objects, she celebrates their beauty and challenges Western beauty standards. The punny Erase Discrimination erasers (1999) by the Guerrilla Girls draw attention to inequality with frankness and humor.

While messages of female empowerment are used by corporations for appearance and profit, the objects in More is More present their messaging in creative, meaningful ways, leaving viewers engaged and challenged. “The problem is—the problem has always been—that feminism is not fun…. It’s complex and hard and it pisses people off,” said Andi Zeisler, founder of the feminist magazine Bitch. The multiples designed by Calle, Thomas, Kruger, and the Guerrilla Girls are witty and fun, but they also demonstrate the complexity and challenges of feminism.

—Louisa Potthast was the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

“We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard”: Barbara Kruger’s Imagery and Hollywood’s Gender Inequity

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin penned the essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” The now-famous piece interrogated the systematic obstacles that have prevented women from succeeding in the arts. This year, on the heels of the 2019 Oscar nominations—in which no women directors were nominated—a similar question arises: why have there been no great women directors? In 91 years of Oscar history, only five women have been nominated for Best Director, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won. The lack of recognition reveals the systematic gender bias prevalent in the film industry.

In a culture dominated by the white male viewpoint, films made by women offer an important, alternative perspective. In Mary Queen of Scots (2018), starring Saoirse Ronan and directed by Josie Rourke, Rourke revisits “history from a female perspective. We’ve not been telling the historical stories of women very well.” Indeed, the representation of women in film has historically been from a male perspective. Film theorist Laura Mulvey’s term “male gaze” reveals the dynamic: women are passive objects who are being looked at, while men are active, seeing subjects who construct the female image to please the male viewer.

Using Visual Culture to Challenge Visual Culture

In Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) (1992), currently on view at NMWA, Kruger plays with the gendered dichotomies of passivity and activity. The piece comprises a photograph printed on aluminum, overlaid with lines of text in white-on-red strips. The picture is cropped tightly on the face of a laughing woman. She holds what appears to be opera glasses and looks through them at the viewer. The statement, printed in bold letters, suggests that women want to be the makers of their own image.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard), 1992; Lithograph on embossed foil, 11 x 8 3/4 x 3/4 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the Thirtieth Anniversary of the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Photo: Courtesy of Derriere L’Etoile Studios

Artist Barbara Kruger
(b. 1945) has challenged dominant modes of representation in her work since the 1970s. By using found images and incorporating provocative slogans in bold letters, she draws attention to how visual culture shapes our perception of gender, and how it reinforces a binary gender system that objectifies women. In the context of the Oscars’ gender inequity, Kruger’s work can be seen as an amplification of the voices of women.

In Untitled (We Will No Longer Be Seen and Not Heard) (1992), currently on view at NMWA, Kruger plays with the gendered dichotomies of passivity and activity. The piece comprises a photograph printed on aluminum, overlaid with lines of text in white-on-red strips. The picture is cropped tightly on the face of a laughing woman. She holds what appears to be opera glasses and looks through them at the viewer. The statement, printed in bold letters, suggests that women want to be the makers of their own image. “I see my work as a series of attempts to ruin certain representations, to displace the subject, and to welcome a female spectator into the audience of men,” Kruger has said.

The white male viewpoint has historically defined Western visual culture: from painting to photography, to film. As the Oscars demonstrate, the only way to change the status quo is to let women author their own stories, and make their own images.

—Louisa Potthast is the winter/spring 2019 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.