Playing off Virginia Woolf’s classic essay, A Room of One’s Own, the BYU Museum of Art’s exhibition A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists from the MOA Collection, honors women artists represented in the museum’s collection who were able to find that proverbial room, time, space, or means to create. In their exhibition text, the MOA curators reference Linda Nochlin’s seminal 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” and the art world gender inequalities it delineated, reflecting on the ways women artists have been excluded from official exhibitions, academies, and recognition. A Studio of Her Own is the MOA’s own response and contribution, focusing internally on the women artists in their collection, celebrating their accomplishments and demonstrating the “greatness” of their contributions to the visual arts.
Though the artists represented in this show come from a range of times and places, Utah artists make a particularly strong showing. Sanpete artist Ella Gilmer Peacock’s featured artworks highlight the ways she has captured rural Utah and the working class. Though painted mostly in the 1960s, they evoke a regionalist style popular in the ’30s and ’40s that captured middle-American life. Her strong showing in this exhibition prompted me to examine why she is not as celebrated as some of her male counterparts in the history of Utah art.
The exhibition is curated thematically around subject matter, neglecting time and place to focus on the artwork itself. This curatorial choice strengthens the exhibition by hanging works of art next to each other you wouldn’t normally see in tandem. Regional artists hang next to internationally-acclaimed artists, and nineteenth-century paintings next to twentieth-century photographs. These juxtapositions are emphasized from the very first encounters in the exhibition. The first section, focusing on landscapes, hangs traditional scenes by Peacock next to works by Helen Gerardia, a Russian-American Abstract Expressionist, and Edna Andrade, an American artist known for her contributions to the Op Art movement. The only obvious connections between these works are that they depict a female interpretation of land. Their differences highlight the unique strengths and allow the viewer to see new details.
In the same section, Gerardia’s “Moonladder” hangs next to a Dorothea Lange photograph of Gunlock, Utah. The lines and shapes in Lange’s “Sky and Clouds” are pronounced in part because of their contrasts to Gerardia’s geometric composition. Lange, most often recognized for her depictions of migrant workers during the Great Depression as part of the FSA photography project, is usually lauded for her storytelling ability and the ways her photographs capture the human experience. Conversely, through this pairing the curators highlight her skills in design and composition, emphasizing the way she could manipulate line, shape, and form in her photographs.
The text and labels in the exhibition are mostly biographical, highlighting the impressive accomplishments of the 60 women artists included. Most of the writing leaves out mention of gender or the gendered obstacles these women had to overcome to find their success. The still-life section is an exception, and discusses why women in the Western tradition have had success painting still lifes and florals. The text panel explains that the MOA holds more works from women depicting still lifes than any other subject matter, and that these genres of artwork have historically been looked down upon or seen as “inferior” in part because of their accessibility by women. This gendered discussion of the artwork adds to the visitors’ understanding of why the artists’ accomplishments were so noteworthy and gives the visitor larger context to their meaning.
The exhibition is limited, certainly, by the scope of the museum’s collection, and could have been enhanced by more representations of sculpture by women. To the same extent women were encouraged to paint still lifes and florals, they were limited access to sculpture — traditionally, a man’s game. Jann Haworth’s “French Charm Bracelet,” Rebecca Campbell’s “Two-Year Supply: Clean,” and Marie Watt’s “Blanket Stories: Ancestor, Baron Woolen Mill, and Hill People” add a much needed dimensional and material aspect to the show.
Likewise, the increased barrier for women of color to create art that ends up in museums is apparent in this exhibition, which features mostly white women. This is something I know museums across the state (including the museum I work at, the Springville Museum of Art) are working to correct, but these gaps in our institutional collections are apparent when we curate collection-based shows. It emphasizes our need to address these historical shortcomings and make our collections more representative of the people we serve. Importantly, the BYU curators included works that gave voice to diverse perspectives. Faith Ringgold’s “Subway Graffiti” honors Ringgold’s sister, Barbara, as well as famous Black figures from popular culture including Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. This work, and Watt’s “Blanket Stories,” which highlights an indigenous perspective, give a broader voice to women artists and their accomplishments.
Overall A Studio of Her Own is an impressive showing of women artists in the BYU MOA’s permanent collection. It is beautifully hung, highlighting the accomplishments of women by juxtaposing their varied works of art. It answers Nochlin’s 1971 question and declares proudly what women are able to accomplish if they just have (whether literally or metaphorically) a room, or studio, of their own.
A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists from the MOA Collection, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, through Sept. 12. A full online version of the exhibition is available at the museum website.
Emily Larsen is a Utah-based curator and collage artist. She currently works as the Head of Exhibitions and Programs at the Springville Museum of Art and is pursuing an M.A. in U.S. History at the University of Utah.