21c’s ‘The Future Is Female’ packs a punch

Zoë Buckman with “Let Her Rave”

– By Cynthia M. Kukla

Who is prepared for an unexpected shift in our cultural climate such as the eruption of the Weinstein scandal that led to Time Magazine’s choice of the Silence Breakers as Person of the Year?

The 21c Museum Hotel in downtown Cincinnati was ready withs its prescient “The Future Is Female” exhibition, which opened in November and is on view through September 2018.

The exhibition includes the work of 43 women artists from around the world – paintings, drawings, sculptures, installations, videos and photographs selected by 21c curator Alice Gray Stites, from Louisville.

To highlight the opening reception of “The Future Is Female,” the 21c brought in British-born artist Zoë Buckman for an evening lecture. Buckman, who currently lives in New York, has three sculptures in the exhibition, including the wildly successful neon and boxing gloves “Champ.” The 21c acquired “Champ” at the cutting-edge venue called “Pulse” during the annual Art Basel/Miami international art expo.

Buckman has her finger on the pulse of the times in her unapologetic, feminist artwork. It is bold, but it doesn’t scream at you. “Champ” is powerful because it uses a contemporary material – neon – that we see every day in the neon signs used by restaurants, bars, nightclubs and all manner of stores from a locksmith’s shop to a corner bakery.

But Buckman makes something unexpected and intimate from glowing neon – a woman’s reproductive organs – and substitutes Everlast boxing gloves for the ovaries.

The piece is powerful as it glows pink-purple. The boxing gloves, more typically worn by men, startle.


"Champ" by Joe Buckman

“Champ” by Zoë Buckman

Buckman doesn’t skirt the truth. She is saying very clearly that women’s reproductive organs are still a battle zone.

“This feels like a tipping point, a point of no return,” she said in an interview weeks before the start of the nearly daily fallout from powerful men resigning or being fired for sexual misconduct. Her previous series of artwork, “Let Her Rave,” also used powerful messaging, in the form of hand-embroidery she did on vintage lingerie.

It is valuable to note that Buckman made a lot of these works so that she could be at home with her child, working in her studio/residence at the same time as she cared for her child. As a mother, Buckman says, she feels more empowered and creative – that she can do anything.

“Let Her Rave” used sexist lyrics from rap music embroidered onto vintage bras, slips, garter belts and nightgowns that were hung delicately from the ceiling of gallery spaces. They evoked a feeling both secretive, where women were silenced or shamed into behaving, and a feeling of sadness that so much hateful expression toward women is “out there.” The vintage lingerie amplifies the role of women seen traditionally as sex objects and objects of desire. Yet the rap lyrics, with some strong and disrespectful language stitched onto the lingerie, are current.

Recent exhibits featuring these works have been at Framing Beauty at the Grunwald Art Gallery, Indiana University; For Freedoms at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; and Every Curve at Papillion in Los Angeles.

Buckman is saying to us in her artwork that nothing has really changed much for women.

The series developed further when Buckman began buying old wedding dresses at thrift shops. You can see two of these artworks in this exhibit. Here, she hired a wedding designer to sew the lace, satin flowers and trim onto the hanging sculptures that also feature boxing gloves. They are hung from the ceiling by gleaming thick industrial chain. No joy here, just the illusion of joy vis-à-vis wedding day satin and lace, then, Bam!

In person, Buckman is forthright, fun and keenly observant. This is a key time for her as an artist. With the success of “Champ,” which went viral on Instagram, she is developing new art works. One will be an 8-foot high version of “Champ” using neon and specially fabricated oversized boxing gloves that will be on view in Los Angeles in 2018. It is being fabricated through the New York-based Art Production Fund.

Her iconic neon/boxing glove “Champ,” owned by 21c Museum Hotel, was used by the Women’s March in January, by International Women’s Month, and even by Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio.

“The Future Is Female” is provocative and diverse. Some of the very best longstanding contemporary women artists have their work on view in Cincinnati: Marilyn Minter, Alison Saar, Kiki Smith and Mickalene Thomas And don’t miss Swoon, whose amazing extravaganza is right next door at the Contemporary Arts Center. The exhibit is also significant for showing us some of the best new artists from Africa, Brazil, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, India, Australia and Morocco. Where else can you see such a richly diverse exhibit of contemporary women artists, and for free no less?

The 21c Museum Hotel group is known or having contemporary artwork displayed throughout its hotels. The museum is open to the public 24/7; and cultural programs rotate often. Guided docent tours are offered Wednesdays and Fridays at 5 p.m.

Cynthia M. Kukla is an artist and professor emerita of art living in Cincinnati.

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