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January 17 - February 10, 2007 at VIVA Gallery, San Fernando Valley

by Jeanne Willette

Aging, a natural process, is defined one way for men--favorably--and another way for women--negatively.  You have the “wise old men” and women “past their prime.”  Upon turning sixty, feminist Gloria Steinam remarked that she could say and do anything she wanted, as society now considered her to be invisible, with nothing of value to contribute.  Such as the power of age: women are silenced.  But maybe not.  Nancy Pelosi, a sixty-five year old grandmother (and proud of it), is one of the most powerful individuals in the nation.  And a new exhibition, “Women of a Certain Age,” celebrates accumulated wisdom of women artists who refuse to be invisible.  This exhibition is dedicated to turning a sexist designation for women no longer considered desirable into a phrase of acclamation.

The artists, Pat Berger, Annette Bird, Ellen Grim, Virginia Sandler, Loa Sprung, and Joan Vaupen, are old enough to have entered the art world in its misogynistic pre-feminist days but young enough to have benefited from the feminist movement.  Their personal stories are similar to women of their generation: art careers combined with marriage and family.  To succeed as an artist, each had to overcome cultural barriers and biases in addition to simply pursuing their career.

All of these artists work in non-traditional mediums, assemblage and watercolor and mixed media, newer and more open to women than the male-identified fields of painting and sculpture.  Another shared characteristic is that the careers of these artists are marked with political activism and community service, which visibly imbues their work with powerful meaning and inspiration.  The exhibition honors the power of staying.

Ellen Grim, "Heritage,"
watercolor, 30 x 22".

Pat Berger, "Jungle Medley," 1999,
acrylic on canvas, 42 x 56".

Virginia Sandler, "Gold Coins,"
mixed media on paper, 35 x 27".

Born in an era that did not encourage the aspirations of women, these artists had to be quick to take advantage of any opportunity.  Grim began her career in the Marines during World War II as a draftsperson, the officer in charge, succeeding in a man’s world.  A Midwest migrant, Grim adopted the Southwest as her homeland and the Native American culture as her inspiration.  Working in watercolor, Grim uses southwest colors, the colors of nature, homages to the “craft” of women--their quilts and their baskets.  While Grim’s work is both straight painting and mixed media, Pat Berger’s work is pure watercolor.  What both artists share is their love of the Southwest, for Berger has done a series of paintings of cacti.  The watercolors here are close-ups of plants made mysterious through Berger’s intensely realistic, if delicately rendered examination of suddenly alien beings.

Loa Sprung, "Remembering,"
transparent watercolor, 22 x 30".

Anette Bird, "Lovers and
Strangers," bronze and mixed
media, 12 x 10 x 2 1/2".

Joan Vaupen, "Hollywood Male
Smoke House," plexiglas and
mixed media, 14 x 9 1/2 x 13".

The exhibition features two abstract painters.  Sandler’s acrylic mixed-media paintings make use of dark and muted tones that convey a sense of seriousness.  The unusual colors anchor the almost playful and free-floating shapes that hover within the somber fields.  Sprung’s paintings move and torque, making trails of soft colors--pinks, purples and oranges--colors that are notoriously difficult to handle; but in her handling they sing and dance.  

The last two artists are object makers in the Los Angeles assemblage tradition.  In a time when women (too weak and too fragile) were often discouraged from being sculptors, Bird worked the system at Santa Monica College, “mastering” the formidable power machines.  Her theme has always been that of human relationships, recreated with figurative sculptures and found objects, contained within a boxed space.  Her current work has shifted away from metaphorical narratives to single freestanding figures that have the look of African fetish sculptures.  Vaupen uses the pristine material of plexiglas to enclose and display some of society’s dirtiest secrets--blood diamonds, race riots, and the determination of governments to place us all at risk with nuclear weapons.  Powerful messages about the harm we do to one another are encased in transparency.  

Life has taught these ladies to be unafraid.  Times have changed and perhaps society’s attitudes towards “old ladies” is being lastingly transformed.  The exhibition is also a response to an ongoing project at VIVA, the restoration of Kent Twitchell’s obliterated “Old Lady of the Freeway.”  This beloved mural will be recreated on VIVA’s ninety-foot exterior west wall.  Like Twitchell’s Old Lady, these “Women of a Certain Age” refuse to be invisible.