Interview with Laura Petrovich-Cheney: “It is time that women write more about themselves and their history”

Artist Laura Petrovich-Cheney talks about her experience in women’s co-operative gallery A.I.R., Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA), besides her experience as a sculptor and point of view about the participation of women in American art scene.

How did you become a member of A.I.R.?

I was a 2013-14 fellowship artist at A.I.R. However, back in 2010, I went to a meeting hosted by the College Art Association and it was about women in the arts. There was one person on the  panel discussion who kept talking about A.I.R. and she got her start there. It was so long ago that  unfortunately I can’t remember that artist. But I was so impressed by how that person had built a community around A.I.R. and about how she got support through that community. A short time later, I also got to know A.I.R. through my graduate research on Ana Mendieta. So it seemed to make sense to investigate A.I.R. for personal reasons, and in that investigation I learned about the fellowship. I applied in 2011 and was rejected. Then I reapplied the following year and I got it.

What does the Fellowship Program consist of?

We had monthly professional meetings. We talked about résumés, opportunities, grants- how to write them, how to look for them, resources for them- and the preparation needed for a solo show. One of the greatest questions happened to come up in our fellowship meetings was: “what goal do you want out of this solo show?” I had never put a solo show in the context of what did I  hope to achieve by having a solo show. It’s great that I had the opportunity to have my work out there – but even better to think about the possibility of what want from that exhibit. I thought they were really good questions. No one had asked me what I wanted out of graduate school or this exhibit or that one. This idea placed a direct focus on me and gave clarity to be where I needed to be. I liked that.

This is what I was going to ask you: how do you feel about being in a initiative only for women? There are some critics about this kind of organizations in a way that they are also excluding.

First, I like the community of just women. However, this is a good question because now there are so many gender issues surrounding identity. For example, what if I was a man who identified myself as a woman? Interestingly, it’s a question that my school, Moore College of Art, is dealing with that, because the undergraduate program is only for women. So how do we deal with it? I don’t know. I think it’s a question that A.I.R. needs to look at it. I like the idea of exclusivity with women. It creates a community that it’s not easy to find. But going forward, I’d love personally to have more open calls with men that identify themselves as feminists. I don’t know if I’d ever want a man as a member in A.I.R., but I think an open call can be interesting for the other gender to have a voice of feminism and for empowering for women. Because I think this question of identity and sexual assignment becomes stronger over time and people are more willing to talk about it now. It’s a really interesting time.

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Laura Petrovich-Cheney – Washed up, 2013. Salvaged Wood, 43’’ x 43’’ x 1’’. Source: Laura Petrovich-Cheney website

How was your graduate experience in Moore College, with an all women undergraduate program?

I wanted to go to an all women school. Men can change the level of competition and learning. Even as a school teacher, I often thought that children should have a boy school and a girl school. Women and girls  behave very differently around men and boys. However, the Moore College of Art graduate program is co-ed. The undergraduate program is still just for women. I did get my wish – my graduating class was just women.

Are you still part of Women’s Caucus for Art? What’s this organization about?

Yes, I am still an active member of the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA). But the application process is different than A.I.R.’s. Any woman can join, any women can join the WCA, whereas in A.I.R. you have to present a portfolio and be accepted as a member by your peers’ approval. The WCA has a variety of members- professional artists, self taught artists, art historians, students, educators, and museum professionals. That focus of the WCA is very interesting because of the wide range of members. It is mission is to create community through art, education, and social activism.

What do you think are the similarities and also the differences from WCA and A.I.R.?

Both organizations deal with advocating for women artists and I am deeply humbled to apart of both organizations. A.I.R. Gallery is a permanent exhibition space that supports an open exchange of ideas and risks taking by women artists in order to provide support and visibility. Our members are in New York and throughout the country. A.I.R. Gallery has been leading the way in championing women artists, increasing their visibility WCA is committed to recognizing the contribution of women in the arts; providing women with leadership opportunities and professional development; expanding networking and exhibition opportunities for women

You participate in WCA in Philadelphia. Do you think that for women the context there is different from the context in New York?

For me, it seems that the members in A.I.R. are much more committed  and focused to the organization. For example, there are monthly meetings at A.I.R. and members must be involved in two committees. In WCA, we meet 3 or 4 times a year and there are no requirements be active in the organization. The commitment level to run a gallery – like A.I.R.-  in Brooklyn is almost like a full time job;  we have to be involved in order to make the gallery succeed, and that level of commitment demands more of me.

Of course, and it’s amazing how it survived (and still does) for more than 40 years. It requires a lot of commitment and it’s not easy.

There is a great deal of commitment from 22 New York members! We’re very strong women.

How are these meetings?

They are fine, things are taken very seriously. There are discussions about ideas and growth. The commitment is so heavy because of the history of A.I.R. Since A.I.R. has been around for 40 years, we now have a legacy. We need to consider that. Not only for the past, to honor and respect the past, but also to consider our future. And as I mentioned before, one of the future questions is how do we negotiate gender identity?

You work as art teacher as well. Do you think there is negligence in art history with women artists? Is art education still focused on male artists?

For hundreds of years, women had strictly assigned roles in society. (and sometimes still do today!) But I think the courageous women that did break  the assigned roles and became someone that they wanted to be and not what they were told to be – should be more recognized and that is really important. The winners write the history, and if the winners are white males, they are writing about themselves. It is time that women write more about themselves and their history.

In a past interview you also said Eva Hesse was one of your biggest influences. In art history, we know she mentioned many times the difficulties of being taken seriously as a woman sculptor in a context where most sculptors were men. You, as a contemporary artist, feel that this scenario has changed, or traditional media (painting, sculpture, etc) are still dominated by men artists?

Yes, I am a woman sculptor. I wanted to take “traditional men’s tools” and be challenged by those tools. Of course, I took it to extreme: in my graduate thesis, I worked with a chainsaw to complete my work. I can’t say I’m extremely comfortable with a chainsaw, but I know how to use one. When I started out as a sculptor and I thought: what is the scariest biggest tool? Then I thought: fire and chainsaw! (Laugh). Lets to both! I wanted to challenge myself so I could reach that level. I think the art world is dominated by men artists.

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Laura Petrovich-Cheney – Just Passing Though, 2011. Goldie Paley Gallery, Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia, PA. Tree trunks of maple and oak wood. Source: Laura Petrovich-Cheney website

You work requires a lot of physicality which can be associated to men’s work.

Yes, and I love that association. For me, that one of my goals to have my work associated with a strong masculine drive because women can be as tough as men. I do want to challenge the idea of what is women’s art and what women can do -physically, mentally, emotionally. I want to push all the limits for women so  there are no more stereotypes of women’s limitations.

Do you think there are differences between women and men artistic sensibilities?

No. I mean, maybe. Here’s why I saw maybe: I don’t know how many men would have said: “give me the most girly tool you have”.

Do you think the art world is still sexist?

Yes, and I see it all the time. For example, I was exhibiting with another male artist, and he was asked to do a panel discussion outside the show. But not me. I wasn’t. I was completely ignored, it was like if I didn’t exist. There could have been a thousands of reasons why he was selected and not me. But it was… curious why I wasn’t even asked. My husband noticed it to. It was quite disturbing. So, yes, absolutely, the art world is still sexist.

That’s interesting because sometimes women say that, by numbers, they know sexist exists, but they don’t feel it. That’s not your case, then.

I do feel the sexism and it hurts.

There is this document edited by Nancy Spero and Joyce Kozloff with statements of women describing sexist practices in the art world. It was in 1972. And I see things that happened in the 70’s happening today, 45 years later.

It’s amazing. And as I age, sexism seems to get worse. It’s very interesting how to negotiate and to navigate the art world as I age.

And the art world is seen as an  open minded space, but it’s not a space separate from the rest of the social practices where the is still this sexists behaviors.

Sexism a learned behavior and, unless we begin to identify the behaviors that cause the exclusion of women, we can’t stop it. I think most people are not always conscious of how they behave and why the react to others in certain ways. Sometimes these behaviors are very unconscious – sometimes not. That’s why the conversation of feminism, sexism and equality for women has to continue, so people can ask themselves “how do I treat others and why”.

What do you think is the question for women in the art world today?

Equal pay for starters. As President Obama said -women still earn less than men. In the art world, that translates to women’s art not being as  “high priced” as men’s – and in a capitalist society, price can be seen as a valued. Second, women need to be more represented more in museums and galleries. Women need to placed in positions of power in art institutions – like major museums – to help write our history and begin to include other women in the art conversation. Lastly, women need to support each other.

Do you think men and women are equal competitors?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. For example, I was in a show where the curator chose all white men and me- I felt like the token woman. But then I looked at who the curator was and  thought – did he choose those men because he saw a reflection of himself in them – consciously or unconsciously? If I just had friends that think like me and have the same values as me – won’t that be boring? So, I would ask curators and people in charge of exhibitions to be more aware of their choices in artists in order to have varied opinions and ideas that differ in  their own values. I’d ask them to be self reflective about those choices and to ask  themselves “how can  my point of view to be more inclusive of people who are different than me.” It’s a human challenge for men and for women- we crave continuity and familiarity. But it’s something that I would ask  everyone – not just curators – what voices are you not hearing.

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Laura Petrovich-Cheney – Confinement, 2009. 5’’ x 5’’, 2.5’’. Wax, Wool yarn, oil paint, canvas. Source: Laura Petrovich-Cheney website

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