In Conversation: 3 Artists on Gender and Practice
with Natalie Weis
On a Sunday afternoon in early August, I sat down with three artists to discuss gender as it relates to their personal practices as well as the broader art world. In attendance were Cynthia Norton, who had just performed as her artistic alter-ego, Ninnie, at Swanson Contemporary the previous Friday night and Vian Sora, who arrived immaculately dressed and with the tiny, telltale flecks of paint on her arms that betrayed her feverish preparations for the upcoming KMAC Triennial. Joining us via Skype from Murray, Kentucky was S.N. Parks, whose recent chemigram work had been featured in a show at houseguest gallery earlier this summer.
The artists reflect three distinct approaches to gender and art: through her Ninnie character (a roving Appalachian folk singer), Norton amplifies the female voice and challenges traditional attitudes toward women, celebrity and domesticity. Sora, struggled against gender stereotypes and a male-dominated art world in her native Iraq, yet remains uncomfortable with putting her identity as a female artist at the forefront of her abstract expressionist paintings. And Parks, as a genderfluid artist, directly engages with identity through their specific technique, utilizing a chemigram process that combines photography and painting in a fluid and amorphous liminal state.
Natalie Weis [NW]: The sculptor Louise Nevelson once said, “I’m not a feminist. I’m an artist who happens to be a woman.” Do you want your audience to consider your gender or other aspects of your identity in evaluating your work?
S.N. Parks [SP]: I think it’s very important that people know I’m a queer artist. It brings context to what I do. The Louise Nevelson quote, I understand why she said it, but it’s actually bothered me quite a bit. I think if you’re creating the work, it’s important that you claim it for what it is. And in my case, my work is queer art.
NW: Given that it is so central to your work, how do you regard shows that are organized around identity?
SP: They’re important and empowering, definitely. But I think they can also be limiting, such as when people have preconceived notions about what feminist art or queer art means. And if they’re exposed to it in a show where that’s very limited, there’s not much chance of breaking down those preconceived notions. I think you actually expand your audience more without those kinds of shows.
Vian Sora [VS]: I agree, it really depends on the context of the show. If there is a compelling theme and a diverse group of artists, I’m fine with it. But all-female shows, I have a bit of a problem with because of how they’re often presented like a checkmark for institutions, as if they are doing us a favor. There are certain public responsibilities towards acknowledging how much women have been underrepresented in the art scene through history. And I have a problem with that because I feel like female artists always had to work harder to be heard and seen.
NW: Tell me more about that. Where do you see gender imbalance in the art world?
VS: There are a lot of positive examples of superstar female artists around the world who are enjoying great careers and being heard and getting established. On the other hand, there’s still a lot of underrepresentation in galleries and museums, and in opportunities as well. To be a female artist away from the major art cities makes it even more difficult to be heard and have access to opportunities. But I do feel we’re living in an era that’s slowly starting to change. You can only silence a group of people for so long.
Cynthia Norton [CN]: It’s been daunting at times to try to be recognized. It has to do a lot with men tending to share their skills and their resources amongst men, but putting up a wall when it comes to sharing those resources with women. It’s a weird kind of buddy system.
VS: Yes, I witnessed this when I went to the Biennale this year. I met artists I knew twenty years ago – all men – and the way they address each other, the way they share, they take each other seriously. But then when it comes to my work, they don’t want to take me seriously, they don’t want to acknowledge that I’m way ahead of some of them in my exhibition list.
And it’s so strange, because it’s exactly how Cindy is describing it. And it exists and it’s in every country. So it’s a problem, and I think it comes naturally: it’s like an instinct for certain men. I can’t even imagine it for LGBTQ artists. How does that kind of dynamic work?
SP: So far, I’ve mostly stuck to shows that are specific to queer topics and themes, or to the type of work I do. I’ve been in situations where the curator doesn’t really understand my gender and I’m in a position where I feel I need to explain my work to this person, but I don’t owe them that. I’m just there to give them my work. It’s important to know I’m gender-queer to understand some of the frameworks, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that.
CN: I’ve always felt that it’s much more interesting to see where the artist came from, when they moved, what years they lived where. That kind of biography is much more interesting to me when I look at somebody’s work. You don’t choose where you’re born, so you have to find your way around that environment. Artists have their own experiences of places and that’s easier to read in the work.
NW: So you think factors other than gender can have a bigger influence?
CN: Yes, I think location and time are much more relevant.
NW: What about you, S.N.?
SP: Ideas of tactility have a big influence on my work. I’m a 2D artist but I’m constantly trying to incorporate elements of sculpture or painting or photography. Before I started working with chemigrams, I was approaching art in a very binary way, trying to reclaim elements that are sometimes considered essentialist when referring to gender, like flowers, or trying to co-opt gender ambiguity by using seahorses. And it was not working.
But once I started engaging with Women and Gender Studies and learning about unintelligibility, I was able to get to a point where people look at my art and they don’t know whether it’s photography or painting. I’m perfectly fine with that because I always had a problem with what I saw as an elitist energy between mediums: that one is more valid than the other because there’s more skill involved. I feel like that’s looking at art in a binary way.
NW: Do you think the progress women have made has helped other underrepresented groups? Or is there still room for a more inclusive moment?
SP: There’s always room for more inclusion. We have come a long way. Our art history books are starting to reflect more non-Western art, more non-masculine or non-straight perspectives, but there is still so much room for more inclusion.
VS: Yes, there is always room for improvement, there is always room for more inclusion. Just looking at all these art books, I don’t see one female artist. [She gestures to the shelves of donated books in the room.] So this is a natural historical attitude towards female and queer artists, but it’s changing. There are more voices being heard. And as much as I don’t like some aspects of social media, it obviously plays a vital role in this shift.
SP: I personally feel disenfranchised from the art world. There is a perception of the art world as kind of elitist. It’s inaccessible, it’s largely white, it’s largely masculine. And part of the problem is there’s just not enough accessibility. Art can be so incredibly powerful yet most people don’t even want to engage with it because there’s this sense that it’s so inaccessible as this sacred, lofty, expensive thing.
NW: What do you see as the solution to that challenge?
SP: There have to be changes at an institutional level. People who are in positions of power need to use that power to start bridging the gap and featuring underrepresented artists so that other people can see themselves in the art world. Especially with history books, we’re starting to get to a place where there’s more information available and it’s a little bit easier to learn the history of underrepresented artists and artists from different backgrounds. I feel pretty positive about the direction things are going, but we still have so much further to go.
CN: I agree that accessibility is a real challenge. I think that’s why I’m so happy to be here making art, because for me art has always been about expanding. When we stick to this model of New York or Los Angeles being the only places to make and see art, that’s not expanding. That’s making it inaccessible. You have to have a lot of money to live in these cities and you have no time or space to make anything. It’s reached a level of absurdity.
VS: It’s that worship of a destination. But there is a certain shift that is happening here in Louisville in terms of practicing, showing and being seen. I’m at the point in my career where I need to be in the studio 16 hours a day and I can do that here. It’s time for us to be a host for artists to come here and thrive. There’s always room for more institutes, for more people practicing, more people talking seriously about art, more people who want to open minds about what art could be.
CN: I think the key thing is we need lots of opportunities across the board. And that’s what my alter-ego has been doing this entire time, using this war technology of radio and amplification that allowed women to be heard in political arenas. I think the greatest gift you could ever have is to have a voice, have an outlet to express it. And it’s even better when you construct that yourself through the choices you’ve made.
Whether or not they choose to bring gender to the forefront of their practice, these three artists are nevertheless amplifying the voices of female, nonbinary and other underrepresented groups by expressing their unique human experiences through their work. And they do so with the hope that others - whether in the major art centers or in the diverse and thriving regions - will see that work and, in it, recognize a bit of themselves.
To learn more about the artists interviewed above, visit their websites:
S.N. Parks https://www.facebook.com/AptAperture/
Guest Contributor for Ruckus
S.N. Parks, 079 (2016), chemigram
Cynthia Norton performing as Ninnie Nonesuch
Vian Sora, Citizen (2019), oil on canvas