The Future is Female: Printmaking and the Power of (In)Visibility

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It’s easy to forget that women actually comprise the majority of the United States population. And no, you didn’t hear me incorrectly—there are more women than men in this country. Based on this simple fact, you’d think that we’d see more women in highly visible places like Congress or Fortune 500 companies or prestigious academia. You’d think we’d see more female artists highlighted than Frida Kahlo or Georgia O’Keefe. You’d think women would have more seats at the table when it comes to national discussions about creating policy in favor of women’s rights. It’s easy to forget that women comprise the majority of the U.S. population because our country has a remarkable talent for and history of making women invisible.

This reality is encapsulated by my experience viewing The Future is Female: Prints by Women Artists collection in the Gallery at Rauch Business Center. The odds you’re there to look at the gallery that fills the main wall on the ground floor are slim to none. I wouldn’t have known it was there myself had I not been looking for it, and it didn’t seem like any of the other students in Rauch noticed it either. This fact became more and more upsetting to me as I took in the prints lining the wall—they were incredible.

The introductory plaque for the gallery immediately addresses that women have engaged in the art of printmaking for years, despite the utter lack of recognition they’ve been given for it. The gallery seeks to shine a light on those women who put it on themselves to master such a difficult medium of art. Printmaking involves using a single plate to produce multiple images and takes place in a variety of forms: etching, engraving, lithography, woodcut, and silkscreen. Considering how horrendously my one attempt at printmaking went during my middle school art class, I looked at these women with the utmost reverence. All the power to them.

The prints are grouped by both time period and theme, the earliest coming from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. These included Käthe Kollwitz’s poignant Self-portrait at Table and Mabel Dwight’s Queer Fish, the latter being of a burly man staring at an equally burly fish that’s staring right back. The standoff made me chuckle. Some of these pieces are over 100 years old, yet they haven’t lost an ounce of detail.

The next grouping of prints were all produced during the 1970s, including Jane Mitchell’s Untitled, the print chosen as the face of the gallery. Mary Bauermeister’s Rainbow is particularly striking for the central colorful “X” that goes through it. The rest of the page is filled with swirling script and intricate circular drawings that demand your attention. The print asks you to take your time in appreciating it, working through each section to make sense of the messages behind the words Bauermeister chose to include.

Continuing down the wall, the prints reach the time range of the 1980s and 1990s. Phyllis Sloane’s pensive Seated Woman makes you wonder what’s running through her mind. Are the hat and basket next to her indicative of plans for a picnic? Is the calm she exudes while resting her face in her hand a product of much practice? Who is she? You’re also prompted to contemplate the woman captured in Sandra Ramos Lorenzo’s The Boat / El Bote. With her back turned to the viewer, the woman clad in red overalls contrasts sharply with the dark blue waters and pitch black night surrounding her. Lorenzo ignites your sense of wonder: where is she going?

The most contemporary set of prints comes last in the collection and is dated in the 2000s and 2010s. This grouping contained two paintings that resonated with me on both personal and political levels. The first is Gloria Rodriguez’s Ex Voto. The woman central to the print seems to hold two identities—her body shows bound wrists and a white robe wrapped around her shoulders. She carries a sort of staff and a bundle of sticks in either of her hands, and my mind immediately took me to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. However, her face doesn’t show any signs of pain. Her downward eyes stare somewhere beyond the bottom frame so the viewer can never look into them, leaving it up to you to decide where the power of the vote failed her. The second piece is Faith Ringgold’s ACLU Justice Equality Liberty and Democracy. Lady Liberty’s thoughtful face is surrounded by quilt-like squares containing Justice and Equality, Liberty and Democracy, over and over and over again. An American flag rests below the portrait of her face, and a red, white, and blue vine borders the patriotic quilt. These two prints stand glaringly opposite of each other—with one suggesting oppression while the other embodies freedom—yet  both are true to the cause of women.

Women have been bound and suppressed for most of history, and it hasn’t been until recently that they’ve experienced any substantial form of freedom. Let’s not forget women’s right to vote isn’t even 100 years old yet, and let’s also not forget that women’s voices still aren’t regarded with the same credence given to men. This gallery seeks to rectify this problem, to assert that the future is female, by recognizing the substantial work done by the women of our past. These prints show that women have been here all along. Our country has to take the time to seek them out, just like I did with this gallery. Invisibility isn’t a superpower when it prevents well-deserving women from ever being seen.

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