Behind The Lens Plus is an ongoing online exhibition of photographic-based work by women individuals. It is the companion exhibition to Behind the Lens 2020: Women in Photography at the Rhode Island Center for Photographic Arts.
Behind the Lens Plus: An introduction from the juror, Grace Marie DeWitt
I received an invitation to show in Behind the Lens 2020: Women in Photography at RICPA the day after my team at the National Museum of Women in the Arts completed a long-anticipated program about art, power, and voting. Behind the Lens 2020: Women in Photography would show the work of five artists to present a contemporary perspective on women in photography, and align this presentation with Women’s History Month.
At this time, I was thinking deeply about women’s agency. I struggled to answer how far my own country had come in equalizing things among genders, and how much more work we as a people have left to do. I was wary about milestones regarding women’s rights, knowing that in the year 2020––a full 100 years after the U.S. 19th Amendment was passed in what many feminists hoped was a marker of new direction––voting rights for women in particular are still suppressed inside and outside the household; women occupy a fraction of the leadership positions that men do and pay is far from equalized across essentially all positions; body politics concerning women continue to be legislated by councils comprised entirely of men; sexism in the workplace, university, family unit, and so on, is still explicitly and implicitly normalized; barely more than 10% of artwork acquired and exhibited in 26 prominent U.S. art museums over the past decade were created by women… the list goes on. And in reality, the 19th Amendment typically only protected votes by wealthy white women in the first place.
The themes surrounding Behind the Lens 2020: Women in Photography could not, and should not, be crammed into the volume of only five artists’ lives. They are too complex and too immense. When RICPA Director David DeMelim asked me if I was interested in designing any programming to go with the in-gallery exhibition, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do the best job we could to empathize with women in 2020, by making space for far more than five perspectives.
So Behind the Lens Plus took shape. I’ll note here that female perspectives are the context to the show: not the whole. I’m not here to invent a feminist agenda from submitted works. The goal of Behind the Lens Plus is to show what woman-identifying individuals today want to recognize, immortalize, examine, understand, celebrate, deconstruct, and demystify, through use of a camera lens. Works in this show offer a slice of what women are seeing in the world today. In viewing these works, we are asked to take pause with the same things that they do. It’s an exercise in empathy that’s a simple, but powerful practice.
Thank you for reading, and for spending some time with this project today. Without further ado, I’d like to introduce our first selection of works in Behind the Lens Plus.
Behind the Lens Plus Collection 1: Frijke Coumans, Xiomara España, Jan Ekin, and Claudia Ruiz Gustafson
THIS IS A GOOD KISSING SPOT by Frijke Coumans ––– a cold but sunny, and sterile yet sensual, snapshot of the photographer’s greatest muse: the twin manifestation of control and desire.
In the text that Frijke Coumans included with her submission, she writes about Eros, the Greek god of love, passion, and physical desire. Like most things, Eros is part of an inevitable and completely necessary duality: where there is festivity, chaos, and unadulterated whimsy, there also must be discipline, detachment, and foundational order.
A lot of Coumans’ work tries to capture both of these intrinsic patterns in life. THIS IS A GOOD KISSING SPOT shows us a pretty, but also off-putting scene. The two bushes in the center of the shot seem to perfectly kiss in the middle, but their tops are cumbersomely truncated so that they align with the tree line behind them. Their strange shape also mimics the domed roof in the background. The foliage is green and plentiful, but this manicured garden feels anemic. The rope on the left blocks a deviating path, forcing eyes to where those bushes meet––evoking gangly teens instead of enchanted lovers. The spot is awkward, instead of idyllic. To top it all off, the title communicates a desire to the viewer––but screams the suggestion when it should have been whispered. We can feel that an excessive amount of control has strangled any feeling of romance in this scene. The patterns here resemble a forced dance towards the world we want but can’t have.
Amanda & Olivia by Xiomara España ––– a gossamer-fine gesture of social harmony, concluding a photo shoot of two young but well-overlapped lives.
At first, Xiomara España’s bright and light shot seems almost saccharine. This portrait is both soft smiles, and loud patterns; in some ways candid, but also picturesque; the intimacy of a private moment, shared in a public place. España says that she will photograph these two subjects as her friendship with them blooms, maybe every five years, maybe every ten. While there’s no way of knowing whether or not that friendship will or did continue five or more years, we look at this shot and we hope that it did. From the bleached hair to the patterned turtlenecks, the subjects are harmonized.
Without the backstory, it’s feasible that the two women here are actresses who just met for the gig. But, like with a good movie, we can happily believe that the people in front of us really do share that loving relationship. We want to daydream, even just for 90 minutes, that their clothes and their embrace are sincere. And when we sit in vigil of certain global events that make any sort of PDA feel taboo, we might be even more cognizant of our craving for bliss.
Untitled by Jan Ekin, from the photographic book Abstracts ––– a macro landscape that the photographer captured through her visually segmented world, helping us believe that the parts are sometimes as important as the whole.
We truly learn a lesson about taking pause when we look at Jan Ekin’s photographs. Textural topographies made up of complex and countless surfaces consume our entire view. We find ourselves marveling at peeling paint chips, spidery cracks on glass, and grainy slivers of rubber, wanting to take a step back to see more yet feeling that these things might be a little bit less marvelous if we did. These painterly glimpses are treasures, in a pretty literal sense.
Ekin has very limited sight, and her visual field is a fraction of what most people can see. She cannot take in large visual scenes all at once, but rather, needs to scan the world in segments. Amazingly, a digital camera lens allows her to do exactly that, effectively compressing scenes into a small screen in the palm of her hand. Beautifully, Ekin fell in love with the segments she was seeing and was empowered to find more. The shot selected here comes from one of her favorite subjects: trashed automobiles. Like an artist setting rules to focus her practice, Ekin’s limitation became a glorious strength.
María by Claudia Ruiz Gustafson, from the series Historias fragmentadas ––– one moment in an exercise of longing and imagination, in which the photographer attempts to connect with the live-in maid from her childhood home whose current location and even last name remain unknown.
Claudia Ruiz Gustafson returned to the home where she was raised in Lima, Peru, where her parents still reside. There, she sat in the same chairs, held the same objects, and looked at the same paintings that her now untraceable caregiver, María, did years ago. María not only helped to raise Ruiz Gustafson; she sang to her in Quechua, an indigenous language from the Andes. She grew chamomile flowers to alleviate childhood anxieties. She taught her games and kept her company.
We see María looking at the camera solemnly, and we recognize that many things must be on her mind. As if Ruiz Gustafson has tried to soothe her furrowed brow, María has been decorated with playful lines that frame her face and loop into an ornamental collar. In actuality, this María is simply a model hired by Ruiz Gustafson, and there is no illuminated halo here––just a colorful piece of red yarn from a game of Cat’s Cradle, shown in an earlier image in the series. It’s easy to confuse Ruiz Gustafson’s portrait of María for a prayer card to la Virgen María (Virgin Mary), a ubiquitous image in the Latin Catholic home. And maybe this is exactly what a young Ruiz Gustafson would have done: instinctually created her own intention object to decorate, honor, and adore the María that was shaping her life.
If you entered the call but weren’t selected––no worries! New selections will be published regularly, and all entries are considered for selection throughout the duration of the show. There is still no set end date for this online selection process, so the exhibition will continue to grow.
About the juror:
Grace Marie DeWitt (she/her/hers) is one of the exhibiting artists in Behind the Lens 2020: Women in Photography, RICPA’s in-gallery companion exhibition to Behind the Lens Plus. DeWitt is a Maryland-based interdisciplinary artist, fellow of the public programs department at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and communications and gallery associate at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center.