In the gallery at Lyme Academy College of Fine Art in Old Lyme hangs an artwork by Bénédicte Vanderreydt. The photograph depicts a darkened scene in which a roomful of identically-dressed men, their faces painted gray, scrutinize a nude woman. She drips with water and wears chain mail on her shoulders.
Is the woman a victim or a heroine? Is she oppressed by the men who stare at her with varying degress of boredom or arrogance? Or does the chain mail signify power? Is she unafraid, even though she is naked and outnumbered? Her face can't be seen, so one can only guess.
Vanderreydt is one of 19 artists sharing their views on femininity, feminism and female sexuality in "Female\Feminist," an exhibit organized by Lyme Prof. Nancy Gladwell and independent curator Alva Greenberg.
The show arose out of a campus controversy last year. During senior critiques, a student illustrator presented images of and references to women that were considered offensive. "They were exploiting female sexuality," Gladwell said.
A lively discussion on campus gave way to a angrier discussion online. "It got less academic and more, I guess you could say, guttural, involving memes," Gladwell said. "We thought, are we really still doing this in the 21st century?"
That contentious atmosphere was remembered in the aftermath of the presidential election. This inspired Gladwell and Greenberg to create an exhibit of work in which female artists could define themselves, and male artists sympathetic to feminism contribute artwork showing their own visions of womanhood.
The curators included artists of diverse racial and gender identities. "Feminism in its early stages — the first movement, the second movement — was predominantly white, heterosexual, middle- and upper-class women," Greenberg said. Gladwell added "I think we're entering a third wave. Feminism is anti-oppression of many people."
Feminism, as seen in the exhibit, also re-examines what it is to be a woman. Lissa Rivera's photographic model wears beautiful dresses, posing uncomfortably, arms clasped together. On close examination, one sees the model is a man.
Hank Willis Thomas' photograph shows a beautiful woman in a spaceman's helmet, looming over the lunar surface and surrounded by beauty products. The title, "One Tiny Little Step," indicates that no matter what great feats are accomplished by a woman, society still expects her to look beautiful.
Judy Cotton throws off that expectation with her painting "Jill Ker Conway After Rafael's St. Michael," which depicts Smith College's first female president dressed as a knight in armor, sword raised, shield in hand, wings on her back, ready to do battle.
Siona Benjamin, who grew up Jewish in India, borrows from traditional Indian folklore to depict a female winged sprite, defying gravity and facing off against animals and the elements.
Some artworks use humor to depict the female experience. Dotty Attie's "Contortion" plays on that old "mom" saying "if you keep doing that, you'll get stuck that way." Ella Tulin's sculpture "Rodica" has three parts: a petite head, arms and torso and two chunky legs. "This is every woman's view of her thighs," Greenberg said. Joyce Kozloff changes the names of Parisian streets named after men, giving them names of notable women. Robert Kushner's piece isn't intentionally funny but its inclusion is ironic. Kushner paints floral subjects, traditionally seen as women's artwork.
Marilyn Minter's video "Smash" is particularly fascinating. It depicts a woman's feet in spike-heeled, jeweled shoes, splashing through filthy puddles and smashing through a glass wall.
"FEMALE\FEMINIST 2017" is at Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, 84 Lyme St. in Old Lyme, until Nov. 4. A panel discussion will be held Oct. 12 at 5 p.m. moderated by Patricia Hickson, curator of contemporary art at Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. lymeacademy.edu.