Female Artist Spotlight: Extraterrestrial Beings, Exotification, and Meaningful Absurdity
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Mainstream art is nearly as male dominated as it was 50, 75, or even 100 years ago. Sure, some female names like Yayoi Kusama and Frida Kahlo, for instance, have been celebrated by the public, but at large, female artists have not yet experienced the recognition they deserve for the work they put forth. Here is a look at a few underappreciated female artists in the modern art scene.
Karla Knight, age 65
As a child, Karla Knight was fascinated by aliens; raised with a preoccupation on the extraterrestrial and the paranormal, ouija boards and seance were commonplace in her childhood home. Even as an adult living in New Mexico, rumors of alien activity continued to enrapture her. Drawing inspiration from her fascination with the extraterrestrial, many of her works feature abstract motifs of alien encounters and technologies; many of her pieces resemble schematic drawings and space-age gadgetry. Her artwork is an enchanting combination of the organic with the extraterrestrial and supernatural. Her pieces are somewhat familiar—viewers can see visual elements they recognize like letters and naturalistic shapes, but lack a holistic understanding of the entire piece. Knight’s work pushes the viewer into a position where they can only observe, not comprehend.
Striving to make their work edgy and meta, many artists try and fail to make their art completely void of meaning—uninterpretable. Knight’s work, however, achieves this effortlessly. She describes her artistic process as a channeling of thoughts directly into her medium; working by letting her ideas flow and creating on the spot without forethought. Her career began with creating diagrams of eyes and spheres, evolving over time into almost architectural UFO schematics and a self-created, gridlike extraterrestrial language she devised after watching her son learn to write. These letters take on familiar shapes, some resembling Greek, Cyrillic, or Roman lettering, yet there is no rhyme or reason to their forms. There is no established direction in which the symbols are meant to be properly read and no established language they belong to. Her more recent line of work is centered around this idea—neither the viewer nor the artist knows the true meaning of the artwork. A stunning example of this is her 2021 piece Blue Navigator 3-, a massive geometric, schematic-like painting entirely in shades of blue, surrounded by blocks of otherworldly calligraphy in a gridlike pattern. Encased within the script, shapes representing eyes and diagrams resembling atomic structures, splitting cells, and magnetic fields fill the center. Despite the familiarity of these individual elements, the interpretation of this piece is entirely subjective. Knight places emphasis on her unwillingness to objectively interpret her pieces, mirroring her belief that there is no way to truly uncover the mystery of the unknown and paranormal.
Wangechi Mutu, age 50
Born in 1972 in Nairobi, Kenya, Wangechi Mutu creates stunning collage works depicting the experience of post-colonial African women in an Afrofuturistic style—a blend between futuristic themes and African culture. Each of Mutu’s collages combine elements of abstraction and realism seamlessly and purposefully to convey a compelling social commentary on African tradition, the Black female experience, exotification, and consumerism. Mutu does this by depicting ethereal women who are part animal, part machine, part plant, and part human through materials she finds, like paper scraps. Each component of her works is purposeful, down to her mediums of choice. She commonly uses soil, clay, wood, and recycled papers to avoid contributing to overconsumption. Her collage Yo Mama. (2003) encapsulates many of her beliefs, juxtaposing Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, a well-known African feminist, with the biblical Eve, combining them into one figure. The background is pink with dynamic dark orbs floating around the landscape. The depicted woman crouches in stiletto heels with her legs spread, holding a decapitated white serpent, puncturing the neck of the lifeless snake with the heel of her shoe. This scene shows Eve triumphing over the snake who tricked her in the Bible—described by Mutu as a “phallic and mythological creature that instigated [her] downfall”—presenting a fantastical victory for women as fighters, protectors, and creators. Mutu’s work boldly captures the experiences of black women, painting women’s sensuality in a positive light.
Jessica Stoller, age 42
Each element of Jessica Stoller’s sculptures carries a powerful meaning, down to the most minute of details. Her constrictive suburban upbringing led her to a lifelong yearning for escape from uniformity. Her now-older-self’s longing for meaningful absurdity can be seen through her art with her unique portrayals of the female body as food using porcelain clay, a medium with historical ties to power, traditional femininity, and finery. Instead of using her portrayals of the female body as a means to commodify them, she explores the sexuality of women, taking pride in the natural forms many women are taught to be ashamed of. A juxtaposition of playful and grotesque qualities gives her work alluring beauty, enrapturing viewers through the elaborate and tantalizing elements of food in her work while also repulsing them through the uneasy, unnatural aura of her half-woman, half-food creations. By portraying sweet foods in her work, she comments on the power dynamics between Europeans and enslaved peoples in sugar colonies and also contradicts the idea that the female body is something consumable and claimable.
One of Stoller’s most notable works, Untitled (tar) (2014), is the bust of a woman licking her glossed, rosy lips as chocolate syrup trickles down her face. Covering her eyes is a ring of golden-brown lady’s fingers dripping in syrup and tied by a white ribbon. The woman’s confectionary blindfold serves to evoke a sense of both subjugation and sexual pleasure, complicating traditional ideals of beauty. The ring of lady’s fingers surround a rich cake flooded with perfectly-placed fruits and berries surrounding the skull of a swan. The swan’s feathers accumulate on the back of the cake, falling to rest on the woman’s shoulder. This skull is a reference to the Greek story of Leda and the swan, wherein the god Zeus takes on an avian form to rape Leda as she bathes in a lake. Combined with the pastry blindfold, this piece tells a story of the historical abuse and subjugation women have faced across centuries. Gooey, oozing, voluptuous, messy, sweet, and grotesque, Stoller’s work is a sweet and sour sensory experience for viewers who relish in both its visuals and deeper meaning.