A Persistent, Sweet Feminism:
The 2018 UIUC BFA Exhibition

By Juliet Johnson

June 23, 2018

Installation view of Maxwell Rowland's  Sisterhood,  2018. 

Installation view of Maxwell Rowland's Sisterhood, 2018. 

Congratulations to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Art and Design BFA students! The 2018 Bachelor of Fine Arts exhibition at the Krannert Art Museum (KAM) includes work from over 60 students, from all programs in the School of Art and Design. The work was widely varied, but patterns naturally arise. I felt, going through the show, a persistent sweet feminism; particularly, an investigation of adolescent femininity. Some points to clarify a line: figurative portrayal of adolescent feminine subjects referencing famous artworks both contemporary and baroque, video art investigating emotional pain in feminine and masculine characters, and rumination on community and body.

Anna Renkin,  ATTIRE , 2018.

Anna Renkin, ATTIRE, 2018.

First encounters include the work of Anna Renken and Maxwell Rowland, ATTIRE and Sisterhood, respectively. Renken’s work, three full-body portraits with superimposed flow charts that investigate clothing as communication, bears a resemblance to Robert Longo’s Men of the Cities, and can be seen as a subversion of this famous artwork by employing feminine bodies. It goes further and injects content exploring clothing– a subject traditionally dismissed as frivolous. On the next wall, Rowland’s Sisterhood, a video projected above bubbly space-medieval garments, plays. The video shows the artist, in the same space-medieval drag, lip-syncing to weird-femme anthems by Kate Bush, Florence and the Machine, etc. The images printed on the garments and text in the video (“… all feminine forms”) make a clear point of celebrating non-normative femininity. Through their proximity, these two works highlight a sense of joy and the radical value placed on feminine forms.

Installation view of Veronica Clements's paintings. 

Installation view of Veronica Clements's paintings. 

Reinforcing these ideas are Veronica Clement’s and Elizabeth Pettett’s work. Clement’s paintings, Icon; In Luxury, Look Out!; and LIL V(ANITAS), are full of pleasure, depicting adolescent feminine community and maintaining a strong connection to the tradition of vanitas and Baroque painting.  Pettett’s work includes Big Girls, three larger-than-life cartoon cutouts, and Pussy Is a Place, a comic book detailing the main character’s sexual history. Pettett’s works emphasize riot-grrrl-aesthetics and a fun-loving claim of autobiography and sexuality. The bodies in Big Girls are full of delight. The work of Clement and Pettett are both so full of optimism and embody an honest, straightforward feminism.

Left:  Keagen Dailey,  Greene , 2018.   Right:  Elizabeth Pettet,  Big Girls , 2018.

Left: Keagen Dailey, Greene, 2018.

Right: Elizabeth Pettet, Big Girls, 2018.

This conversation is complicated by more investigations of intersectional positions, creating a web of relation within the larger show. Two videos, Keenan Dailey’s Greene and Cailin Curry’s Hurt, are an investigation of grief and pain. Dailey’s richly shot Greene includes moments where masculine characters grapple with pain and black femininity is framed as heavenly. Portraying black femininity in art is always radical, and portraying it as heavenly even moreso. Curry’s Hurt juxtaposes dialogue on pain with an image of a rose on fire, then a close-up of a person with their hand on their clavicle, a gesture which reads of grief. Emotional pain is often silenced; unacceptable for men to feel, unacceptable for women to express, and totally invisible for those outside the binary.

Another work which investigates an underserved perspective is Sara Palaez’s Pinball Love, which ruminates quietly on a queer/lesbian experience, showing us a lovesick honeymooney love. The video is viewed through a mirror on the ground, a positionality that can be read as queer due to its unconventionality. Dailey’s, Curry’s, and Palaez’s works complicate the feminism of the previous, and enrich the larger conversation.

The identity politics presented at the KAM are complex, optimistic, full of pleasure, and always straightforward. Taken together, these works create a vision of a student body that is developing a conversation about sweetness in ethos and aesthetics, community, and honesty. I look forward to seeing these conversations grow in the work of these artists as they develop their discourses further.

Images courtesy of the Krannert Art Museum.

This article is funded by the Illinois State University Friends of the Arts.

Juliet Johnson is an interdisciplinary artist/writer/curator recently graduated from California State University Long Beach with a BFA in Sculpture/New Genres. She has shown in Current:LA, Angel’s Gate Cultural Center, and the University Art Museum in Long Beach, and has interned for X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly and AbleARTS Work (formerly Arts & Services for Disabled, Inc). She is currently based in Champaign-Urbana.