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Bingeing on sweet art at "Hard Femme"

A review of the ambitious one-night-only show of approximately 90 works of art by local, national and international artists, based upon the theme of gender expression within the femme realm.
Curator Miranda Sharp

Curator Miranda Sharp /Mark Andrus

Con Artist Crew Gallery

Con Artist Crew Gallery /Mark Andrus

Clockwise from left, artwork by Robert Andy Coombs, Kathleen Harrigan, and Katie Moore

Clockwise from left, artwork by Robert Andy Coombs, Kathleen Harrigan, and Katie Moore /Roli Mancera

A show involving over 15 local, national and international artists, with approximately 90 pieces of mainly two-dimensional work is very ambitious, and inherently unwieldy.

I wonder if we're getting used to viewing large amounts of often disparate images online, our minds accustomed to reflexively sifting through them. It's done often enough now with the prevalence of art fairs and of course ArtPrize, but does this practice translate effectively to a physical space?

I kept finding myself skimming the works, and endeavored to slow myself down, to give each piece focused attention. I noted the following: a fair amount of pink, traditional girly or feminine women, strong women, nude women, sad women, skulls, flowers, sexiness, persons of ambiguous gender, women who were injured, weapons, science, basketballs, profanity rendered in glitter and much more.

With some of the pieces, I was confused about how they fit the theme, and thought maybe these were begun under the more general category of art by women artists. With so many pieces and such a divergent range of styles represented, it might have made more sense to split it into three separate shows, to give the works room to breathe and place them within an even tighter stylistic context.

Originally slated to be held at Ice Cream Gallery, with the loose theme of artwork made by female artists, artist Miranda Sharp of Glucose Girls was asked by the gallery to curate the show. She previously has curated a show for Art.Downtown, designs monthly event posters for the Grand Rapids branch of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, and is a freelance illustrator who has exhibited work nationally.

After Ice Cream unexpectedly closed, the new venue of Con-Artist Crew (CAC) Gallery was secured and Sharp aimed to make the show more cohesive by tightening the theme, but also opening it up to male artists.

CAC is located at the north end of the warehouse buildings at Godfrey and Hall, opening directly to the outside. A ramp placed on the steps to enable wheelchair access proved daunting. I was taken aback at its steepness and later wondered if how I felt upon seeing it was similar to how someone in a wheelchair feels when confronted with stairs. I'm still not quite sure how those who'd opted for heels were able to make it up or down. A cover charge of one dollar was collected at the door, which is unusual for an art-only show in Grand Rapids. Perhaps it should be done more often. We get hooked on free, but a really nominal amount can help cover costs associated with exhibiting artwork.

Within the space, artwork hung neatly at eye level, salon-style, running the length of three walls, with three-dimensional pieces hanging near the center of the room. In addition, a table offered issues of The Bandit Zine, an alternative publication, and a second table held prints for sale.

A partial definition of Hard Femme (per the event description) is that it "draws elements from both traditionally masculine and feminine traits and creates an intimidating, hard edged, boundless identity." According to The Bandit Zine's issue "Gender Stories," gender non-conforming is "a term for individuals whose gender expression is different from the societal expectations based on their assigned sex at birth."

The giant in the room was the photography of Robert Andy Coombs. I'd seen his pieces, some of the same exhibited here, upon visiting the Kendall MFA/BFA shows earlier this year. Viewing them is like a sugar rush: you can't stop looking and you just want more. The subject matter effectively explores gender expression by placing a heavily made-up person of indeterminate gender in various traditionally male or female vignettes. The beauty seduces you as your brain tries to make sense of what you're looking at.

I found three small works by Katie Moore rather haunting. Each a painting of a woman's face with a flower in her mouth, titled "Purge I," "Purge II" and "Purge III," their meaning was ambiguous. Did the flowers symbolize an eating disorder? Or the purging of femininity? Something else?

The show seemed to be planned and promoted very effectively, with posters and a Facebook campaign that included the event and image teases leading up to the show. However, I wished for a little more information provided at the point of display, to orient and inform me about what I was viewing. Information provided with the artworks was hand-written and limited to artist name and price, sometimes a title. Many pieces would have benefited from an artist's statement. I was interested in knowing for sure what medium was used, if the work was a print or original, and with an exhibit that includes non-local artists, their origin. With a one-night-only showing, it’s the one shot you have to communicate in that physical context.

"Hard Femme" was well attended by artists, patrons and arts professionals of varied ages, and skewed towards the mid-twenties to early-thirties crowd. Several very high quality works were shown. Prices ranged from surprisingly affordable at under $100, many in the low double digits, up to $1000, and I witnessed quite a few sales. The exhibit proved to be one of the must-see, must-attend shows of the summer.

Disclosure: Two exhibiting artists at this show, Amy Armstrong and JynnaVyve Bruntmeyer, are friends.

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