Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? Pt. 2

“Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” is a new WAM Collective blog series highlighting the overlooked and underrepresented artistic contributions of American artists. The title of the series references a 1971 essay of the same name by art historian Linda Nochlin, which examines the institutional boundaries that have prevented Women artists from succeeding in the arts.

Featuring work by artists of color, women artists and LGBTQIA artists and sharing the narratives that have been erased or forgotten over time, this series seeks to introduce our readers to works by great artists who succeeded despite the institutional boundaries and oppression that they faced.


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Artist, teacher, and activist Hollis Sigler created seemingly simple, but extremely powerful works of art throughout her entire career. As an openly gay female artist, Sigler’s works, often developed using the colorful faux-naïve approach, captured themes of femininity and the way that women, especially queer women, experience life. After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985, her works focused on ideas regarding body image, heredity, and mortality.

Early Career

Born in Gary, Indiana, Sigler earned her Bachelor of Arts at Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and graduated from School of the Art Institute of Chicago with her Master of Fine Arts in 1973. Sigler started working in the style of abstract expressionism, and then moved on to photo realism. However, in 1976, Sigler made the decision to move away from the male-dominated academic tradition, and switched to the faux-naïve approach as a response to the patriarchal culture that treated women like simple-minded children. The faux-naïve works created by Sigler often consisted of domestic settings and suburban landscapes, inspired by the American painter/designer/poet Florine Stettheimer, 19th-century Hudson River School painting, and Chicago’s Hairy Who School of cartoon-and folk-influenced work.

Works at the Weisman

The Weisman Art Museum (WAM) is lucky to have two of Sigler’s early works as a part of their collection. Characteristic to much of Sigler’s works, these images do not employ any human figures, but rather, use the setting and composition to draw on Sigler’s personal experience and expand upon larger themes faced by many women.

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She Was Tired of Filling Her Heart with Hopeless Dreams, 1982

Sigler combines words and images to express complex emotions through what appears to be something on par with a children’s book illustration. In the work above, titled She Was Tired of Filling Her Heart With Hopeless Dreams, Sigler subverts the traditional domestic interior space, often attributed to women, the “keepers of hearth and home.” She uses cool colors to create a desolate mood, reminiscent of the empty space that exists throughout the rest of the composition. The vanity is constructed in white, and appears to be almost ghastly—is it even there, or just an eerie figment of imagination? The shattered mirror attached to the vanity may serve as a symbol for destroyed self-image, recalling the title, She Was Tired of Filling Her Heart with Hopeless Dreams. Although the vanity is placed symmetrically between the two windows, the tattered curtains and jagged lines on the wall give the uncanny feeling that things are off-kilter, not as they should be.

On the floor lie what appear to be scattered papers, as well as sharp, jagged shards of glass near the back wall, perhaps fragments of the broken mirror, although they appear to be much more concrete than the vacant outline of the vanity. Maybe these are real tools that have been used to inflict actual harm on the self, as represented by the broken mirror. The chair, the lamp, and the scattered items seem to be diminished to nothing within the composition—their small scale makes the room appear vaster and in turn more empty. Through the symbol of the shattered self-reflection in an empty room, Sigler seeks to shed light on a wider feminine experience, such as the loneliness and isolation many queer woman face from mainstream society, especially in the early 1980s. The juxtaposition between the simple articulation and deep, layered messages enveloped in She Was Tired of Filling Her Heart With Hopeless Dreams make it extremely powerful, with the potential for deep and meaningful impact.

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There Is A Doubt,  She Could Be Right, 1982

In There Is A Doubt, She Could Be Right, Sigler has moved from interior scenes to exterior, as represented by the sun chair and blue sky; however, the setting is still relatively vague. This image depicts desks and chairs, as well as tables with glasses and bottles of wine, atop neoclassical columns at the moment before they all tumble to the ground. This highly dramatized and intense moment is depicted in a casual, comic-like manner, allowing sentiments of lightheartedness to prevail in the moment of destruction. The rigid columns, iconic of the classics and the ancient work, provide a stark juxtaposition to the casual sun chair, an icon for relaxation, perhaps symbolic of the artist’s contentedness watching the academic tradition crumble around her. One can almost picture this as Sigler’s gleeful daydream, sitting back in her sun chair, feet up with a glass of wine, as she watches the rigid structure of the patriarchy collapse before her eyes.

Created more than a quarter of a century before the term “mansplaining” even existed, There Is A Doubt, She Could Be Right speaks to the larger phenomenon of women, particularly queer women and women of color, who have their ideas and contributions diminished, erased, or attributed to men. As a queer woman working in the art world, Sigler faced severe discrimination and harsh criticism from male colleagues and critics.

In a 1987 Chicago Tribune review by art critic Alan G. Artner, he disparages Sigler, calling her work “awkward,” calling both the form and themes of her works that of a “simpleton.” What fails to be recognized here is that several prominent male artists such as Francisco Goya, Honoré Daumier, and Pablo Picasso used simple comics to express both complex personal themes, as well as provide insightful political commentary. However, when these men employed unembellished medium to express intricate motifs, they were praised for it; but when a women does the same thing as a way highlight systems of oppression that have negatively impacted her, she is characterize as feeble-minded.


Bibliography

Artner, Alan G. “Hollis Sigler Sinks With Shallow Concept.” Chicago Tribune, February 13, 1987. Accessed March 1, 2017. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1987-02-13/entertainment/8701120111_1_hollis-sigler-american-art-terra-museum.

Cotter, Holland. “Hollis Sigler, 53, Painter Whose Theme Was Her Illness.” The New Work Times, April 3, 2001. Accessed March 1, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/03/arts/hollis-sigler-53-painter-whose-theme-was-her-illness.html.

“Hollis Sigler: 1948-2001.” National Museum of Women in the Arts. Accessed March 01, 2017. https://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/hollis-sigler.

Smith-Shank, Deborah L. “Hollis Sigler: Artist, Teacher, and Activist. (cover story).” Journal Of Gay & Lesbian Issues In Education 4, no. 4 (October 2007): 7-17. LGBT Life with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed March 1, 2017).


Gina Watylyk is a senior majoring in Technical Writing and Communication and minoring in Chemistry and Art History. She works as an editor and account executive at CLAgency, as a community advisor in Pioneer Hall, and as an office assistant in Frontier Hall. In her free time, Gina can be found going to concerts, riding her bike, eating brunch, or thinking about memes. Gina’s goal in life is to try as many ice cream flavors as possible.

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