"Keep Gazing": Questioning gender and identity

Questioning gender and identity, the Norman Rea Gallery presents Keep Gazing

Miya Treadwell

“There is no gender identity behind the expression of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results”

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (1990)

I consider myself a supporter of identity positivity, in that I believe everyone has a right to define and express their identity for themselves. I am not explicitly knowledgeable about the multitude of dialogues surrounding gender and identity, but I have been increasingly drawn to crucial voices of this discourse including bell hooks, Judith Butler and numerous others as I complete the M.A. in Film and Literature at the University of York. The current exhibit at the Norman Rea Gallery, Keep Gazing, provided another opportunity to dive deeper into the various concepts and conversations about gender and identity, specifically the idea of self-identification through continuously evolving definitions, interpretations and expressions.

At the door, a statement by the exhibit’s curation team explains that the “tone of our show will visualise how gender in our time can mean something different to each of us, but in a society adamant on categorisation and definition, “gender” has meaning based on cultures, religions, societies and situations.” The Keep Gazing exhibit artfully manifests Bulter’s theories about gender and identity performance to act as a catalyst in continuing the discourse, both in the academic environment of the university and the greater societal arena. The display of work from a variety of artists across the academic, professional, generational, gender and and identity spectrum imbued a sense of a developing conservation as each work spoke to the motivations of the artist as well as the dynamic differences in approaches to the subject matter.

As a probable indication of my limited perspective on gender and identity, I was surprised to see art showcased by an artist from what has been referred to as the Silent Generation or those born between the mid-to-late 1920s and the early-to-mid 1940s. When discussing contemporary reinterpretations of the intersections of gender and identity, an assumption can often be made that the conversation precludes older generations as a result of millennials and their younger counterparts being characterized as more culturally diverse and open-minded. However, the art by John Nicoll speaks to a lifetime of challenging gender norms and conceptions.

Born in 1925, the Scottish born artist is a former teacher at the Camden Art Institute and Camden College. These works are a part of his “Life Class Collection” and were “produced from memory of those classes, just as he went to life in the nursing home.” In each piece there is an ambiguity to the shape of the body and no clear identification of a singular type. In its abstraction, the work transverses notions of a specified gender or body type to question the norms that marginalize those who don’t align with rigid ideals. Nicoll, at 93 years young, is still crafting skillful work and personifies a commitment to art as well as an ever-evolving perspective on gender and identity.

In addition to work across generations, the exhibit showcases art that utilizes a historical perspective to confront traditional limitations imposed on gender. Elizabeth Waite’s work, Renaissance Revealed, invokes the tapestry of Western traditions “to encourage discussion surrounding the complexities of gender and the dangers of refusing to question outdated views.”

Connected by an entanglement of yarn, three boards are covered in delicate, floral fabric with anatomical graphics of a vagina at the center that is outlined by pearls, ruffles and fringe. The flowery fabric is indicative of traditional views about chastity that encompassed the conception of femininity during the Renaissance era, while the detailed graphic unveils a truth that was shrouded in secrecy.

The work of Olivia Humphrey also contemplates ideas of femininity, but from a perspective of self-identification. Currently in her second year of fine art study at Edinburgh University, Humphrey’s work explores “intimate moments of femininity.” Utilizing oil paints and canvas, Humphrey depicts the personal spaces that help form our self-identification. Moments behind the closed door of a bedroom or bathroom and the accessories enclosed within these environments form the basis for how we present ourselves to the outside world.

While these three artists demonstrate the diverse spectrum of art showcased by the Keep Gazing exhibit, there is so much more to be experienced. I cannot adequately express the multitude of thought-provoking art currently on display at the Norman Rea Gallery. With the prominence of gender and identity in dialogues about how we relate to one another and ourselves, this exhibit drives the conversation forward and forces you to question the limitations of your own perspectives.

* All quotes are taken from placards at the exhibit, credit to the Norman Rea Gallery curation team and the artists.

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