Kristy Perez’s Venus is an important and brave work, what Perez calls a Venus for our time. This nearly life-sized pen drawing is featured in Feminine/Feminist at Cinnabar Gallery in the Blue Star Arts Complex. The exhibition, which features 11 artists, explores the intersection between femininity and feminism.

Meanwhile, Sandro Botticelli’s Venus (about 1484-1490) is in the United States for the first time, featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This is not Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus on display in the Uffizi Gallery but a later, lesser-known work. Context is important: Botticelli completed his life-sized rendering of the goddess of love before the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola came to power. The year 1497 marks Savonarola’s infamous Bonfire of the Vanities, when cosmetics, musical instruments, mirrors, fancy clothes, and paintings of nudes and pagan subjects were burned.

Our current political climate is nowhere near as severe, yet it takes brave acts like Perez’s to keep the fires at bay. Perez drew her girlfriend while she was asleep in their bed, hair strewn and body sprawled over rumpled sheets. She’s in slumber’s unguarded pose, that vulnerable place we let ourselves go to when we’re with someone we trust. This drawing may be something that the public might never had seen but for the artist’s decision to share it. In this sense, Perez is also trusting – and testing – the audience. Certain sections are rendered in great detail while other parts are left blank, letting the viewer complete them with imagination.

This intimate portrait is a sensual, honest, devoted recording of her lover’s body. Every groove and voluptuous curve evokes the body as a living, cherished and sacred place. Without the intimacy shared between them, the drawing would feel voyeuristic. Instead, there is a powerful emotional charge fueled by the tension between the artist’s very awake, roving hand and the unconsciousness of her lover.

Like several other artists in this exhibition, including Sarah Fox, Jack McGilvray, and Lalla Essaydi, Perez works in numerous other media. The exhibition includes young and established women artists  as well as male artists with a national and international scope.

“It’s a strong part of my program to make sure I include artists from San Antonio alongside artists from other parts of the country and world,” said gallery owner and curator Susan Oliver Heard. “It elevates us as a community.”

International artists include Christian Fuchs, who is based in Lima, Peru; British photographer Laura Stevens, who is based in Paris; and Essaydi, who grew up in Morocco and now lives in the United States.

Heard met Fuchs when she participated in Art Lima in 2014. In the photographic portrait Doña Natividad Martinez de Pinillos Cacho y Lavalle (2014), Fuchs appears in drag, dressed as one of his ancestors. He recreates his great-great-aunt’s period clothing and jewelry and wears them to create an uncanny resemblance. Fuchs has also dressed as his forebear, Dorothea Viehmann, who is famous in Germany for being a storyteller for the brothers Grimm. Fuchs’ costumed pose mimics the monument in her hometown.

Doña Natividad Martinez de Pinillos Cacho y Lavalle, 2014. Photograph on cotton paper; framed.
Doña Natividad Martinez de Pinillos Cacho y Lavalle, 2014. Photograph on cotton paper; framed. Credit: Courtesy / Christian Fuchs

Fox’s feminist fairy tales feature weird creatures and mysterious narratives that embody the paradoxical notions of femininity. Stylistically, Fox draws the viewer in with an element of beauty and then thwarts traditional stereotypes with an unexpected freakishness. Her stop-motion animation video, She’s Alright (2017), with music by Jared Theis, features a four-legged woman wearing a coral headdress. In a shot of the woman’s headdress from above, little red worms peek in and out of the coral’s blue holes, fears and anxieties rendered into visible, figurative forms. We see the woman from the front again as worms slither out. She catches them in her hand, holding them carefully. They morph into objects like pink snails and crawl across the carpet.

Fox’s collage, Guardian (2017), features recognizable elements from the video: A little girl, wearing a lacy white dress, is also capped with a blue coral headdress. The girl has extra arms – she holds her two hands up to her mouth in a gesture of worry, but in place of legs she is bolstered instead by a giant fist. Her other leg, which is actually another arm, is holding hands with a hog that’s sitting next to her. The image reminds me of how the word feminine hides inside the word feminist, the frilly connotations quivering up against feminist’s armored tone.

Guardian, 2017. Collage on paper; framed.
Guardian, 2017. Collage on paper; framed. Credit: Courtesy / Sarah Fox

Encountering McGilvray’s engaging and funny diptych, Moms and Dads Care (2015) feels like reading a school note that was passed in the back of the class during seventh grade. The handwritten, all-cap text at the top of the pencil drawings reads, “Moms really care when daughters cut their” and beneath are two rows of pencil-drawn hair styles, faceless like the interchangeable kind from a paper doll set. “Dads really care when daughters show their” and beneath this text are two rows of underwear. The hairstyles are ones that McGilvray had in adolescence up to age 20. Like all of her work, this diptych is rooted in personal experience and partly autobiographical. McGilvray also works as Exhibitions and Programs Manager at Blue Star Contemporary, where she curated the group exhibition Augmented Reality, now on exhibit with Executive Director Mary Heathcott.

While McGilvray’s drawings echo schoolyard chants, they also address a daughter’s feminine/feminist relationship both with father and mother and how a female body gets controlled in different ways.

For Fox, much of her subject matter is also about control – how our society treats young girls’ health, for example, in a political climate in which men are making decisions about what women do with their bodies. As she started to animate her film, she had gone through her third miscarriage.

In many of the historical precedents to Perez’s Venus, the subject’s private parts were covered, another issue of control, making the female subject appear shy and reticent. Yet Perez’s bold rendering channels a natural feminine pose that evokes a feminist power.

Venus (detail), 2017. Staedtler pigment liner on Fabriano paper; framed.
Venus (detail), 2017. Staedtler pigment liner on Fabriano paper; framed. Credit: Courtesy / Kristy Perez

The artists’ varying feminist ideas center on the body, motherhood, and women’s health, pushing past and questioning traditional roles to create new possibilities.

Cinnabar’s upcoming exhibition, Puente.Bridge, opens on Thursday, June 22, from 6:30-9 p.m. This exhibition is a collaboration with Ernesto Ibañez’s new company, Arte International, an agency that represents Latin American artists and promotes their work in the United States. Ernesto’s own work will be shown alongside seven other Mexican artists: Daniel Escobedo, Roberto Morleghem, Cinthia Nuez, Patricia Sanchez Saiffe, Carlos Torres, Pulse Unf, and Jesus Villalpando.

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Wendy Weil Atwell

Wendy Weil Atwell is a writer living in San Antonio, Texas. She received her MA in Art History and Criticism from the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2002. Atwell is the author of The River Spectacular...