It looks like a baby’s mobile the first time you see it: A wooden hoop suspended in midair, held there by the wide, stretching mouth of a tan panty-hose. Its mate stretched upward, tied to the building’s plumbing. Below, a constellation of soft, just-pink miniature pillows dangled on long brown strings. They are marshmallows, or fleshy breasts in a bra, or the small bow you put in a child’s hair. On the wall behind them, a smattering of gilded vulvas wink out, challenging you to come closer.
An installation by New Havener Alexis Musinski, the piece is one of over 350 at “Nasty Women Connecticut.” The exhibition, which runs through Apr. 8, opened Thursday evening at the Institute Library’s first-floor space, turned into an exhibit hall, on Chapel Street. Hundreds attended the opening and after-party at BAR.
Curated by Artspace Curator and Gallery Director Sarah Fritchey, IL Director Valerie Garlick, and local photographer Lucy Q. McClure, the exhibition is part of a national effort to showcase “nasty,” politically engaged artists in the wake of last year’s presidential election. The title is a reference to President Donald Trump’s comments toward Hillary Clinton in the third and final presidential debate last year.
New Haven is one of over 40 cities to have signed on to the project. A portion of proceeds from artist sales and donations will go to Planned Parenthood.
“I really love that people are coming off of the street and into the show,” said Fritchey on Wednesday. “There’s an air about this that is very recognizable as being many-voiced and many-visioned, and it brings people in. The amount of artists is great ... the more the better.”
For artist Martha Lewis, joining the exhibition is a way to organize against the “swamp monsters” she sees in Trump’s cabinet. A frequent participant in the New York-based Learn As Protest, at which protesters read aloud from books in Trump Tower, she was excited when she heard murmurs of an exhibition back in mid-November. She chose her medium before a date was even confirmed: delicate eggs, which she would drain and paint in the Ukrainian tradition with which she’d grown up.
On Wednesday, she had finished installing the eggs in the space’s front window when she decided she wanted to rotate a few, so that they were facing both the street and the entrance to the exhibition. She said the eggs, ancient symbols of fertility, took on new and intersectional meaning in bright greens, oranges, reds, and yellows. One, facing the street, boasts the words “Black Lives Matter.” Another, closer to the entrance, reads “Je Suis Bowling Green.”
Inside, University of Hartford student Samantha Nikitas was installing her piece, an untitled photo-collage peppered with polka dots, a white razor at its center. She said the work wasn’t directly inspired by the election, but felt timely when she heard the exhibition’s call for entries last year. By that time, Nikitas had already been dealing with years of sexism and bullying. As a student who was “a little overweight” in grade school, she’d been teased by a boy in her first grade class, who said that she was the only girl in the class too heavy to pick up. When a few female friends expressed surprise that she’d chosen not to shave her legs, it felt like a sort of final straw. She sees the razor — which she’s outwardly enthusiastic about not employing — as a small but potent symbol of her protest.
“As a woman, you’re expected to act in a certain way,” she said. “You have to have a likability, desirability by men…. That’s not ok.”
Stamford sculptor Emily Provonsha was taking a similar approach. Some years ago, she’d received an assignment to sculpt a vessel that she’d want as an urn for her own ashes. She envisioned something wide and bulbous, the exaggerated shape of a woman’s torso. But when she’d finally sculpted it, using guiding coils on a potter’s wheel, she found that there was nothing unusual about a thick, strong torso, with heavy breasts and a large bottom. “It just looked like a woman,” she said.
Named The Enduring Strength of Women, the piece stuck with her. After the election, she had contemplated painting it black. Instead, she’d filled it with springs of dried eucalyptus, packed it into her car, and driven it to the Institute Library.
“I wanted everything to look alive,” she said, scattering a few flat, black stones at its base. “We’re still alive.”
Finishing installations on her site-specific Circle of Women, Brittany Whiteman said she’s had a more direct response to the election. When “Nasty Women Connecticut” was announced, she started embroidering Trump quotations, mixing a traditional domestic task with the president’s statements as a form of political commentary.
But “with every stitch, I kept thinking about all the negativity,” she said. She scrapped the project and started over with an installation that New Haveners could participate in. Attaching blank notecards to hundreds of dangling strings, she plans to invite attendees to add their names and personal anecdotes, making them a sort of extension of her work, and of the exhibition.
That’s also true for Kathleen DeMeo, whose scrapbook-like collage Immigrant Mothers & Daughters was inspired by Trump’s campaign promise to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico and more recent executive orders banning immigrants and refugees from majority-Muslim countries. Taken between 1929 and 1945 in Middletown, the photographs capture years during which her grandmothers — both immigrants from Italy — went back into the workforce during World War II, when their husbands were fighting overseas. For the exhibition, DeMeo encased the photographs in glass and added copper wiring that spelled out the names of family members. The photographs had been living in an old box; now they glinted like specimens from behind their covering.
But it’s not, DeMeo said, exactly like they are asking to be let out. Instead, she likes to think of it as a reminder. They were immigrants once too. Locking eyes with her from where they were installed at the Institute Library, they were holding her to remembering that.