Exhibition Review

You’re Making Me Feel, Mighty Surreal: The Female Gaze at Heather James Fine Art, New York

Alexandria Deters | May 23, 2019

The moment I walked out of the elevator into the opening night reception of The Female Gaze: Women Surrealists in the Americas and Europe I was immediately welcomed by cheerful music, the sounds of lively friendly conversation, and the immediate positive feeling one gets when entering as powerfully female space and energy. It was what I was hoping for when I first heard of this exhibition three months ago, but was unsure if that was what I would encounter.

What makes this exhibition strong is the various female Surrealist artists that are displayed and how they are curated. The exhibition was co-curated by Gloria Orenstein, Professor Emerita, Comparative Literature and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, and Patryk Tomaszewski, an art historian at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Both curators were able to bring depth and new insights in understanding female Surrealist artists (which can be seen in their essays in the accompanying exhibition catalogue).(i)

Dr. Orenstein illustrates in her essay her own journey of falling in love with the work of female surrealist artists, her personal anecdotes of her relationships and encounters with artists such as Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and discussing various female Surrealist artists and the type of research and exhibitions that have occurred in the past. The strongest point she drives home is the underlining theme of the show, that female artists in Surrealism have been under recognized for so long because they did/do not conform to the ‘male gaze’ and/or were ‘too old’ to fit comfortably in the male Surrealist definition of the ‘Ideal Woman’ resulting in not fitting into the mold of the ‘Femme-Enfant’ [Woman-Child].(ii)

It is this refusal to conform and to be true to their own understanding of the world, environmentally conscious, creating new narratives, symbols, reinterpreting the world around them from a defiantly female worldview that for me makes female Surrealists not just important, but strikingly different from their male contemporaries. Illustrating this is Carrington’s green feminist poster Mujeres conciencia (1972), which when decoded by Dr. Orenstein is revealed to be new chapter in the story of the Biblical Eve, a ‘New Eve’ that is now enlightened an ‘Ecofeminist Eve’.(iii)

The Female Gaze: Women Surrealists in the Americas and Europe, Heather James Fine Art, New York, NY, 2019.
Image courtesy of Heather James Fine Art, New York

In reading Tomaszewski’s essay I gained a deeper understanding and appreciation of what motivated and drove many Eastern European female artists into the Surreal. The overwhelming memories and trauma of World War II and the Holocaust, and trying to learn to live with those memories and finding a way to heal at the same time. In his essay Mr. Tomaszewski describes and explains a few key works by the Czechoslovakian female artist Toyen (1902-1980). In her painting Myth of Light (1946), she uses shadow as subject as a way to pay “…homage to her friend, a Jewish poet and Surrealist artist Jindrich Heisler, who was hiding in Toyen’s apartment during the war to avoid being captured by the Nazis.”(iv) It was after reading this that I began to fully comprehend how interconnected the trauma of WWII is with Surrealism.

Yet, even without the understandings I gained from reading their essays after the opening, the intentions and insights from these curators can be felt.

Exiting the elevator, it felt like I was walking into a friend’s (extremely sophisticated) apartment, admiring their well-curated collection. Rather than having works single-file across walls as is the norm in galleries today, the works exhibited could be found In the hallways, by the elevator door, next to a window, and in the main room, hung salon style. Generally salon style, a patchwork design of works that will take over a wall, can be overwhelming. In The Female Gaze however the salon style, invites a viewer to stop and admire one work, the work right next to it, and on top at a comfortable pace.

In every corner of this main room, I turn and encounter a work that makes me stop, such as the delicate pencil drawings and postcard by Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954). I couldn’t help but think when viewing Hands in Hearts (c.1946) and Love Birds (c.1946) that they looked more like the type of traditional tattoo flash(v) you would find in any NYC tattoo shop, reminding me that Kahlo’s repertoire of imagery is timeless.

Frida Kahlo, Love Birds, c. 1946, Pencil on paper, 6 1/2 x 9 1/2 in.
Courtesy of Heather James Fine Art, New York

Turning to my right I stop to stare at a sculpture by the acclaimed Polish sculptor and fiber artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (1930-2017). Her life size sculpture Koziol (2003) seated against wall, seemed like a sketch come to life, faceless but covered in texture and rough lines. Her sculpture for me echoes the final words in Tomaszewski’s essay that “women artists developed diverse visual vocabularies based on the human form to explore its affective power and recognize the body…as the only source of joy, the only the source of pain, and the only source of truth.”(vi)

Leaving the main room and arriving back in the entry way is a In the hallway connecting the entrance to the back office, and gracing those hallway walls are works from Dorothea Tanning’s (1910-2012) Frieze series. Dancing wispy figures in rows leading the way to one of the highlights of The Female Gaze, the works by the NYC native Nancy Youdelman (b.1948) one of two living female artists in the exhibition.

Nancy Youdelman, Bonnet series, 1972, Mixed media sculpture, Size variable
Courtesy of Heather James Fine Art, New York

Youdelman, is a mixed media artist whose own feminist practice goes back to the very beginning of feminism being recognized and celebrated in art. She was able to learn how to incorporate that in her work and see how impactful it can be when she was a member of Judy Chicago’s legendary Art Program at California Institutes of the Arts and participating in the first feminist art installation Womanhouse (1972).(vii)

Nancy Youdelman, Bonnet No. 1, 1972, Mixed media sculpture, 7 x 10 x 11 1/2 in. Courtesy of Heather James Fine Art, New York

Youdelman‘s sculptures from her Bonnet series are hauntingly beautiful, and when looking at their multiple faces with eyes closed in a forever slumber goosebumps went up my arm. Youdelman herself was at the opening, sitting in a chair by her works like a thrown, but unlike a queen she was friendly and happy, so excited for people to see her works. Looking at her works she noticed me and I remarked how beautiful and slightly creepy in the best way her pieces were. It was then she revealed that every face was based on a Papier-mâché cast of her own face at 22 years old. Looking at her face smiling at me and back at the heads with her youthful gaze forever in time, I couldn’t help but think that I was living out a Surrealist dream. The juxtaposition of encountering Youdelman’s past self with her present, surrounded by works by her contemporaries, felt more like a moment taken from time, rather than in the present.

It was this feeling that stayed with me when I did my last loop through the show, that the works by these female Surrealist artists should not be looked at as through telescope into the past. But rather, they continue to live and breathe, gaining new meanings, new interpretations, as one does with a recurring a dream.

The Female Gaze: Women Surrealists in the Americas and Europe is on view through (May 8 -) July 31 at Heather James Fine Art, New York, NY. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue including essays by Gloria Orenstein, Professor Emerita, Comparative Literature and Gender Studies, University of Southern California, and Patryk Tomaszewski, an art historian at The Graduate Center, CUNY. The catalogue can be downloaded online or can be purchased at the gallery or online.


(i)Orenstein, Gloria F. and Patryk Tomaszewski. The Female Gaze: Women Surrealists in the Americas and Europe, exhibition catalogue, 8 May – July 31, 2019, Heather James Fine Art, New York, NY.

(ii)Orenstein, 33.

(iii)“I have often called it a Surrealist Feminist Codex, for like the Mayan Codices, it tells a story in symbolic images drawn from the culture in which it was made. We have before us the image of the New Eve, on the right, handing the apple back to the Biblical Eve. The New Eve is saying that she refuses to be connected with the stories and myths about her that claim she was the cause of the so-called Fall of Man and is to blame for bringing sin into the world. Leonora’s feminist poster depicts the New Eve as an Ecofeminist Eve. We see her kundalini energy rising through her body, moving through the chakras to the third eye of enlightenment. Thus, the ideal of the New Eves of our generation is both to reach spiritual enlightenment and to rescue nature. Leonora claimed that when all women would undergo this psychic evolution toward the vision of the third eye, women would unite to tend to nature as it requires so that the Earth would become green again. For that reason, she made the poster green. Thus, the third eye’s spiritual vision is aligned with eco-vision and activism in this poster made in 1972.” – Gloria Orenstein, 18.

(iv)Tomaszewski, 38.

(v)Tattoo flash is a design printed or drawn on paper or cardboard, and may be regarded as a species of industrial design. It is typically displayed on the walls of tattoo parlors and in binders to give walk-in customers ideas for tattoos.

(vi)Tomaszewski, 41.

(vii)NANCY YOUDELMAN. (2019). Retrieved May 18, 2019, from https://www.heatherjames.com/artist-intro/?at=NANCYYOUDELMAN


Alexandria Deters is an artist, writer, and researcher in the Bronx. She received a BA in Art History and a BA in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University in 2015 and in 2016 received her MA in American Fine and Decorative Art at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, New York. She has written for Gallery Gurls, EL CHAMP, and POZ.com and currently works at Peter Blum Gallery, New York.

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