John Westmark is an unlikely feminist. The Alabama-born painter says that his formal training as an artist was “aggressive” and “male-centric,” but now, as a husband and a father of two young girls, his work has taken a different approach. In Narratives, an exhibition of new work at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, Westmark has channeled his testosterone-fueled tendencies into an exploration of feminine identity.
“All of my work for the last four or five years is really about depicting women in some type of perceived revolt or aggressive stance to an unseen antagonist,” says Westmark. “I don’t want to be this spokesperson for gender equality and the next wave, or whatever the next predominant feminist movement is, but I don’t think things are necessarily fair and equal. What I see is: it’s not a level playing field.”
Westmark’s breakthrough in his approach to these new works was sparked by his materials, specifically the wispy pages of old sewing patterns that he swiped from his wife. The patterns reminded Westmark of blueprints or schematic diagrams, the kind of thing a boy might consult when he’s building model rockets and airplanes. Instinctively, he appropriated the sewing patterns into something more masculine, incorporating them into a series of paintings he called Flight. By slicing up the patterns and applying the paper directly to painted canvases, he created abstract images of flying machines, using the strips of paper to create a sense of dynamic motion and momentum.
The conflict of form and function in the Flight paintings results in an palpable tension. The work feels constrained and tightly-wound by competing gender traditions, as if the masculine imagery of machinery is truly at odds with the feminine domesticity of the materials. Westmark seemed to recognize the potential for evoking visceral emotions through this new technique, but it took some time to work through what in hindsight seems like the style’s logical conclusion.
“Friends of ours would bring over patterns that they had tucked away in a closet that their mom or their grandmother had. They had notations from the maker of the person’s size or the name of the person they were making the garment for in the margins of the pattern papers written in ballpoint pen. There’s a nostalgia or history coded in the patterns,” says Westmark.
“Then the light came on, that I have an opportunity here to explore my dialogue and my relationship with my girls. I was never privy to these things growing up, feminism in general. I started turning over stones and learning more about the feminist agenda and history, and then the work really took off, and I just held on.”
Westmark’s new-found inspiration led to a new series of paintings, this one called Double Bind, and these paintings are the basis for his exhibition at the Gibbes. His intent is to present a linear narrative within the show, one based on his ever-present theme of women in conflict. Westmark says the paintings will show a full cycle of conflict as the narrative escalates from a growing crisis to an exhausting resolution.
The term double bind is something Westmark picked up from his readings. From a feminist perspective, the idea of a double bind means that women are often trapped between conflicting expectations, either being forced to choose between established ideas of femininity, or forced to choose between internal desires and societal norms. In his paintings, Westmark presents women struggling against the double bind both figuratively and literally.
“This term to me was a great textual metaphor for the work,” says Westmark. “All of the women that I depict, they’re bound, their faces are bound. I really want to deny the sense of specific identity to the viewer, so the notion of binding is really integral to the work.”
Some of the most evocative paintings from this series show women on the attack, often organized in battle formations and carrying rifles or flags. The scenes are reminiscent of images from the Civil War or the American Revolution, iconic depictions of revolt. The painting Exaltation riffs on the theme of women at war, but the moment captured is more stylized.
“This piece initially suggests a violent event or explosion, but actually the event is a transcendent one,” says Westmark. “There is still the suggestion of conflict and an unseen antagonist, but there is also a sense of metaphysical release and optimism that all is not lost.”
One detail that adds intrigue to these paintings is the text printed on the sewing patterns. In addition to the annotations and instructions of the original patterns, Westmark adds his own notes to the work, words and phrases lifted from feminist texts. He specifically cites Girls to the Front as one such inspiration, a book by Sarah Marcus that chronicles the Riot Grrrl movement of the early ‘90s, and The Punk Singer, a documentary film about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of Bikini Kill, one of the most prominent bands of the Riot Grrrl era.
Exaltation includes stream-of-consciousness phrases juxtaposed to highlight the aggressive nature of the painting like “UPPER WAIST SIZING FREE AND CLEAR OF ‘MR’ BINDING” and “UPPER FRONT BUST, STRAIGHT GRAIN FOR COURAGEOUS ACTIONS AGAINST OPPRESSORS.”
Other paintings, like Ride, are more playful, almost Victorian in their depictions, but still equally impactful. This work is more coy and flirtatious, but it maintains at least an undercurrent of violence, something sinister suggested by the faceless figures and added text, including the line “LENGTHEN AND STAY ON TOP AS LONG AS POSSIBLE FOR COMPLETE CONTROL.”
By combining images that resonate from the past with words from more recent texts, Westmark draws from both ends of history to create his own feminist narratives and add his voice to the conversation of contemporary feminism. Westmark acknowledges the inherent limitations of being a man working within the feminist culture. But, he says, his intentions with his work transcend just gender politics; he aims to connect with a much more personal audience.
“I can never truly enter into a felt and real feminist dialogue. I do think there is a conflict by default in that my response is from a male perspective, which I believe creates almost a voyeuristic stance,” says Westmark.
“For me, at the end of the day, it is most about making work with my daughters in mind. They become the ideal audience for the work, and my referencing the vast array of gender inequalities that continue to exist is a way of speaking to them in a visual way, beyond just the telling of an interesting narrative.”
Narratives is on exhibition in the main gallery of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC, through July 13th. More of John Westmark's art, including past collage work, can be found on his website.
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