“Threesome” holds the ideal woman in a new light

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Second Street Gallery’s “Threesome” exhibition challenges the viewer to explore gender bias. “You don’t have to be compelled to like something,” Tosha Grantham said. “It’s more important to be open. Response is contingent to what you bring to it.” Photo: Elli Williams. Second Street Gallery’s “Threesome” exhibition challenges the viewer to explore gender bias. “You don’t have to be compelled to like something,” Tosha Grantham said. “It’s more important to be open. Response is contingent to what you bring to it.” Photo: Elli Williams.

“When people think of the word threesome, they think of one man and two women, and they think of the man getting pleasured by the women,” said Tif Robinette, a self-declared feminist. “But here we have three really strong female artists from the state of Virginia reacting to and tearing apart ideas of the ideal woman.” Robinette is one of three artists, including Susan Jamison and Sharon Shapiro, whose performances, sculptures, drawings, and paintings are part of Second Street Gallery’s February exhibit “Threesome.”

“All of us love that title,” she laughed. “It turns the whole notion of what a threesome is on its head.”

The city’s oldest non-profit contemporary arts space typically showcases two artists in separate spaces each month, but “Threesome” stretches throughout the gallery and intermingles the work of all three artists. “This show is an improvisational conversation between Steve [Taylor, the gallery’s executive director], the artists, and me,” said Tosha Grantham, Second Street’s new curator. Though Grantham’s first curated show will premiere in September, she’s implementing the current season while arranging the next.

“Threesome” is not a collaboration between artists but rather a gathering of like-minded themes. “The exhibit uses three distinct vantage points to explore contemporary femininity in contemporary art,” Grantham said. “How women’s sexuality is placed either in pop culture, in other media such as film, or against a gendered or male gaze.”

The works are full of beauty and tension, a conflict inherent in female sexuality. “They find or create power from what could otherwise be uncomfortable circumstances,” Grantham said, noting that each artist works beyond the “sanitized femininity” popular in our culture. “None of them shy away from challenging subject matter, which is refreshing especially when it comes to woman and power or femininity and control.”

Susan Jamison uses egg tempera painting and sculptural forms to explore an intentionally feminine perspective. Her paintings most often feature a female character appearing alongside animals, a woman with a face replaced by a medical illustration or skin covered in hot pink flowers. Jamison also embellishes found objects like vintage lace, anchors, horse hair, and women’s clothing to provide feminist social commentary.

“In this exhibition, my piece ‘Drowning Dress’ is covered in lead fishing weights and embroidered with the word ‘Farewell’ around the neckline,” she said. “It is meant as an homage to the feminist writer Virginia Woolf who drowned herself in a river by placing heavy rocks in her coat pockets.”

Sharon Shapiro’s paintings and drawings highlight the complications of desire, gender, and sexuality through doubling and transforming female figures. “I take screen shots with my iPhone, manipulate them, and work from those images in my painting,” Shapiro said. She focuses on character-driven films like Blow Up (a 1966 film about a London photographer who may have witnessed a killing) or personal narratives populated by animal-human composites.

“I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, and we used to go to this shoddy public pool called Harmony Acres,” Shapiro said, describing a painting on display in “Threesome.” “Much as the pool deteriorated, the two figures [in the painting] turn from humans into a pattern disrupted by the woman’s lower half turning into a sheep. It leaves the viewer to wonder if the transformation is literal and the man is committing bestiality, or is it just a metaphor for other sorts of transformations that we go through?”

Symbolism abounds in the show, which features Tif Robinette’s practice of using quotidian objects in unexpected ways. Corn, snakes, and other elements allow her to represent and juxtapose ideas like masculinity and femininity, lightness and darkness, the sacred and the profane.

“I’m really interested in turning the coin upside down and thinking of the things we do every day as either equally or more significant than the rituals that we regard as highly spiritual.” Eating and communication are ritualized activities, she said, but we don’t engage in them with the same awareness we do in church. Her performances and works draw attention to the ordinary. “Salt in the cupboard, the yellow gloves you use to wash your dishes, those very small seemingly insignificant moments in your life, I elevate them.”

Robinette’s work includes provocative performances, the sort Charlottesville galleries rarely see. “I like to use eating roses as a metaphor for being women being in relationships and the beauty and romance and destruction of those situations,” she said. “My performanc-
es tend to have quiet sacred moments and base, bestial moments. I feel like eating roses is one of those, very much like an animal, taking a symbol that we hold in high regard, especially around Valentine’s Day, as a symbol of the purity of love and tearing it apart.”

Robinette’s four-hour live performance, “AINT YOUR GODDESS AINT YOUR BEAST,” debuted during “Threesome’s” First Fridays opening. It was captured on video and distilled into a 15-minute loop for broadcast on a mounted television throughout the show’s run.

“Threesome” is sponsored by Women for Art, a group of women who share a passion for contemporary art and often support Second Street events. “As a gallery, we’re known for showing art that might not otherwise be seen here,” Grantham said, and “Threesome” offers a rare look into largely unexhibited work by area artists who exhibit nationally and internationally.

“Threesome” is also an opportunity for audience participation. “People should know that their opinions and observations are valid,” Jamison said. “Perhaps I have painted an animal that you have seen in your yard, and this creates your own story for my painting. Reading visual art can and should be a more open-ended experience than reading words.”

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