For states around the nation, 2019 was a year of stunningly restrictive abortion legislation. The new laws have faced backlash on the streets and in court—and also in art galleries.
“Ban after ban was coming out,” Rebecca Pauline Jampol, co-director of the Newark arts nonprofit Project for Empty Space, told Artnet News. It was in March and she and her colleague Jasmine Wahi had just heard news that Alabama passed a law essentially making all abortions in the state illegal. “We were feeling really sad and defeated, but we did what we always do and kind of stopped everything to create actionable programming.” (PES launched a feminist incubator artist residency and exhibition program in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.)
They called artist Marilyn Minter, who immediately brought on board photographer Laurie Simmons, arts publicist Gina Nanni, and art historian Sandy Tait to help organize a two-part exhibition, “Abortion Is Normal.” Opening today in New York at Galerie Eva Presenhuber and January 21 at Arsenal Contemporary, the show includes such A-list contemporary stars as Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Hank Willis Thomas, Nan Goldin, Wangechi Mutu, and Rob Pruitt, all of whom present work that reflects their own personal feelings about abortion and reproductive rights.
“I said, ‘let’s raise some money!’” Minter told Artnet News, adding that she hopes the presence of big-name artists will sway collectors who might otherwise be loathe to buy a work about abortion.
The show is raising funds for Downtown for Democracy, a political action committee dedicated to helping democrats win close Congressional races in districts across the country. All of the work in the show is for sale and Downtown for Democracy will spend half the proceeds to fund voter education about reproductive rights, distributing the rest to Planned Parenthood PACs working to win 2020 elections.
Minter, who is contributing a new print titled Cuntrol, is a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood. She designed their memorable “Don’t Fuck With Us, Don’t Fuck Without Us” buttons and organized a Sotheby’s auction benefiting Planned Parenthood in 2015, along with Sherman and Simmons. (Here, Simmons has contributed an early doll photograph, created in 1971, two years before Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion on the federal level; Sherman, a new photograph.)
But the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was something of “a wakeup call,” Minter said. Republications are now rushing to pass anti-abortion legislation because “they see that they have a Supreme Court now that might overturn Roe vs. Wade,” she said. “We got complacent. We thought it was settled law!”
The first “Abortion Is Normal” show actually opened last year, at Project for Empty Space, featuring work by Christen Clifford, Dominique Duroseau, Yvette Molina, and Viva Ruiz, all of whom are back for the two-part Manhattan edition.
During the planning of the show, its title, “Abortion Is Normal,” proved something of a stumbling block. “Some people liked the idea but hated the title—and even chose not to participate because of the title,” Wahi said.
“This title is intended as a statement of camaraderie and caring that, in short, says: What you choose to do with your body is OK—it is normal,” added Jampol. “Can it be difficult? Yes. Is it your right? Yes.”
Part of the curators’ strategy was also to include male artists in the show. “Reproductive rights is an issue that affects everyone,” said Jampol. She and Wahi hope to spread that message across the country with an exhibition series that will “hopefully be part of a long-term conversation about reproductive freedom.
Clifford and Ruiz, who founded the group Thank God for Abortion in 2015 to help reduce the stigma around abortion, were both at the gallery installing their works when I visited the exhibition earlier this week.
“These are the abortion saints,” said Ruiz, pointing to mannequins clad in the golden haloed headdresses and “Thank God for Abortion” t-shirts that she wears during performances like the one she staged outside the Vatican last fall. (The artist grew up Catholic and is again a practicing member of the faith today after falling away from the church for a time over its teachings about abortion and the LGBT community.)
“People don’t like you talking about God and abortion in a positive way, and that’s why we have to go there,” Ruiz explained. “I’ve had two abortions and I know God loves me.”
Clifford, meanwhile, was configuring a new arrangement for the expanded version of her piece, I Want Your Blood, featuring vintage perfume bottles filled with blood, most of it menstrual. “There’s no equality without reproductive rights, there’s no reproductive rights without knowledge of the female body, and there’s no knowledge of the female body without knowledge of blood.”
The piece is feminine and delicate, but upon closer examination the thick blood swirling in the bottles nevertheless triggers a feeling of disgust. It’s a reminder of the show’s message: Abortion is messy, but it’s a part of life, and it doesn’t need to something shameful.
“Abortion Is Normal” empowers women to stand up for their reproductive rights and to make the choices that are right for them and their bodies. And that’s something we should all start to get comfortable with.
“Abortion Is Normal” is on view at Galerie Eva Presenhuber, 39 Great Jones Street, New York, January 9–18, 2020; and Arsenal Contemporary, 214 Bowery, New York, January 21–February 1, 2020.
The participating artists are Alison Janae Hamilton, Ameya Marie, Amy Khoshbin, Andrea Chung, Arlene Shechet, Barbara Kruger, Betty Tompkins, Carroll Duhnam, Catherine Opie, Cecily Brown, Chloe Wise, Chris Myers, Christen Clifford, Cindy Sherman, Delano Dunn, Dominique Duroseau, ELEKTRA KB, Fin Simonetti, Grace Graupe Pillard, Hank Willis Thomas, hayv kahraman, Jaishri Abichandani, Jane Kaplowitz, Jon Kessler, Jonathan Horowitz, Judith Bernstein, Judith Hudson, Laurie Simmons, Louise Lawler, Lyle Ashton Harris, Marilyn Minter, Mika Rottenberg, Nadine Faraj, Nan Goldin, Natalie Frank, Rob Pruitt, Ryan McGinley, Sarah Sze, Shirin Neshat, Shoshanna Weinberger, Sojourner Truth Parsons, Sue Williams, Suzy Lake, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Viva Ruiz, Wangechi Mutu, Xaveria Simmons, Walter Robinson, Yvette Molina, and Zoe Buckman.
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