Inside Out Loud puts art and women's health issues in dialogue with one another -- and achieves amazing results

Barbara Kruger's off-set lithograph shows a skeleton performing at a microphone as the words "Girl...Don't die for love" shout across the piece. A normal-looking woman sits in one of Jeanne Dunning's photographs, only to morph into a bulbous white blob around her midsection. Jenny Holzer uses the phrase "Slipping into madness is good for the sake of comparison" in her art, which manipulates language in public spaces. The French performance artist Orlan treats her body as her canvas, allowing surgeons to create living art with scalpels and lasers.

These are just some of the artists whose works are displayed during Inside Out Loud: Visualizing Women's Health in Contemporary Art, an exhibition opening with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. this Friday, January 21, at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University's Steinberg Hall (Forsyth and Skinker boulevards; 314-935-4523).

The idea for an art exhibition relating to women's health is the brainchild of Helen Kornblum, practicing psychotherapist, art collector, women's health advocate and activist. Her thoughts about merging her passions for art and women's health came to the attention of Janine Mileaf, assistant professor of art history at Swarthmore College. Five years ago, Mileaf taught an art history course at Washington University about the relationship between art and the body, and she agreed to be the exhibition's guest curator.

"The show tries to complicate the relationship between art and women's health, to address the subject without making the art into subject matter," says Mileaf. "Art is not a single message. The artists play with traditional female stereotypes rather than rejecting them. The images range widely, from so-called 'normal' women, to personal pictures [of] an artist's mother dying of breast cancer. There are some shocking images, some images that comply with stereotypes while transgressing them, and images that are more playful. Every artist is aware of predominant views of women and respond[s] to [those views] in some way."

But it is impossible to brand these works as "women's art." Prominent male artists are also exhibited, such as video artist Tony Oursler and installation artist Kerry James Marshall, whose 1993 acrylic and collage piece entitled "Beauty Examined" is part of the show. Mileaf also notes that not every artist in the show would claim the label of "feminist." She says, "Certainly, the question of women's health is, by default, a feminist question. But it's a label that has gone through ups and downs, and I wouldn't necessarily apply it across the board."

Mileaf hopes that the artists, scholars and members of the community who gather to discuss the exhibition will expound upon the question of women's issues in art. An open panel takes place on Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. and includes four artists whose works are part of Inside Out Loud: Orlan; photographer Zoe Leonard; Vietnamese-American video artist Tran, T. Kim-Trang; and abstract painter Katherine Sherwood. The panel discussion is just the beginning of three months of community events coordinated until the exhibition closes April 24.

Inside Out Loud will make people think, be it about art, cancer, bulimia or plastic surgery. The art opens a dialogue about subjects that need to be discussed and, in turn, compels deeper consideration about the power and importance of art in our society.

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