Women Exhibition Essay

Looking at Women
Filmmakers Mary Harron & John C. Walsh
Collaborate with Composer Randall Woolf

by Mic Holwin

Grace Robertson, The Lorgnette from "Tate Gallery," for Picture Post Magazine, 1952, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 x 11 3/4 in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, purchased with funds donated in Memory of Gladys E. McVickerWomen smiling, women talking, women sleeping, women working. Women in the midst of daily life, women sitting for formal portraits. Turn-of-the-century women in bloomers and frilly hats, mid-century black women waiting on a bus station bench, modern Muslim women swathed in yards of fabric. Compassionate women, sad women, proud women, inscrutable women; women of plaster, of wood, on canvas and captured by a camera’s lens.

What is a woman? How do we–men, women, society–see and portray women?

The first question has been asked for centuries and is perhaps unanswerable. The second inquiry can begin in an art museum, where a preponderance of the works are images of women.

So composer Randall Woolf came to realize when he was commissioned by the Akron Art Museum in Ohio to write a piece for the Akron Symphony Orchestra (as part of Continental Harmony, a national community-based composer residency program of American Composers Forum) with one simple proviso: the piece was to be based on “something” from the Akron Art Museum’s collection.

Since the small Museum can only show 20 or 30 works of the some 4000 it owns (a new, larger building is scheduled to open in 2006), Woolf was taken into the Museum’s large storage basement, where he was allowed to wander through a myriad of canvases, sculptures and photographs. With no particular theme in mind, Woolf chose 30 or so 20th-century pieces about which he felt most strongly. Seeing the images he had chosen, a friend remarked that Woolf had picked mostly images of women. Not having realized that he had subconsciously chosen a connecting thread but liking the idea, Woolf eliminated any image that was not of a woman and began creating Women at an Exhibition, a piece for orchestra, electronics and video.

In tandem with an orchestral part, Woolf assembled an accompanying digital soundtrack created from some of his favorite women singers in genres from new wave and gospel to country and Renaissance madrigal. He also got in touch with friends and neighboring Brooklynites, award-winning husband and wife filmmakers Mary Harron (American Psycho [2000], I Shot Andy Warhol [1996]) and John C. Walsh (Pipe Dream [2002], Ed’s Next Move [1996]), to create the visual half of the multimedia piece.

Philip Strickmaker, Untitled [group of women in fancy hats], around 1893-1898, gelatin silver print on cardboard, 4 1/4 x 6 1/2 in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, gift of Barbara TannenbaumHarron and Walsh, who Woolf had met in 1999 when orchestrating music by John Cale for the score to Harron’s film American Psycho, set out to create a video for the completed orchestral/electronic work using Woolf’s picks from the Museum. But, with only 30 images to work with and 20 minutes of music to accompany, they teamed with Akron Art Museum’s Chief Curator Barbara Tannenbaum, another key player in this multi-media collaboration, to procure more images of women from Akron’s collection. With Tannenbaum’s help, they more than doubled the number of images, adding 19th-century and turn-of-the-century works, as well as those of local mid-century Midwestern artists. Harron and Walsh’s choices were predominantly photographs, since both felt photos to be more narrative and thus suited to video.

The duo assembled the images in an “intuitive” way, says Harron. “Take the images we like best and find some internal logic that will lead you through them.” Walsh acknowledges that the open-endedness of the project was its hardest part: “You can show any number of images in any sequence; you can start here in the photo and end up here; you can start here and pull out . . . There’s almost too much choice, so we both said ‘let’s just listen to the music, see how we feel and see what starts to develop.'”

What developed was a seamless flow of diverse images of women set to Woolf’s yearning, driving, at times dark, at times buoyant music that integrates the emotional power of orchestra with the emotive power of women’s voices (distilled by Woolf into a haunting, primordial essence). Juxtapositions occur that beg the viewer to consider what is being presented more deeply: the face in a colorful painting of a young girl slowly dissolves into an stately older woman’s face in a black and white photograph; a white plaster sculpture of a nude Caucasian woman cuts to a photograph of a black-robed African woman.

Letting the mood and tempo of Woolf’s music be their guide, Harron and Walsh juxtapose these manifold viewpoints of women without adding an overall editorial viewpoint. “The main idea I wanted to get to [Mary and John],” explains Woolf, “is that the idea would not be ‘women are this way, women are that way.’ The point of view [about women] changes all the time.”

Although the images span many historical periods, social settings and artistic styles, the three collaborators purposely avoided arranging them in such a way as to make an ideological statement about women. “We just found resemblances or contrasts or juxtapositions-things that had some kind of poetic resonance,” says Harron. (By pure poetic resonance, Harron is currently working on a movie about the life of a woman in exhibition of another sort, 1940s/’50s pinup queen Bettie Page.)

Grace Robertson, Dancin on the Green from "Mother's Pub Outing," for Picture Post Magazine, 1954, gelatin silver print, 12 1/2 x 9 in., Collection of the Akron Art Museum, purchased with funds donated in Memory of Gladys E. McVickerWorking with video editing software on his Macintosh computer, Walsh, whose background is in film editing, and Harron, who once directed documentaries for a British television arts series, decided against “trickery” (e.g., digital effects) and used standard film transitions between images such as straight cuts, dissolves and fades to black. Pacing of the images stays steady even though the music changes tempos and feel throughout its several distinct sections.

Timing was paramount. “If you show an image for two to three seconds, it has one meaning,” says Walsh. “If you show it for 10 seconds, it has another meaning. If you show it for 20 seconds, you’re asking the viewer to really look and take it in-‘maybe there are things you haven’t caught yet and need to.'”

A memorable transition occurs mid-way through the piece as a black and white photograph of two young women in swimsuits at a boardwalk concession stand dissolves into a photograph of two Muslim women standing in almost the exact same positions, with the striking distinction that the second set of women are covered head to toe in cloth. Woolf’s music churns underneath as the viewer ponders possible meanings of posing for a portrait completely covered in fabric.

Most striking are perfect moments when Woolf’s music brings to life an image, like when the strings become inconsolable and we look into the desolate eyes of a woman whose pain we can only surmise from what surrounds her in the painting or photograph. Women at an Exhibition has many such moments and how deeply those moments affect us depends on how we choose to see each woman-or all women.

Unlike the painted, photographed and sculpted women in Women at an Exhibition, all of us-women and men alike-are both in an exhibition and at an exhibition, lookers and looked-at. As lookers, what we see depends on our point of view. As the looked-at, how we are seen depends on someone else’s point of view, just like those women who exist within a museum’s walls.

American Composers Orchestra will premiere a new version of Women at an Exhibition for chamber orchestra at its November 17 “Orchestra Underground” concert at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall that explores the relationship between visual art and music. (The full orchestra version premiered in Akron, Ohio, March 2004.) Women at an Exhibition will reside in the Akron Art Museum’s permanent collection.

–Mic Holwin, partner of Lost In Brooklyn Studio, is a writer and designer
who has written about new music for the American Composers Orchestra,
the American Symphony Orchestra League’s New Music Now website,
the American Music Center’s New Music Box online magazine,
CRI, Chamber Music magazine and other new music publications.