Nudes Series by Jennifer Bilek
From an interview with WoLF Women's Liberation Front (abridged)
What makes your art feminist?
I don’t call my art “feminist art.” I am not sure there is such a thing. By its nature, if it is any good, art will be a reflection of the artist’s politics, beliefs, sensitivities, and moral character. I am a feminist in that the very fiber of my being is dedicated to ending male supremacy and that will manifest in my art whether or not I am consciously considering creating a feminist message per se. If I go about calling my work “feminist art,” then my work is forced to fit a particular ideology, my subconscious processes and my muse then become slaves to my intellect and my politics. I become obliged to convey a message that an audience will perceive as feminist.
My portraits are bold and unapologetic. They do not lend themselves to being demurely placed over a sofa to blend with the colors of someone’s living room. They are fierce expressions of not only my subjects and myself, but are a culmination of the forces at work in my culture and the forces of whatever lives in the space where creativity is born. I do not paint women for the male gaze and I do not paint children for their parent’s appetite for cuteness. I am not that kind of portrait painter. I paint souls and souls living in a culture on the verge of collapse, in a culture where half the population is subordinated to the other half, are generally not full of sunshine – though of course we all have our bright moments and a connection to the love that is always within us and around us – we are extremely complex because of what is happening in our world. If my portraiture is feminist, it is because it dares reflect this complexity.
How do your feminist values fit into your work as an artist?
The art world, like the rest of western cultures revere male artists and the perspective of men. Men that grow up in cultures that view and treat women as objects for the consumption of men and the male gaze create art that also views women as objects. It is too easy for women artists to either fall into this same approach in order to gain recognition or to resign their art to an obvious reaction against this. A prime example of this would be, what I call, “vulva art” – art that overtly reveres the vulva as a means to communicate the importance of women. I am not going to call out particular women artists, but many become a slave to making art that screams back “women are important too!!” It’s a reaction. I get it. But I think it is more important to simply make great art. I mean if you are really called on to make paintings of vulvas, go for it, but if you are painting vulvas (or something akin to this) because you want to make a statement, it doesn’t do anything for humanity as far as I am concerned. When feminists dare to create from their depths, and they fight for the space to be admitted to male enclaves of exhibition and learning, then you have art that is infused with feminist action and politics, not “feminist art.” This is what it means to me to be a feminist making art in patriarchy, to my mind. We must reclaim our space, our right to share our work with the world.
Jennifer Bilek is a contemporary American portrait artist. Born and raised in New York City, Jennifer has honed her skills as a painter for over 35 years. Jennifer studied formally with Vladimir Bachinsky, after receiving a two-year scholarship (1981-1983) to study fine oil portraiture at the Woodstock School of Art. You can find her work here.