PAFA invites women to take up space in new feminist exhibition

Peter Crimmins, WHYY PBS, January 31, 2021

It’s been almost a year since museums and art galleries shut their doors for the coronavirus pandemic, opening sporadically only to be abruptly shut down again as infection rates rise and fall. Many are now reopening, trying to pick up where they left off last March, some adding new exhibitions to welcome back the art-starved who have been forced to make do with glimpses of paintings peeked at through online portals.


The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has reopened in a big way, with big art on big walls that take your breath away with their sheer size.


“It’s nice to let the work overwhelm you,” said Brittany Webb, curator of 20th-century art at PAFA. “It overwhelmed us, even when working on it. We had to step back and say, ‘Phew, OK!’ It’s one thing to think about an artwork in your head, it’s another thing to stand in a gallery and look up at a piece.”


“Taking Space: Contemporary Women Artists and the Politics of Scale” features monumental-sized installation art in the PAFA’s Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building, originally built as an automobile showroom with high ceilings and a floor plan spacious enough for a Hudson to make a U-turn. 


Other artists represent themselves without portraying themselves. Sculptor Brie Ruais begins with a pile of clay equal to her own body weight – 130 pounds – and beats, scrapes, and mashes it as far as her arm span can reach. She only stops working when she is physically exhausted. The resulting “Scraped Away From Center, 130 lbs (Night)” is a fired and glazed document of Ruais’ fight with clay, a circle defined by her own body with evidence of her fists molded into the shape.