Juror Lisa Crossman certainly had her work cut out for her. The Cambridge Art Association’s 2019 Members Prize show features paintings, photographs and sculpture by 60 regional artists. This year’s selection shows strength across many media, including oil, acrylic, fiber, ceramics and mixed media, with a particular excellence in photography. With so many strong submissions, Crossman — Ph.D., art historian and curator at the Fitchburg Art Museum — “sought to honor artists working in a range of styles, techniques and mediums” with her selection. “I was pleased to discover experimentation, skill, wit, whimsy, historical references, adept observation and beauty in this group of submissions,” Crossman said.
Despite the diversity of media and subject matter, themes do emerge among the work. Noticeably, especially on the heels of what has been dubbed the second “Year of the Woman,” several of the selected artists make strong references to topics in women’s history and feminism. Claudia Ruiz Gustafson, with her photograph, “Maria Magdalena,” offers perhaps the most explicit feminist commentary. The sepia-toned image is split down the middle. On the right is a portrait of a woman in a pleated toga, holding a framed image up to hide her head and face. The image is “The Penitent Magdalen,” ca. 1640, an oil painting by French painter Georges de La Tour.
In the painting, the seated Mary Magdalen looks away from the viewer, back over her left shoulder. The subject of her gaze is a candle, its flame reflected in the glass of an ornate mirror — a frame within a frame within a frame conceit that draws the viewer in. Her hands, fingers clasped loosely as though in prayer, rest on the skull in her lap. On the left of Gustafson’s photograph, the words “I am honored and praised, and scornfully despised” hover over a grainy background reminiscent of old parchment. Both text and imagery form a powerful reference to the virgin-whore dichotomy, the expectation that women should be both innocent and sexually available to men. The classic garb of the woman who holds the frame, the use of an iconic renaissance painting, and the backward glance of Magdalen, all encapsulated in the modern medium of photography, come together to remind us that women have been under the thumb of this paradox for millennia.
Stephanie Angelo’s painting, “Kathrine Switzer,” pays homage to the woman who, in 1967, became the first to run the Boston Marathon as a numbered entrant, five years before women were officially allowed to enter. Yet the portrait of a pair of black-and-grey running shoes, punctuated by yellow and green highlights, feels powerfully emblematic of more recent advancements for women.