According to the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, “women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
In a project of timely and provocative clarity, Danish artist Christine Buchholtz has created an alternate universe of global power that channels the Supreme Court Justice’s sentiment. Transforming the Todd Weiner Gallery’s installation at LVAC into a female doppelganger of contemporary Realpolitik, Buchholtz’s exhibition is both surreal and chastening.
The show’s voice comes from a group of acrylic on canvas portraits that reimagine current world leaders as women. And while the topic is ripe for satire, Buchholtz engineers an experience that transcends mere political parody. Men have proven themselves unworthy of global leadership, both historically and in the contemporary era, and the artist exposes their destructive, amoral impulses by merging their politics with a feminine identity.
Take, for example, “Russian Transparency,” which depicts a scowling female version of Vladimir Putin. The heroine of the piece looks combative, and she eschews the formal trappings of high office, instead wearing a white muscle shirt reminiscent of the way Putin has appeared in Kremlin propaganda showcasing his virility and ruggedness. In the peripheries of the work, written in Cyrillic, are the words “Gazprom,” “Cambridge Analytica” and “Sputnik” (referring to the state-owned news agency, not the satellite) — a textual homage to the corporate, political, and mass media assets that Putin leverages so deftly.
Kim Jong Un’s female rendition is by far the most nationalistic, and Buchholtz somehow succeeds in making her cult of personality even more dystopian and otherworldly than the true Kim’s. Flags and slogans serve as a backdrop, but it’s the sinister looking woman who will seize the viewers’ attention, reflecting the inner malevolence of her flesh and blood template.
Other notable entries in the artist’s rogue’s gallery are Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Emmanuel Macron. Each image is stylized like a wartime propaganda poster, and like their Russian and North Korean contemporaries, all feature textual reminders of what makes their subjects tick. The phrase “Expansion — What’s Next?” appears in common, reminding the viewer that the imperative to conquer and consume is what ultimately motivates despots and aspiring despots alike.
One of the exhibit’s particularly impactful revelations comes from how menacing Buchholtz’s heads of state appear, and this element of the work informs its most damning indictment. Each of these make-believe autocrats boasts the same symbolism and aesthetics as their real-life models. Even their domineering postures and facial expressions mimic what the community of world citizens expects from their actual rulers. And yet while humanity has been conditioned to associate these traits with strength, confidence and power when they’re displayed by men, the figures Buchholtz has created feel almost grotesque.
What accounts for such hypocrisy? No doubt millennia of chauvinism and misogyny across the planet have forged double standards for how men and women should look and behave. Society demands that its female members be nurturing and warm, and our social conditioning punishes us with revulsion when we see women embody traditional masculine characteristics. Perhaps it makes us uncomfortable to see our treachery exposed so blatantly, but this is the exhibit’s grandest triumph.
Implicit in the pieces is an antidote to the toxic sexism that still pollutes our politics and discourse. Rather than condemning women who defy their stereotypes, might the human condition be better served were we to demand compassion and empathy from our male leaders?
As a critique of the world’s outmoded political and gender machinations, “Clash of Civilizations” is a magnificent success. The power of Buchholtz’s ideas and the passion of her convictions make this an exhibit not to be missed.
At this moment of history, it has never been more important for women to “belong in all places.”
“Christine Buchholtz: Clash of Civilizations” continues at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., through Oct. 31. Concurrent with the Buchholtz show, Todd Weiner Gallery is also presenting “Steve Pistone: Masks.” Hours are 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. For more information, 816-474-1919 or www.leedy-voulkos.com