I arrive five minutes early to FORMah gallery in the lower east side and as I slip out of the cab and onto the street, I can spot a crowd through the row of brightly lit glass windows. Everyone has arrived before me. And, for a moment I get to do something I usually can’t: observe my friends when they have no idea they are being observed.
They are smiling, talking to each other in quiet clusters, and fluttering about. One friend matches a painting, which I’m sure is unintentional but also isn’t surprising. She seems to make every room her home. Another is quietly keeping to herself. She’s new to the events, knows no one and is there before I can make an introduction. I push through the door and enter. Immediately they turn, we hug, and I start to connect people with each other. From there we collectively connect with the art.
FORMah has a mission: to show the works of emerging and mid-career female and female-identifying artists. And the current exhibit on display is a group show, called Lateral Expansion, featuring women who grapple with identities. The show description shares that the work “speculates on the multiplicity of identities that women inhabit through multidisciplinary approaches, sublime explorations of representation and gesture and visceral approaches to surface texture. From painting to fiber art and sculptural collages, these artists embrace the ideologies of lateral expansion: taking up space and claiming power through a lateral expansion both metaphorically and literally in artworks on view.”
The works are varied: from a tropical abstraction to needlepoint inspired by 90s video games to depictions of female gods. But standing in contrast from one side of the room to the other are two works by Jeanne Cohen that get the most attention. One is a moonlit forest featuring a skeleton and the other is a large abstract work that has a strong floral motif.
“Where would you hang that?” Asks Rachel, one of the attendees. “This work is so dark and scary. I have children. I don’t know what to do with it.”
Maryana, the gallerist and owner of FORMah, listens attentively. She looks like a gallerist in her slim jeans, pale pink blazer, and erect posture – a gallerist, though, who must have once been a ballerina.
“There is a feeling in the art world,” she explains. “That beautiful art alone is meaningless. That art should represent not just our good feelings but also our bad ones. That to fill a home with only beautiful art doesn’t represent the totality of our humanity.”
The group murmurs along and it is evident that some people agree and others don’t or haven’t yet formed an opinion.
“How many of you have art in your home that’s disagreeable?” I ask. Of the nine people in attendance, two raise their hands. Interestingly they are also the two oldest people in the room. Both female. “What do you have,” I ask. “And why?”
“I have a lot of Mexican-style saint pieces. Jesus crying and that sort of thing. Some vagina art. And, also a piece that some people really dislike. It shows the insides of a doll.”
“I’ve seen it. It’s creepy. I don’t like it,” said another attendee.
“So why do you have it?” I ask.
“Because I do like it. It means something to me.”
I turn to Amy, the other woman, who has admitted to having complicated art.
“My whole wall is covered in complicated art,” she says. “All kinds of weird things I just like. When people come over they always look at it and are like…’Oh, we never expected this from you.”
“And, how does that make you feel?” I ask.
“Seen, in a way,” she says.
“Vulnerable,” says the first guest. “People either like it or they don’t, but they know something about me.”
I think there is an important lesson in that: when we show only the beautiful things in the world or in ourselves, we risk never being fully seen. Art is sometimes a way to decorate our home but it is also often a way to present a version of ourselves. When we hang pieces that we love that speak to the darker versions of ourselves, we give someone else a chance to show the parts of themselves they may hide away.
It requires vulnerability to be seen but it can also create community.
“When I show people the inside of my home, I show them who I am,” said Amy. The good art and the bad. The good feelings and the bad ones. They are letting themselves
be observed by people they know who are watching. And, how does she feel about that?
“It feels good to know that they can see me.