Ironic Retro Pop

BBAM! Gallery Hosts ‘Ladies First’ Pop Art Touring Exhibition

“Ladies First” aims to turn the male gaze on its head with empowered female art. “Camo Hotbox” by Niagara
“Maudlin” by Megan Besmirched
“I See the World Through Rose-Colored Glasses” by Niagara

How women are presented in art, film and other media is a favourite topic among feminists.

The theory is that by looking at how women are represented within a society, we can also see how they are perceived in that society, thereby creating a link between these images and the cultural repercussions they create in regards to the treatment of women.

For example, if women are portrayed in a sexualized light, they are more likely to be treated in a sexualized manner, and so on.

The fact that men are, more often than not, the ones deciding how women are to be portrayed, is one of the biggest controversies behind this subject of representation. This is something Vancouver artist Nicole Steen understands very well, and aims to confront with her annual exhibition—reclaiming women’s representations of themselves.

Since 2006, Steen has coordinated the Ladies First exhibition of women painting women, a 20-plus-strong group of pop artists touring their work across North America.

“The idea was to bring together work from all over North America and Europe, as well as showcase local female artists,” Sheen said.

“I really felt that women’s pop art at the time was under-represented, and I wanted to contribute to ladies’ art to foster more of a sense of community.”

Lowbrow art, also known as pop surrealism, has been an active part of the art world for a few decades now. For BBAM! Gallery owner Ralph Alfonso, bringing the Ladies First exhibition—which began in Vancouver in honour of International Women’s Day in 2007—to Montreal was all about “exposing Montreal to some key artists” from this scene.

Located in St-Henri, this hole-in-the-wall venue compliments the offbeat aesthetic of the exhibition nicely. Montreal also has its own pop artists to offer, with Layla Folkmann and Lacey Jane of the Montreal duo Hot Sluts and Poutine exhibiting their work, as well as Alysha Farling and MC Turineck of Bush Party.

Female representation in the Montreal art scene is alive and well, according to Alfonso.

“As far as BBAM! is concerned, every show we’ve had has been female artists, with one exception,” he said. “It wasn’t something planned. That’s how it worked out in terms of what made sense for our pop culture vibe.”

Ladies First features many prominent artists of pop surrealism, like Seattle-based artist Lisa Petrucci, whose quirky, nostalgic paintings of kittens and pin-ups girls have an air of mischievousness behind their seemingly simple demeanour.

Detroit-based artist and former punk rock musician Niagra is also exhibiting her work. Her style is definitively Warhol-inspired, featuring portraits of women with retro-coiffed hair and highly arched brows painted in bold pinks, greens and blues.

Many of Niagara’s paintings have captions like “I am holding my temper” or “With all my heart I still love the man I killed,” making them simultaneously sweet and scary.

“I want the women in my paintings to speak,” Niagara said.

One of her most popular prints features a blonde woman in an off-the-shoulder party dress and red lips pointing a gun at the viewer. The caption simply reads, “Run.”

Steen’s work features some similar influences—subversive retro pin-ups and striking portraits in bright colours.

“I am kind of fascinated with the idea of glamour, idolatry and beauty standards and what effect it has on the way women are viewed and presented,” she said.

The artwork presented in this sixth edition of the annual exhibition range from the sugary-sweet to the dark and brooding, with a plethora of shades in-between.

It’s interesting to note that the show’s theme of “The female and the feminine” leads many artists to explore a more retro era—the old Hollywood stars of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s.

However, these works ought not to be interpreted as simply a wistful look back at bygone times. The subversive element of pop surrealism lies in its ability to contrast the garishness and campiness of retro art, with a sophisticated painting style and, most importantly, a heavy dose of irony.

As Steen put it, “Pop art reflects what is going on in our media culture and places us in the observer position looking at ourselves.”

Self-reflection has some striking effects. It forces viewers to reconsider the images they see everyday and ask themselves to acknowledge the exaggerated, gratuitous depictions of scantily clad women that pervade Western media culture.

At the same time, pop artists of Ladies First clearly take a certain pleasure in creating these same exaggerated forms, but re-appropriating them as symbols of feminine power.

Ladies First aims to put a feminist twist on retro pop culture classics, and Alfonso is excited to host the boundary-breaking tour in his gallery.

“If you like ‘50s or ‘60s pop culture, that kind of rockabilly coolness and Betty Page sensuality, this [exhibit] is for you.”

Ladies First Vernissage // Oct. 31 // BBAM! Gallery (3255 St. Jacques St.) // 6 p.m. // Free admission // Facebook event