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New Haven Independent
Artists Hear The Female Future
By Brian Slattery,
Amelia Maurer’s surreal image evokes power and magic, a sense of fearlessness. The viewer is the intruder in this scenario; the subject is a guardian, and she’s holding all the cards. The piece is striking enough on its own. Presenting it as the cover art for an imaginary album only magnifies its allure. It suggests that the associated music is strange and visionary. You haven’t heard anything like it, but you want to.
Maurer’s piece is part of “Sound & Vision II: For the Record,” which its curator, Martha Lewis, billed as “a feminist celebration of music and visual art.” The show — a collaboration between the Institute Library, WPKN Community Radio, and Cafe Nine, running now through May 6 at the Institute Library’s upstairs gallery — “features dozens of artists who submitted through open call to make imaginary record album covers,” Lewis writes. “The title — For the Record — comes from setting the ‘record’ straight. Being allowed to speak — or sing — for ourselves, in our own true voices. This is a diverse and inclusive exploration of the roles of women in music.” The show contains “memorabilia from notable musicians but also album covers designed by local artists, and some treasures unearthed from WPKN’s extensive vinyl archive.”
The exhibition ably calls attention to the complex place of women musicians in a male-dominated field, and takes on many of the larger social issues women still face. But at its heart, it’s also a lot of fun, offering the same deep thrill of looking at unfamiliar album art, being pulled in, and imagining what the music sounds like before you’ve heard a single note.
The current show is a sequel to “Sound + Vision,” a 2015 show at the Institute Library with the same idea of creating covers to imaginary albums. “I thought for Women’s History Month it might be nice to revisit” the idea, with a feminist bent, said Lewis. As part of the show, Lewis has assembled displays about women in rock music — Tiny Weymouth of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club, guitarist Eve Hars, Julia Cumming of Sunflower Bean — and albums from (non-imaginary) women artists from Barbra Streisand to Odetta.
But the centerpiece remains the inventive pieces artists have made when asked to create album art for music that doesn’t exist. “It’s artists from all walks of life,” Lewis said. “It’s a nice diverse group in terms of age and background.” She noticed differences from the 2015 iteration. “We got fewer entries, and fewer men participated, but not entirely.”
Some artists tackled a particular social issue — such as women in the workplace. “We still do make 80 cents on the dollar for White women and usually less for women of color,” Lewis said. “There’s still the pink tax, and there’s still trying to raise kids and hold a job.” Tweaking of icons and iconography — such as Barbie — appeared in multiple pieces, as did anger at the overturning of Roe v Wade.
Others addressed the larger question of sexism sideways by conjuring up what the music world might look like if the gender balance among musicians was far more even than it is. Jody Clouse offered an album cover by The Microaggressions, with a colorful vibe that suggested a band that would approach its subject matter off-kilter, equally outraged and mocking. Joann Connon’s album by The Broads suggested an early band of women rockers already ready to subvert stereotypes; perhaps they might have gone on tour with Goodwife, a band imagined by Regan Avery that created the album This Rampant Hag. If the club that booked them were of an eclectic enough bent, it might have booked Emily Heberich’s electronic pioneers The Woman Machine, supporting their album Werk Werk.
Other artists created new cover art for existing albums (Sadie Grey Murphy’s spin on Mitski’s Be The Cowboy; Julie Bowers Murphy’s cover for Björk’s Vespertine) or fictional albums by actual bands, an interesting twist (George Corsillo’s album cover Never Mind the Sex Pistols, Here’s Pussy Riot). As parts of the larger show, these served a greater purpose than themselves. They further blurred the line between the real, unequal world of music and the more equal one, making the fictional world the show was creating seem that much more within reach.
Still others, however, simply reveled in the idea of making a piece of art that evoked music. Many of them leaned into the stickers one still finds on records, whether it’s a sticker advertising that the record has been deeply discounted or that it has explicit content. “People put a lot of parental advisories,” Lewis said with a laugh. Some of the pieces — as with actual album covers — featured art that was almost dashed off.
“First of all, you can take anything and turn it into a 12” x 12″ thing, and stick it in a sleeve, and it works,” Lewis said. As a case in point, Lewis offered Kiss by artist Claudia Baez. “I met her at the NADAFlea, and this was a painting that she had stretched up.” Lewis told her about the show she was putting together. “I want to participate,” Lewis recalled Baez saying. “She just cut the painting out and gave it to me, and it’s great. It looks perfect.”
Baez’s move and the show overall get at how inclusive album art can be. “I like the fact that it’s really understandable and everybody can do it. It’s just ‘do what you want,’ ” Lewis said.
But the art can also be made with great care, as in Corinthia Saez’s Woman of Flowers, which came across as the album art for a great lost album soon to be famous upon its rediscovery. What did the music sound like? Was it R&B or jazz? Pop? Brazilian? Hip hop? They all hummed as possibilities, and that made it all the more moving. First, bringing on a sense of mourning, for the music by women musicians around the world we have never gotten to hear. But chasing that, a sense of positive urgency, to help open the doors to more women artists — starting with giving them the encouragement to become musicians in the first place — and let them change the future simply because their music is in it. As music listeners, who doesn’t want to hear as many new voices as possible?