Gender Wars 2009: The 5 Most Overrated Male Artists Vs. The Most Underrated Female Artists

Posted at 5:04 AM Apr 15, 2009

By Kathleen Willcox

Game on!

Way back in 1989 the Guerrilla Girls, a plucky band of anonymous activist female artists, caused an art world brouhaha after they did a boob/signature survey at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and produced a poster that (accurately) read: "Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum? Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, but 85% of the nudes are female."

So how much has changed? The last time the ladies did a count (2004), they found that there were actually fewer women artists than there were in 1989.

The hard numbers still come as a shock, even though they shouldn't - a recent report revealed that the pay gap between men and women globally is crazy high - 22%! And guess who's buying the art? Macho men with mucho spending power like publisher S.I. Newhouse, hedge funders Steven A. Cohen and David Ganek, insurance magnate Eli Broad and buyout brainiac Henry Kravis.

In addition to getting less space on walls in museums (not to mention galleries, homes and comic book shelves), women artists fail to get the P.R. and art prize props their male counterparts rake in. Below, our round-up of the most bloated, overrated contemporary male artists and the women who (should be) kicking their asses.

5. The Sculptor: Jeff Koons
Appropriately enough, the 1980's made Koons. His relentless creation and meticulous cultivation of his image as an art star, his references to himself in the third person in interviews, his 1988 gold-plated statue Michael Jackson and Bubbles, his marriage to a porn star and the series of sculptures portraying their, er, lovemaking that resulted from the ill-fated match and his sprawling downtown studio staffed by dozens of assistants who churned out his creative "vision" a la Andy Warhol's Factory are like a bad fun-house mirror representing the grotesqueries and emptiness, and none of the giggly fun, of that bedazzled decade. It would be easy to write it off as (multiple) youthful indescretion(s), but Koons' latest work lacks maturity to an almost aggressive degree. It's still as pompous, unscholarly, bloated -- and dazzlingly pretty as ever. His balloon dog, chocolate heart wrapped in shiny red and a silhouette of Piglet on the roof of the Met - between about eight and 18 feet tall, high-shine, high-octane chromium stainless steel sculptures looked gorgeous, reflected sunsets and the gawking beautiful people beautifully, but that's about it. Prettiness alone does not merit $23.6 million (his Hanging Heart raked in a new record for a living artist at auction in 2007).

4. Defies categorization: Damien Hirst
$23.6 mil is mere peanuts compared to what Damien "Dead Sharks" Hirst pulls in. Last year, when stock markets had already started their skulk toward Hades and the art world was starting to schvitz, Hirst's most recent collection still managed to rake in $200 million at Sotheby's in London, a record-breaker. The collection of work included - his trademark - a menagerie of dead animals soaking in formaldehyde. Hedge funders and Wall Street playboys, unsurprisingly, seem to have a hard-on for Hirst, who is also responsible for creating a life-size skull cast in platinum and encrusted with 8,500 diamonds, including one 50-carat shiner that got plopped onto the skull's forehead. His work's "message" is painfully obvious, but I do see why the sophomoric meditation on mortality and unfettered consumerism appeals to his buyers, who seem to spend most of their days warding off mortality with unfettered consumerism.

3. Photographer: Dash Snow Gawker and New York Magazine track his every move - a dubious, if increasingly something every young artist aspires to, distinction. He's richer than Croesus (his mom tried to charge $750,000 for a season's stay at their pad in the Hamptons and his brother has dated Mary-Kate Olsen) but instead of living la dolce vita he's been livin' la vida loca, in and out of the can, doing drugs, ya know, the poor little rich kid works. All of which could be fab fodder for an troubled, misunderstood genius a la Cezanne, who also hailed from a super-flush fam. Unfortch, Snow is so busy pretending to be a hardcore punk on the, er, oh-so-mean streets of Manhattan, he's failed to nurture any nescient talent. His most notable contribution to "art"? Taking Polaroid pictures of himself and his pals posing(?) as junkies and whores.

2. Graphic Novelist: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
This was a tough one. Alan Moore (writer) and David Gibbon's (artist) Watchmen is pretty kick-ass. But the tidal wave of critical acclaim it has received has been, quite frankly, ridunculous. Time Magazine (TIME MAGAZINE!!) actually named it one of the 100 best English Novels since 1923 - right up there with Catch-22, 1984, The Sound and the Fury and Pale Fire. It has also been called "such a monumental achievement that it makes 'Moby Dick' look like a flaming pile of horses--t by comparison." SRSLY critics, GET AHOLD OF YOURSELVES.

1. Designer: Karl Lagerfeld
The Teutonic tan god of fashion, most notably at the helm of Chanel and Fendi, once a fearless, steely-willed provocateur (Anna Wintour minced out of one of his shows in the '90s when he had strippers and a porn star walk the catwalk for Fendi; he's had several well publicized battles involving hurled tofu pies with animal right activists; he lost more than 90 pounds in a year because he wanted to wear Hedi Slimane's designs, prompting him to publish the hilariously successful The Karl Lagerfeld Diet book) has lost his groove. To be fair, dude's 70. (NB: Coco managed to successfully manage Chanel until her death in 1971 at 87). While other designers have snagged the opportunity that a worldwide financial crisis creates to make all kinds of statements about the crossroads between beauty, consumerism and politics (granted, some of them are inexplicable statements, but still), the previously always game-on Karl has decided to sit this one out. His recent collections have been an absolute snooze, the latest one featuring tepid knits, giant hats that look like they're made from balled up piles of used tissues, giant ruched doily-style scarves, floppy bows and leg warmers, great outfits for dollies, not so much for Dolls. The deal-breaker: a giant new handbag made from tufted natural linen, dubbed the "mattress bag." He should have passed them out at the show so sleepy editors could get their zzzzzzzzs.

Enter, the Ladies ...

5. Sculptor: Nicole Wermers
Wermers is to Koons what a five-course meal at the fanciest resto in town is to a Happy Meal at Mickey D's. Wermers, like Koons, uses sculpture to explore the strange space between utilitarianism and consumerism. But Wermers adds layers of deep thoughts, with a hefty dose of sardonic wit to the pretty, producing architectural structures/sculptures that are as much a statement on the Big Brothers all around us (in ads, department stores, cityscapes, etc.) as they are poptastic and hypnotizing in their simple, fancy-free clean lines.

4. Defies categorization: Karla Black Black has described her art as "almost painting, performance or installation while actually, and quite definitely, being sculpture." Well, thanks lady, that clears it up! Like Hirst, Black's work stinks - literally. Unlike Hirst's. Black's is more than a snazzy magic show designed to dazzle the eye and trick the brain into thinking it's seeing something it isn't -- actual art. Her sculptures (often comprised of smelly, cheap fem products like mango-peach moisturizing cream, pancake make-up products and Vaseline) are messy, complex juxtapositions of the cosmetic tools women use to arm themselves against the world and the hard edges - glass, resin, plaster - they bump up against when they leave the pink powder room. Black's work embodies a woman's experience with the world - each one seems be holding a conversation with itself, some hold scholarly debates, some using their best inside voices without saying much at all, while others scream and rage at each other. The only thing they don't say? Nothing.

3. Photographer: Francesca Romeo
Romeo is the perfect antidote to Dash Snow: A former bartender at the Mars Bar (one of the few genuinely fetid and lugubrious holes-in-the-wall left in the East Village), she successfully captures the essence of what's left of New York City's seedy underbelly, as opposed to what she imagines might have looked cool to addled Tompkins Square Park punks on their way to see the Sex Pistols' show at CBGBs in 1977. Reminiscent of Diane Arbus' work, Romeo's subjects are often in states of physical, mental or emotional decline, and like Arbus, she manages to capture their varieties of disrepair without exploiting or glamorizing them. The photographs are cinematic, ambitious, dark, funny, creepy and elusive, making the viewer hungry more information about the person captured in the still, forcing us to put ourselves in their place, imagine what their day is like. You know - think, empathize, imagine, learn.

2. Graphic Novelist: Ariel Schrag
Schrag self-published her first comic series when she was just a freshman in high school. Later republished as a graphic novel, Awkward and three subsequent works, Definition, Potential and Likewise, all explore everyday life in high school - naturally revolving around sex, drugs and rock n' roll. While she has a cult following, especially in the gay community (and she's bringing home the bacon with side gigs like a stint as a writer on Showtime's The L Word), her unflinching examination of sexuality in a post-divorce, post-drop out, post-Stonewall, post-revolution world still isn't getting the recognition it deserves from a mass audience. Keep your fingers crossed though: she's got a film adaptation in the works!

1. Fashion Designers: The Exceptions That Make the Rule Stella McCartney, Vera Wang, Cynthia Rowley Donna Karan, Donatella Versace, Tamara Mellon, Georgina Chapman, Betsey Johnson, and the beat goes on and on. This is a category that happily breaks the rule - women are rocking the runways (and not just as models)! Perhaps because women are more likely to shop for threads than buy art (after all, we almost always have the bank to hit H&M, while perhaps the average oil painting seems just a tad out of reach)? Something to keep in mind next time you have a little extra cash - maybe instead of buying that kick-ass (but admit it, you have five like it at home) shirt you should troll around your city's local galleries, student art exhibits or comic book stores - and throw some money on the table for the ladies....


JeremyA said:

Great list. It'd be interesting to do the same thing with musicians.

Andrea said:

Very enlightening, Kathleen.

For the dudes, I'd add Matthew Barney. That guy creeeeeeeeeeeps me out.

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