Visual Arts

'Validated' looks at work funded by Kentucky Foundation for Women

The genesis for the latest exhibit at M.S. Rezny Gallery and Studio began on a car ride home from Louisville.

Gallery owner Mary Rezny had attended an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Kentucky Foundation for Women, a private organization that funds feminist art for social change.

Rezny got to meet KFW founder Sallie Bingham and as some of the group's other grantees.

"There were four of us who met and realized we were all in visual arts and all from Lexington," Rezny says.

On the drive back home, Rezny began imagining a group exhibit that highlighted a cross section of KFW-funded work.

Rezny tapped the work of fellow 2009 grantees Elissa Morley, Monica Pipia and Diane Kahlo for an exhibit called Validated, on display through Friday at her gallery.

"All of us have been artists all of our adult lives," Rezny says, "and it's almost like no one takes you seriously unless someone else recognizes you, and KFW recognized the importance of what we are as artists and put their stamp of approval on us, and once that happens it tends to open many doors.

"I look at this show as a sampler of what we did with their assistance."

In an email, KFW director Judi Jennings wrote: "This exhibition is a powerful testament to the range and quality of art being created by feminist social-change artists in Central Kentucky and across the commonwealth."

One of the first things a visitor will notice is the diversity of the work. The broad range of materials and subject matters reflects a diverse interpretation of feminism and a mix of social-change issues ranging from the obvious to the complicated and subtle.

For instance, Kahlo's work focuses on the killing of women in Juarez, Mexico, where crime and corruption have led to the murders of 8,000 people — hundreds of them low-income women — since Mexico's drug war escalated in 2008. It's a preview of a gallery show that will be at the University of Kentucky's Tuska Center for Contemporary Art in October and Berea College in February.

KFW gave Kahlo money to support creation of an installation incorporating individual portraits of some of the women who have disappeared or been killed in Juarez.

"When I began the project," Kahlo says, "I thought that I would just paint a small number of portraits and that these would serve as a metaphor for the hundreds more. After all, it would be impossible to paint them all, because the numbers continue to grow.

"After I did these, I realized that to have real impact I would have to create what I call a memorial wall of portraits. I knew the impact would be both through seeing the number of faces.

"These are someone's daughter, sister, sometimes young mother."

Kahlo's work puts a real-life political and social issue front and center, but other artists in the exhibit approach their work for social change with what Rezny calls a more "passive dogma."

She incorporates into the exhibit her own photographic works that reflect a feminism she describes as "a celebration of self and life."

Dwelling on subjects such as fruits and flowers, Rezny combines old-fashioned photo-processing techniques like the photogram with handmade book making, a method she got to explore at a workshop in New York that KFW helped her attend.

"I want the viewer to reflect on the inner beauty of the subject," Rezny says of the potential impact of her artist books. "I want the viewer to see how this inner beauty reflects on her and all that she does. As that self-esteem is enlightened, it will affect all of the community."

While Rezny reflects on beauty, Morley's work dwells in complexity.

Her pieces, using watercolor on layered tracing paper, were featured previously at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery in Cincinnati.

"What my work attempts to do is show that women have quite a spectrum of expressions, quite a range of experiences and feelings," Morley says. "I would hope that the viewer would take the time to see past the surface and think about the work, the sort of bringing together of opposing materials like metal and delicate paper, that they would reflect upon not just the beautiful surface but the sort of bite in the beautiful."

For Pipia, whose featured paintings are inspired by the Greek goddess Athena and a female version of Buddha, the need was for a dedicated studio space where she could expand her role as an artistic mentor to young girls.

KFW funded Pipia's efforts to transform her garage into an eco-friendly studio that could accommodate her large-scale paintings and mentorship activities.

"This is one of the few grants that would allow me to do something like the studio. Most grants don't do that," says Pipia, who dedicated her portion of the exhibit to a sister who suffered a brain aneurysm.

"It is very difficult over the years to keep going because you hit rough spots, especially when you've got to make a living," Pipia says, "but art is something that carries us."