#5WomenArtists & the Wex

Mar 29, 2020

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Stanya Kahn, Maya Lin, and Kelly Reichardt

Now in its fifth year, the National Museum of Women in the Arts' campaign #5WomenArtists highlights notable makers on social media for Women's History Month. More than 1500 cultural institutions in 54 countries take part. Below, you'll find the extended version of our social campaign: Wex staff writing about five women whose work has been presented and supported by the center.

LaToya Ruby Frazier

Wexner Center for the Arts Director Johanna Burton with artist LaToya Ruby Frazier

Wexner Center Director Johanna Burton with LaToya Ruby Frazier. Image: Kathryn D. Studios

LaToya Ruby Frazier is more than an artist: she shows us the power and potential of what art can do. She is a teller of truths who amplifies the voices of others and their multifaceted experiences of existence. The art world can be an insular, exclusive, and fetishizing space that often robs its subjects of agency, but Frazier has committed herself to making it a place where working class people and their labor are highlighted and represented on their own terms. Whether it’s documenting her family and the effects of growing up in a steel mill town or documenting the community of Flint, Frazier captures human dignity, respect, resilience, love, and truth in the face of capitalistic and oppressive dystopia. This is particularly apparent in her recent show, The Last Cruze. Frazier may be the recognizable name, but this show is by and for the union community of Lordstown, OH. The Last Cruze focuses on the workers after the 2018 closure of the GM manufacturing plant that was the source of their livelihoods. In this show, the experiences of a community speak for themselves and reveal the ways in which corporations actively exploit and diminish their workforce. 

Frazier with former GM Lordstown plant worker Louis Robinson, Jr. during the January 31, 2020 opening of The Last Cruze at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Frazier with Louis Robinson, Jr., former GM Lordstown plant worker and Recording Secretary at UAW Local 1112, at the January 31 preview of The Last Cruze at the Wex. Image: Kathryn D Studios

It is extremely important to note that this show is a true collaboration that is guided by the people that it depicts and represents. Each image and accompanying text presents the unaltered story—recorded by Frazier—of each individual who consented to share their experience of this event. We are faced with a strong community that takes pride in their work and the lengths they took to preserve their past, reality, and future. Fraizer creates through the intimate spaces of dignity the pointed preservation of human respect and care. It is apparent through these stories that labor is not just the act of working, but is a multifaceted relationship that affects all Americans whether they see it or not. If one sector of production is eliminated or workers' rights are infringed upon, it affects not only the consumer but the workers in surrounding industries. 

In the time of COVID-19, Frazier’s work is even more relevant because it centers the humanity of each person and the value of their work. The current pandemic has made more obvious the great divides in how people perceive the worth of certain occupations. With mass layoffs across industries and particularly service jobs resulting in loss of income, lack of infrastructure outside of school for houseless youth, bailouts for corporations instead of workers, and an income freeze without a bills freeze, we plainly see the failings of the state and corporations towards its workforce. In conjunction with the reliance on who are now being called “essential workers”, we see how people who were marginalized and deemed “unskilled” are now the ones we are counting on to get us through, putting their bodies at risk to keep our society functioning in the face of a life-threatening disease.

Many people choose to tune out struggles and issues of labor and dismiss it as a problem of the past, or not relevant to their daily lives. COVID-19 proves that this isn’t true through revealing the failings of our capitalist economy to almost all demographics. In examining The Last Cruze, Frazier reveals how interconnected we are and that labor is not just a struggle for “the working class”. She uses her platform to amplify the voices of a community who needs to be heard. It is time for us to listen to what Frazier has been telling us and respond to the needs of our communities.—Maria Joranko, Community Outreach and Teen Programs Coordinator

Stanya Kahn

Artist Stanya Kahn looks toward her teenage son and his friend, seen from behind, during the January 31, 2020 opening of Kahn's exhibition No Go Backs at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Stanya Kahn with the two protagonists of No Go Backs during the Wex's exhibition preview. Image: Kathryn D. Studios

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to watch Stanya Kahn’s short film No Go Backs several times. The film (2019, shot on Super 16mm film) runs about half an hour long, so it was a great way to stretch my legs and take a short break from my computer screen. I could hear the bass from the soundtrack through the wall in my office, and on my busier days this rumbling was a siren song luring me into the dark gallery space to take a few moments of reflection. The film, completely absent of dialogue and featuring a small cast of teenage characters, felt very removed from my daily life in a busy contemporary art center. The themes, however, remain terribly relevant to all of us, whether we like it or not.

In No Go Backs (produced in partnership with the Film/Video studio here at the Wex), two teenage boys who have known each other all their lives take a wordless journey through unmistakably west coast landscapes. They walk across desert plains, up snowy mountains and down again, around blue-green lakes rimmed with towering rock formations. They are, for the majority of the film, alone with each other. No cars drive along the roads, no distant figures swim in the lakes, no one chases the boys off private property or chastises them for cutting fences. Did everyone in the area die? Did they flee? Where are these adults that we glimpse in flashes of memory? No explanation—a silence that is more ominous than some cliché backstory. About halfway through the film, we are introduced to a second pair of teens who follow a similar path against this backdrop of disaster-struck, unforgiving landscape. By the end of the film, the two pairs meet and exchange a long, wordless, searching look. The final shots depict several more pairs of children and teens leaving their urban homes for the wilderness, all following the same path taken by that first set of boys.

No Go Backs thoughtfully examines climate disaster and societal breakdown while carefully avoiding sloganeering and dramatics. In this sense, Kahn’s work is not dystopian science fiction, but realistic fiction based on the true events of our dystopia. Children are trying right now to survive a poisoned earth, and those without stable or permanent housing suffer the most. Dire as this is, Kahn does not fall into the trap of beatifying the suffering poor. The children in the film seek food and shelter, of course, but they need so much more to survive; they spend their days in moments of playfulness, comfort, care, intimacy, memory, and creativity. In other words, they retain some dignity through it all. This, I think, is the strength of the film: how we survive is just as important as whether we survive.—Jo Snyder,  Education Programs Coordinator


Maya Lin

Artist Maya Lin in 2005 overseeing the reinstallation of her work Groundswell at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The work evokes Ohio's ancient Native American burial mounds with its small hills of small safety glass shards

Maya Lin overlooks the 2005 reinstallation of her 1993 work Groundswell.

1982-84 Maya Lin. This moment always freezes for me—the years around the Vietnam Memorial dedication. I was in junior high/high school and we would talk in class about the now well-known story of the design competition, the struggle, the forces shaping all of the decisions. It was new then. It was happening, or had just happened. In school, describing the moment and its significance, we had conversations about simple truths being complicated, we speculated about what would happen, and recognized that a truthful and resolute act of courage was happening right now—just look!

Talking about this American moment felt important, but we also talked at length about the design, and what it meant, and why it was the best. The wall is a mirror. Time is a loop that starts in the middle, opens and closes. It’s a sealed wound. The carved names. We talked about the overwhelming response to the work, how it changed the monument and the people who gathered to see it. Contemplation and transformation. These were formative conversations and seemed to prove that deeper understanding was possible. This work existing felt like a victory.

At the Wexner Center, Groundswell was our first permanent installation and is one of Maya’s first site-specific artworks. It was installed in 1993 and dedicated as a part of our exhibition Maya Lin: Public/Private. It consists of 43 tons of smashed glass that fill three different sites around the Wexner Center.

In our exhibitions department we have a close and unique attachment to this work. We care for it daily, keep track of how it changes each season. Each of us seem to separately report back to the others about what we see. This seems true for all departments at the Wex, as I often get emails, calls and notes on what is happening at any given moment in Groundswell. One of the benefits of my job at the Wexner Center is to work so closely with a great team and often directly with artists we are exhibiting. We have been fortunate to work with Maya and her studio to restore Groundswell in 2013, and most recently, on temporary installations in our galleries as a part of HERE: Ann Hamilton, Jenny Holzer, Maya Lin.—Dave Dickas, Head Preparator, Exhibit Designer


Awilda Rodriguez Lora

Latinx artist Awilda Rodriguez Lora in a T-shirt that reads "I am not exotic I am exhausted" speaks from the stage of the Film/Video Theater at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Awilda Rodriguez Lora at the Wex in March 2019. Image: Sylke Krell

Born in Mexico, raised in Puerto Rico, and working across the Western Hemisphere, Awilda Rodríguez Lora, also known as La Performera, is a performance choreographer and cultural entrepreneur. Just over one year ago, Rodríguez Lora visited the Wexner Center to share her ongoing projects with the Columbus community.

Rooted in the body and characterized by intimacy and vulnerability, Rodríguez Lora’s work weaves together the personal and political as she connects to overarching themes of womanhood, queerness, artistic economies, and colonialist legacies. Since 2015, she has posted brief daily videos online that showcase her body’s disciplined and joyous movement through time, space, and her environment, as it draws spontaneous inspiration from the everyday (check out #bailartodoslosdias2020 for the latest offerings).

In 2013, she began working on her life project, La Mujer Maravilla (The Wonder Woman). In one exploración of this concept (La Mujer Maravilla: 4645), Rodríguez Lora draws attention to the negligence of the federal and Puerto Rican governments in the wake of hurricanes Irma and Maria by cutting the titular numbers (representing the number of hurricane-related deaths on the island, according to Harvard University) out of an American flag and methodically sewing them to her skirt before ripping them out.

In her current project, the multimedia experience SUSTENTO, Rodríguez Lora seeks to deconstruct the perceived barrier between performer and audience as we collectively share what provides each of us with sustenance. “Created to ignite bodies and minds to practice resilience, imagination, and vulnerability as strategies for harmonious coexistence,” in the artist’s words, SUSTENTO reminds us that “community is the best sustainability we have.”—Ashley Stanton, Senior Producer, Performing Arts


Kelly Reichardt

Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt walks toward the stage of the Film Video Theater at the Wexner Center for the Arts during an October 2016 visit

Filmmaker Kelly Reichardt at the Wex in October 2016. Image: Brooke LaValley

With her keen eye for the both the beauty and peculiarities of day-to-day life and minimalist, pared down approach—which in no way implies that themes and ideas she wrestles with are minimal—Kelly Reichardt has built a singular, remarkable body of work. Frequently training her lens on the lives of working class characters, often in contemporary rural settings (or on the Oregon Trail as in her brilliant Western Meek’s Cutoff), Reichardt makes films unafraid to unfold at their own pace, keenly observing the gestures and quiet moments that deliver moments of unexpected grace and insight.

A past Wex residency artist—we provided support for her 2016 Sundance hit Certain Women—Reichardt’s latest film, First Cow, has been paused in release due to the coronavirus outbreak. While we can’t wait to see that already critically acclaimed film, you can check out some her past work online.

Certain Women, with a quartet of great performances by Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams, and Lily Gladstone in one of the most memorable debuts of recent film history, is available on many streaming platforms. Wendy and Lucy, with its empathetic look at the journey a homeless woman (Williams, again) takes to be reunited with her dog is on Amazon Prime, the Criterion Channel, or Kanopy. You can check out the aforementioned Meek’s Cutoff, an intense tale of settlers adrift on the frontier, lost and misdirected by a stubborn, egotistical guide (Bruce Greenwood) who can’t admit his failings even as he is surrounded by death and struggle on all sides. Williams once again stars, this time as the settler who sees most clearly how it’s gone wrong and begins the work to hopefully make it right. It’s superb and you can also find it on the Criterion Channel, Amazon Prime, and Kanopy.—Erik Pepple, Chief Communications Officer