A St. Louis Artist Reflects on Her Years of Exploring the Issues Behind #MeToo
St. Louis-based artist Heather Bennett, a full-time lecturer at her alma mater, Washington University, makes no bones about the challenges of being a contemporary artist, particularly in the male-dominated fields of art and academia—even with a slew of gallery representations, including Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in New York, Bruno David Gallery here in St. Louis and Gallerie S.E. in Bergan, Norway. But she also couldn’t really envision herself doing anything else.
Bennett’s most-recent work makes use of photograph and the artist’s own body to rise above the myth that the sole pursuit of art is to make something visually beautiful—which the images are. But like the woman who made them, they’re more, and that’s what she demands the audience really sees.
I saw your show “Four Stories” at Bruno David Gallery in 2014. It’s wild to think that was almost five years ago. That show was a series of stylized photographs in which you’re the subject. What are you working on now?
Funny enough, I’m working on a number of projects and an installation that are actually dealing with very similar themes. Much of that work was about the object becoming the subject. Using my own body complicated that further by breaking down this idea of the woman as a myth. I’m also doing a new body of work with images investigating the lack of attention to real female friendship, that bond. It’s frequently portrayed as hyperbolic, hysterical and dramatic, so I’m taking those cliched stories and presenting them in a new way.
That sounds fascinating. What do you think it is about photography in particular that makes it the best medium to explore these topics?
I actually didn’t come from a photographic background at all. But looking at the way we critique and think about women’s bodies in contemporary culture, particularly through the language of advertising, so much of that gets communicated through photography. For me, using photography to talk about these things in the way that I wanted, and turning it all on its head, seemed like an obvious opportunity.
Within photographic media there’s this assumption that it’s recording reality, but I don’t believe that’s true. I think when you try to freeze a “real” moment the way photography does, there’s almost always some kind of fiction. The newer photographs I’ve done that feature photographs of gifts are a little more tongue-in-cheek. You’re looking at something that’s literally shrouded, that will be transformed. It hints at a future for the object portrayed.
One thing that always fascinates me about artists is the age-old struggle of figuring out how to make a living while living a creative life. How have you managed that in your career?
It’s a constant struggle. I tell my students that it almost gets harder every year that you do it, and you constantly have to keep fighting make it work. There are a number of ways to pull it off. I got my undergraduate degree in art from Wash U. and moved to New York City for graduate school, also to study art, at Hunter College. I stayed in New York for about 14 years before I came back to St. Louis. In New York, I was showing my work at galleries and working as a scenic painter on sound stages for television and movie sets. There were so many different ones, but a few I remember are the Bourne movies, the film “Enchanted,” and TV shows like “Damages” and “Boardwalk Empire.” It was a really great job for an artist. But eventually I realized that I wanted to be spending the bulk of my time on my own work. I didn’t really have any creative input on those jobs. I wanted my job to have greater meaning, and teaching was much more attractive to me for that reason.
Your work gets across much of what is embedded in the cultural phenomenon of the hashtag #MeToo in a visual way, and it’s also clear that you began questioning these norms well before our culture was comfortable acknowledging all of this out loud.
That was actually another reason why I really wanted to get out of working on film sets. Even women who have power and wealth can’t protect themselves there. Which is awful. And then, you know, there was me. It was a very sexist environment. People have asked me, “Did you get harassed?” And the answer is yes. All the time. Every day. There was a range, from people constantly questioning and making assumptions about my abilities, to times where I genuinely feared for my safety. It’s really infrequent on a film set that you see women being given any kind of real responsibility. And almost all of the crews are men. As a woman, you’re never unseen; You’re constantly being watched. I’ve seen cultural commentary that questions whether the #MeToo movement has gone too far. And I think it hasn’t even come close to far enough. And it’s not just that industry—it’s a deep, pervasive problem across all industries.
It’s great that we’re finally talking about all of this, because it seemed invisible for so long. Last semester, I was talking to a group of students, and one of my students mentioned that the work I’d been doing was really topical, but ironically I’d been doing it for a really long time. And it’s true that I’ve been working with this subject matter for about 20 years now. I don’t feel like this is my moment. I feel like, hopefully what I’m trying to say will matter more now. I’ve just been trying to work towards bringing this human issue—not female, but human issue—the kind of visibility it deserves.
There does seem to be a strong emotional link that drove you to make this work, which comments directly on how women are treated. It also stands directly in the face of cultural and interpersonal disrespect for women, which has been so ubiquitous for so long that it almost seems like previous zeitgeists didn’t find it worthy of discussion.
The emotional is a really strong part of how I understand the political. We can’t really divorce them. For example, for me the outcome of the 2016 presidential election was very depressing, for so many reasons. But the fact that our current president got elected over a woman who was so much more qualified was a real gut-punch. And I think this movement was in part brought about by backlash to that. There are some changes happening, but it’ll still take a very long time to see real change, and we have to do everything we can to make sure our voices get heard. Which can be exhausting.
How do you think art can have impact on issues like this and times like these?
I think it’s really variable. It’s something I often think about and struggle with. There are larger platforms, but art can say things in a way that are very specific. Kind of like fiction, or a mimetic device. It speaks in a very specific way. For me, it’s the medium that offers the fullest way possible to talk about what I want to talk about. And I’ve seen it matter to individual people, which has saved me so many times when all I can think is, “Why am I doing this?” I do feel that whatever I give out seems to come back a hundredfold.
Featured image: “Texas” 2012, 42×60 inches, digital photo on luster. All images courtesy of Heather Bennett.