Order and the Female Artist by Linda Frost

It is easy to make broad generalizations about gender influences in artwork. Easy, but is it accurate? Does the hunter/male mind produce and enjoy representational art more often than abstract art? Are the ancient cave paintings of horses and buffalo products of the male perspective? What about the countless statues and hieroglyphs? Does the female artist tend to produce art that is geometric, abstract and celebrates order? These are the questions I have been asking myself while looking at the designs made by Mbuti women on barkcloth. Mbuti #1 The barkcloth that Mbuti women use is made by Mbuti men, who peel the inner fibrous layer of bark from trees, and then pound the bark with mallets until it is soft, flexible, and felt-like. The variety of tree used will determine the color of the end product. The women often work in pairs on one cloth, which can produce a piece with two entirely different designs. When working alone, the women will fold the barkcloth and work on it in her lap, which also creates some sectioning of design. The Mbuti use these cloths as clothing, the square ones by men, belted at the waist; the narrow rectangular ones by women, wrapped like a skirt. While Mbuti body painting follows and enhances body contours, the barkcloth paintings are very flat and two-dimensional. “At first glance the drawings, sometimes enhanced by color, appear to depict paw tracks, animal skins, a night sky or the earth as viewed from an airplane. They use elements from Mbuti body painting — lines, circles and triangles — combining them in ways that defy easy explanation.” Writes New York Times author RITA REIF, Published: May 26, 1996. Mbuti #2 There seems to be a love of order and repetition in their designs. I find myself creating similar work when I am painting art cloth by hand. The twigs that ancient women used to make dots have been replaced by a round foam brush, but the result is very similar. Lines of dots can represent footprints, or the stars. When connected with lines, these dots can become a trail, a map or a constellation. Series of lines subdivides the canvas into smaller areas that can hold their own unique patterns of lines and dots, resulting in a product that recalls pieced patchwork. Mbuti design does not seem to include any central motif or design that dominates the work. The entire surface has the same importance and weight
I have also found a love of repetitive geometric designs in Amish quilts and American Indian textiles. The very act of weaving is the process of assembling row after row of yarn lines. Creating circular designs, or designs using dots and curves is more difficult in weaving and patchwork than in painting on whole cloth, however, so the designs use squares and triangles as the repeating motif.
While the female artist of today has nearly unlimited tools and experiences to use in her art, there are still easily found examples of a love of line, order and repetition in contemporary art.
The Mark Paintings of Catherine Lee Diminutive Painting #4 (detail) are very similar to the Mbuti barkcloth designs. Made on raw, unstretched sections of canvas, using only small, uniform marks in black or white, Lee likens her work to handprints on a cave wall, marking her presence with small repeated strokes. Lee recently exhibited The Mark Paintings at Galerie Lelong, 528 W. 26th St, New York, NY.
Another artist, Ga Hae Park, takes a similar two dimensional repetitive grid design and cuts it into paper, then layers the resulting papers to give a third dimension to very flat work. Space Drawing #1 Shown at the entrance of St. Peter’s Church on Lexington and 24th St. in New York City December 2007 through January 2008, Park’s work is much more technically complex. Her marks remain the same, but the eye moves back and forth through the space between the layers of cut paper.
The successful female life of ancient history included the mastery of repetitive domestic actions. I cannot think of anything more repetitive than preparing food and cleaning. There had to be a love of order! Covering a surface with a repetitive abstract design gives the artist a comforting sense of mastery over the space in use. Once completed, the product stays done, as opposed to many of the other activities in a woman’s life. If the resulting work of art can be used as a garment, so much the better. The work of Catherine Lee, Ga Hae Park, along with the work of Mbuti women and generations of female quilters and weavers show a lingering structural continuum in the use of repeating abstract geometric design. It is a shared language born in the love of order.


3 Responses to “Order and the Female Artist by Linda Frost”

  1. 1 Adam Rudolph May 20, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    for deeper insight into this art i suggest the article by Robert Farris Thompson from the book Mbuti Design

  2. 2 alison March 3, 2008 at 4:37 am

    If the hunters in traditional secieties had been women, no doubt we would be hypothesising that the love/need of repetition and order on the domestic front was a male trait. I don’t think repetition and order is the sole domain of the female on the ‘domestic’ front. For the male it comes with the frequent or regular hunting required to keep the group fed, and will invariably be more successful to those hunters who have mastered the finer points of (preditctable) animal behaviour. I have always felt that it is a primal human need to live and express via repetition and pattern. Put a crayon or piece of burnt charcoal into a young hand anywhere on the planet and the likely result of mark making is some combination of simple geometric shapes and their concentric versions; patterns made up of lines and dots, wavy and zigzag lines, simple recognisable shapes of human, animal and naturally occurring objects common to the experience of most humans. In a painting, be it primitive pictorials on cave walls, frescoes in medieval castles and churches, or more modern representations ranging from photographic to abstract I think there is always the embodiment of an idea with some purpose taking this artwork beyond the function of the decorative.

  3. 3 june February 28, 2008 at 10:47 am


    I’m anxious to hear what others have to say about these ideas. One reason I paint is because I don’t deal very well with repetition (for one thing, I have a small attention span…). I am coming around to being attracted to it, however, and it is definitely one of attributes of materials that almost shouts “cloth.”

    It’s interesting that even in a place where handcrafting fabric from bark is the predominate clothing activity, that the imagery is still repetitious. I can see why repetition happens with commercial textiles (and so perhaps many surface designers take their cue from the commercial modes), but that people who are working on individual cloths, without much commercial influence, would still focus on repetitious elements could mean that something deeper, more primal, is being addressed by the geometric orderings.

    This in some ways opposes traditional painting, which focused on singular moments. Not that some painters haven’t used repetition, but our basic idea of painting is something like Cezanne or Van Gogh, where if there is repetition, it is in the service of the larger singular motif. Catherine Jones is, perhaps, our resident expert on the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 70’s and 80’s — she should be able to fill us in on a lot of the questions and possibilities of the mode.

    I’m not sure about your gender question — I’m too old a feminist to get into that (now there’s a question for tomes to be written) — but the attraction that repetitious marks has for all human beings is something to ponder.

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