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Seeing after Being Blind—Analyses of the Role of Women in The Art of Toby Penney

Writers, like artists, go through phases. I’ve always enjoyed figurative painting, especially if it makes an intelligent point about human nature. I can relate to the statement by Jersey (Channel Island’s) artist Edmund Blampied (1886-1966), who once remarked:

‘the human quality in art has always appealed to me . . . I have always sympathised most strongly with the human’s effort for existence, his tragic mistakes, his humour.’

Recently my personal reflections have been musing about the stranger cousin of figurative, abstractedness. My goal was to find an artist working on the cusp between the two – someone who felt at home equally with the figurative and the abstract. Toby Penney is such an artist, having experimented with art that squarely falls in the abstract category, whilst also turning her hand to figurative sculpture. Writing about Penney also afforded me the opportunity to write about the topic of feminism in art, and whether this should be explicitly mentioned at all, especially if it is at the cost of overshadowing the art itself.

Toby Penney 

Toby Penney (b. 1976) graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in the subject of Sculpture. Since then, Penney has had more than 18 solo exhibitions and twice as many more group exhibitions across America. As well as concentrating on her own work she has also had times of reflection aiding other artists, such as Master Printmaker Judith O’Rourke in North Carolina. Penney’s career has been bolstered by multiple residences, such as periods at both the Lowcountry Arts Alliance and Church Studios in Charleston, South Carolina.

A blend of selected paintings that fall between the figurative and the abstract are given below. This particular selection was at my behest, so note that that this is by no means a comprehensive overview of Penney’s oeuvre. A wider selection can be found on her personal website, and regular updates can also be found on her Tumblr and Facebook pages respectively.

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One feature which characterises Penny’s work are the bold, bright colours which are just as much a focal point as the subjects themselves. This is completed in a masterful way such that the background stands out without being dominant. The above selection of work provides an interesting series if only because of the interrelation between all of the pieces: the subtle gradients between background and foreground; titles with feminist overtones; the flight of free birds. How these themes are related will be duly explored.

It was no coincidence that I began this piece with a reference to Blampied, who speaks about human effort in terms of men. Although an interesting spring-board to launch a discussion, it is not necessary here to dwell  too long on semantics, some of which are linguistic artifacts of a by-gone era. A case can be made therefore of a culture of misogyny, as opposed to individual misogynists:the language belonging to all; developed by many and used by individuals. Such a culture does indeed still exist, however a reluctance persists whereby female artists refuse to talk about it at any great length. When I inquired as to Penney’s view on the subject, I was heartened to read a poetic rather than typical prosaic response – one which I believe embodies the core tenets of art itself. I put forward the question of the lack of acknowledgement of women in art, and whether this was indeed a problem.  Whilst the nature of what the question asks is one thing, the pertinence of the question is a different matter entirely:

The way that I have dealt with this issue throughout my career is to not treat myself different. I am unique as an artist, of course. But, not specifically because I am female. Being female is only one facet of who am I, and while it does inform my work, being a woman contributes to my work the same way as being a child of a single mother, being a business owner, or even the daily drive to my studio does . . . I think of myself as human, mother, spouse, partner and friend before I think of myself as female. I do not discount being female but I don’t want it to put me or my work into a category that hasn’t been earned. Because of this, I have made a habit to present the work I do as clearly and honestly as possible.

In the face of prejudice, it is somewhat refreshing to hear of an artist who – in refusing to bow to historical ideas of what art is about and who is doing it –  places art above the very struggle taking place. It can be argued that trying to turn a feminist bent on the quality and meaning of artwork belittles the art itself . I defy anybody to propose that equality between men and women should render art by women ‘good’ because it is ‘done by an equal of a man’ as opposed to it being inherently good.

As the struggle continues, what can we do to challenge these notions? The blended figurines, the free birds, the feminist overtones – breaking free from anonymity, soaring, emancipation. Art is an expressive medium through which ideas are displayed and grow; ideas that subconsciously pervade the mind in a way that words cannot. Current preoccupations create an argument separate from art – discussing the relevance of women in art in terms of letters – rather than including these themes in the art itself.  We should not surprise ourselves that History will favourably interpret the themes long after the words are discarded.

This being said, I also asked Penney for words of encouragement to any aspiring female artists out there who might be disillusioned with current trends:

Create what you love to create and develop a plan to market the work. Don’t work the other way around. If being a female is vital to your work or subject matter then by all means, focus on that. If it is not a crucial point of the work, then take the time to refine your focus to promoting what is.

Many thanks go to Toby Penney for providing the photographs and information relating to her work, and especially for encouraging this work to be explored within a feminist context.

– LeNouvelArtiste

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