Review: Exhibition makes powerful statement about treatment of women’s bodies and work

Untitled No. 4 from Ruth Steinberg's series of photographs called Disposable. Part of the Feminine Redux exhibition at Studio Sixty-Six gallery.

At first glance, Ruth Steinberg’s large photographs resemble the kind of idealized vision of beauty preferred by the Pre-Raphaelite artists of the late 19th century. 

But Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John William Waterbourne didn’t make pictures like Ruth Steinberg. Her 10 large photographs on view in the exhibition called Feminine Redux at the Studio Sixty Six Gallery on Bank Street between Fifth Avenue and Regent Street tell a very dark story. You just don’t realize it right away. 

The first image in the series is of a young, very white, beautiful woman floating in a pond surrounded by water hyacinths and lily pads. There is much more to this Lady of the Lake however. And her story is revealed frame by relentless frame. Empty drink cans float into one photograph. And soon the young women is just another piece of flotsam bobbing in a forgotten corner of a quarry lake or a puddle.  

That revelation comes as something of a shock frankly. That the surprise is contained in perfectly composed images by Steinberg enhances the impact sharply. 

The point she is making is contained in her artist statement for what she calls her Disposable series. The Ottawa photographer, who holds a BFA from the University of Manitoba, is also a graduate of the two year Portfolio Program at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa (SPAO). 

She writes: “In the spring of 2015, a 23 year old woman was sexually assaulted behind a dumpster on the campus of Stanford University. The perpetrator, Brock Turner, was a 20 year old student at the university, and  a member of the elite varsity swim team. He was released from the team and was forced to withdraw from the university. At his sentencing hearing a year later, Turner’s father begged for leniency, saying,  “His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” The prosecution asked for six years, the judge sentenced him to six months; he served only three months of his sentence.”

Our society is so permeated with stories like this of the violent sexual assault and murder of women (especially Indigenous women) that we have become somewhat inured to them. The #MeToo and #Timesup movements are pushing through that crust of apathy to some success. Steinberg’s beautifully composed and darkly meaningful photographs are on the same mission: to break through our indifference.  If we choose to look, she, and others shouting the same message, just might succeed for her images are powerful. 

There is another message there too. It is of the casual disregard of the environment that society too often manifests. We show pictures of garbage on beaches and we know whales are entangled in discarded nets, but we float along.

The artist’s anger is front and centre in these works and she wields it powerfully with her camera. It is hard not to be moved.

Lori Brethour Coulter’s work celebrates the work of women.

Steinberg’s photographs are paired with work by very different kind of artist in Lori Brethour-Coulter, who has been making mixed media art for 30 years and whose work resides in collections in Canada, France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

She takes the products of women’s hands, often made behind closed doors and not honoured and puts them front and centre in boxes that treat them with respect.

Brethour Coulter also makes her own ‘artifacts’ out of handmade paper castings and other materials and places them behind ‘found’ frames in carefully arranged assemblages.

As the bodies of women are not respected as they should be, nor is the work of their hands. Both artists are doing their bit to redress that and along the way making works worth seeing.

Feminine Redux is on until July 8 at Studio Sixty Six, 858 Bank St. Suite 101, 2nd Level.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.