Detail of untitled art by John Ashley | Courtesy of UofL Photographic Archives

At the beginning of April, the Speed Art Museum opened “Breaking the Mold,” an ambitious exhibition that seeks to explore gender in the modern world.

Unlike the museum’s recent string of high-profile, record-breaking traveling exhibits like “Women in the Age of Impressionism,” and “Southern Accent,” the new show consists mostly of pieces from the Speed’s permanent collections.   

It’s a daring and at times confrontational look at gender and power, and it examines the changing definitions and ideas surrounding what exactly gender is.

Miranda Lash | Courtesy of Speed Museum

Miranda Lash, the Speed’s curator of contemporary art, spoke with Insider about why the exhibit is important, some of the pieces featured in the show, and the methodologies of choosing art from the permanent collection that can illuminate important current conversations.

“My goal in showing this was to have an opportunity to talk about our collection through the lens of gender,” says Lash. “And talk about what are the ideas and archetypes of art history, for example the ideas of feminine beauty or masculine beauty — how do they inform how we think and talk about art?”

Lash searched through the Speed’s permanent collection and brought out many pieces that haven’t been seen since it reopened in 2016.

This examination of gender is framed by two older pieces of art from the collection, one more than 2,000 years old.

“This is 3rd century BC,” says Lash, indicating a small marble statue. “I wanted to include Aphrodite, goddess of love, because she symbolized the perfect woman — with a perfect female form, and she was worshipped in that way.”

A few steps away from Aphrodite is a marble Neoclassical Hercules, an example of an idealized male figure.

The goddess and demigod serve as polar opposites, and Lash is using the simple dichotomy to begin a conversation that is more inclusive.

“How can we acknowledge that it’s a spectrum of expressions and not simply a binary?” she asks. “How do we expand our public space? How do we expand our vocabulary? And that pertains to museums as well. We also have to participate in that dialogue.”

In some works, the exhibit’s discussion of gender includes ideas of weakness and strength as it relates to traditional expectations of masculinity and femininity.

A young man’s masculinity and perceived power are interrogated by artist Kehinde Wiley in his painting “Saint Louis IX, King of France.” Some might recognize the artist’s name, as he recently was commissioned to create the presidential portrait of President Barack Obama. That commission becomes even more interesting with a closer look at Wiley’s work.

“St. Louis IX, King of France” by Kehinde Wiley | Courtesy of Roberts Projects

“The title is ‘Saint Louis IX’ because Wiley wants us to be very aware of his references. So this is very directly based off a painting by El Greco from the 1585, of ‘King Louis IX, King of France,’” says Lash.

Wiley’s references are more than a clever homage or allusion.

“The reason he wants us to be aware of his inspirations is he’s very directly taking the poses and compositions associated with power and admiration,” explains Lash. “He wants to give the language of power and authority to people of color.”

Which makes a portrait Obama, the first person of color to be president, a complex comment on power and race in America.

“Saint Louis” is part of “Breaking the Mold” because of the image of masculinity it presents, which is framed by the fragility of dozens of pink flowers.

“Flowers are beautiful but fragile, and I think of it almost giving a fragility or femininity to the piece,” says Lash.

This piece is an example of Lash’s goal to explore gender dynamics as it affects and is affected by other aspects of identity.

“I also wanted to make sure we acknowledge gender intersects with race,” she says. “I’m very inspired by Bell Hooks, an important Kentucky author who really put forward the idea of intersectionality. That’s why we have works that ask, ‘How do we understand gender as mediated through race?’”

When she began assembling the exhibit with the lens of questioning gender norms, Lash knew she would have to have at least a few works from outside the permanent collection.

“I knew I had to borrow some pieces, because currently in the Speed collection, we didn’t have works that opened up the discussion on trans identity,” she says. “So from the very beginning I knew I needed to find a way to bring this into the discussion.”

“Ricerche: three” is a film by Sharon Hayes that depicts a series of interviews at Mount Holyoke College, the first women’s college to admit transwomen as students.

Detail of “Tac-City” by John Ashley | Courtesy of Faulkner Morgan Archive

“Ricerche” also is an example of the multifaceted ideas Lash brings to her curatorial practices. In addition to the discussion of trans identity, the film allows Lash reach out to the community directly surrounding the Speed.

“We’re on a college campus. I love having the voices of college students in the galleries,” she says.  

Lash brings the discussion of gender home to Kentucky through photographs borrowed from Lexington’s Faulkner Morgan Pagan Babies Archive, which takes its name from artist Robert Morgan and historian Jonathan Coleman.

The duo created an extensive collection of art meant to catalog and preserve LGBTQ history in Kentucky, with a specific focus on saving work that might have been destroyed by intolerant relatives when many members of the community were struck down by the AIDS crisis.

“I wanted to include a Kentucky part of the puzzle,” she says. “For me, it’s really important that we tie issues back to ‘How do they play out locally?’”

Across these works and a couple of dozen others, “Breaking the Mold” is much more than an interesting way to see old parts of the Speed’s collection with fresh eyes. The curatorial act of re-examining existing pieces to see what was already there also is a near-perfect metaphor for the excavation many social justice advocates believe society has ahead.

“What Will Be Remembered in the Face of All That is Forgotten” by Tavares Strachan | Photo by Tom Powel Imaging

Though we refused to see them for many years, more complicated and diverse gender expressions, the intersection of gender and race and power imbalances along gender lines have always been a part of our society. It’s a part we need to examine and look at in a new context.

“Breaking the Mold” is on display through Sept. 9, with events and programming to support the exhibit taking place throughout the run.

The Speed will host a lecture by exhibiting artist Ebony G. Patterson on Friday, April 20, at 6 p.m. And special a tour called “Queer Eye on Women and Gender” will be held on Thursday, April 26, at 6 p.m.

This post has been updated.

Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.


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