God as a woman: Feminist ‘Chapel’ congregates 37 years after making history





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The gallery of art above contains nude paintings of the female body. Parental discretion is advised.

When Stapletonite Cynthia Mailman’s now-iconic painting of God debuted in 1978, the criticism came in the form of death threats.

The painting, simply titled “God,” was a 60-by-108 inch painting which imagines God as a nude woman, towering over cosmos and viewer alike.

It was originally part of the groundbreaking exhibition “The Sister Chapel,” which premiered at P.S. 1 and is currently generating headlines with a revival at the Rowan University Art Gallery in Glassboro, N.J. (Details at the bottom of this page.)

When Mailman — who also served as a model for the painting — introduced the public to her God, and for many years after, the hate mail and death threats rolled in. Drawing God was in and of itself a delicate endeavor. And the fact that God was a woman made it especially controversial.

“It was a double whammy,” Mailman said.

The reactions probably had something to do with the painting’s physical presence too. Angled such that the pelvis is the focal point, its viewer is forced to confront God in all her woman-ness.

“It’s not just a nude,” Mailman laughed. “There’s something about how in your face it is. She’s 9-feet-tall and when you stand in front of her, you’re sort of in front of a vagina.”

Nearly 40 years later, the images of empowerment are as important as ever. The exhibition, which plays on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, had influential feminist artists of the 70s imagine influential women for their own chapel of feminine power. It will be on display at the Rowan University gallery until June 30.

Mailman and her Sister Chapel peers were asked to envision a universe in which women were celebrated for their power. The artists painted contemporary and historical women, deities, and conceptual figures.

The paintings include a portrait of the American Congresswoman and social reformer Bella Abzug, painted by Alice Neel; a portrayal of the influential author of “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty Friedan by June Blum and a painting of Frida Kahlo, the celebrated Mexican artist, by Shirley Gorelick — among others.

Mailman chose to paint God as a woman because she felt a Sister Chapel should have a sister God, simple as that. But more so, she saw flaws in the “unprovable suggestion” that God was a man. And having a male God meant there would always be a man in power, no matter the strides mortal women made.

“For women to come into their own totally, maybe they do have to believe that there isn’t a man in charge of everything and making the rules for them,” she said.

After it’s initial debut in 1978, Sister Chapel toured the New York area and gradually its concepts became less controversial. When the exhibition re-opened at the Rowan gallery, it was welcomed with applause.

I asked if the meaning of “God” had changed since its first appearance at PS1. Now, we don’t just have to imagine women in powerful positions. They’re there. But Mailman rejected the notion that the exhibition’s meaning has changed with the times.

Still, she added, women today face the same prejudices as they did in the 1970s. The wage gap is still intact as male politicians continue to introduce laws limiting a woman’s right to choose, Mailman said.

Even in the world of art, images like Mailman’s and others in the Sister Chapel are needed just as much as they were in 1978.

In 2015, only 7 percent of the artists in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection galleries were women, according to a survey by Maura Reilly, curator of the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

Reilly also found that “of all the solo exhibitions since 2007 at the Whitney Museum, 29 percent went to women artists,” she wrote among her findings. “It’s not looking much better at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

“In 2004, when the museum opened its new building…of the 410 works on display in the fourth- and fifth-floor galleries, only 16 were by women. That’s 4 percent.”

Mailman said the women who came to the Sister Chapel’s opening panel last month agreed that sexism continues to hold women back. It makes art like Sister Chapel’s all the more important in 2016.

“There does seem to be a new movement among women to get out there and break these prejudices,” Mailman said. “This exhibition is just a reminder, perhaps to those who have forgotten, that there are women heros.”

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