Museum of Contemporary Art RIOT GRRRLS Review—Rebellion of form and the female artist

Installation view, Riot Grrrls, MCA Chicago. December 15, 2016 – June 18, 2017. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Circling up to the fourth level on the MCA’s iconic staircase, Riot Grrrls immediately grabs your attention. Organized by Michael Darling, this small exhibition winds through an alcove and towards the MCA’s current main exhibition, Merce Cunningham: Common Time. Consisting of large abstract paintings, Riot Grrrls brings together a collection of bold female artists who weave together formal mastery, mischief, and lively colors.

This show consists of artworks painted by female artists taken from the MCA’s collection, a political move by the MCA aimed at correcting the endemic male-female attention and pay imbalance in the art world. Darling picked a historically effective title for such an exhibition: Riot Grrrls recalls the feminist hardcore punk movement Riot grrrl. This movement’s rebellious ethos is mirrored in the exhibition’s loud and dynamic artworks.

Mirroring this ethos of rebellion, the show has no clear beginning and end. The introduction text comes after the alcove of paintings. This move, however, suits the simple exhibition style nicely—there is no hierarchy of artworks in this space.

Ree Morton, One of the Beaux Paintings (#4), 1975 Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Pritzker Traubert Visionary Art Acquisition Fund


Depending on where you begin your journey, the show either begins like a bow-wrapped gift or ends wrapped in a bow. Tucked in the corner, Ree Morton’s One of the Beaux Paintings (#4) sits resolute and sumptuous. It is one of the two smaller works in the exhibition, which affords it a greater sense of preciousness. In the title, Morton offers multiple readings of the work, as “beaux” can refer to a lover, the French word for beautiful, or a creative spelling of its “bow” subject. This playful ambiguity extends throughout the artworks of Riot Grrrls.


Installation view, Riot Grrrls, MCA Chicago. December 15, 2016 – June 18, 2017 Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Next to Morton’s One of the Beaux Paintings (#4), two large artworks are placed in conversation. They are also notably the only works that include reference to figures. On the right, Ellen Berkenblit’s Love Letter to a Violet (2015) features a woman composed of sharp features, thick eyelashes, and a simple hairclip yelling into a void of interlocking colors and abstracted violet flowers. This painting captures a confident, punk-rock ethos through a rhythmic chaos of bold colors and forms.

Joyce Pensato, Silver Batman II, 2012. © 2012 Joyce Pensato Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


Beside it, Joyce Pensato’s drip, splash, and brush representation of the iconic Batman in Silver Batman II (2012) combines formal ferocity with pop culture. It’s a virtuosic mix of mastery and mischief. While Pensato is clearly using the same ingenuity as artists like Jackson Pollock, her work never fetched as high a price as her male counterparts.


Charline von Heyl, Alastor, 2008. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Mary and Earle Ludgin by exchange. © 2008 Charline von Heyl Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


Charline von Hely’s piercing Alastor (2008) makes a lasting impression. Behind a churning swirl of sharp black triangles and yellow swirls, maroon brush strokes stick to the white canvas. At moments, these formless red shapes come into focus as handprints, evidencing the human behind the painting and contrasting the mechanical nature of its foregrounded shapes. The title Alastor, which refers to a Greek mythological figure of vengeance, sheds light on the inspiration for such a fierce composition.


Judy Ledgerwood, Sailors See Green, 2013. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Katherine S. Schamberg by exchange. © 2013 Judy Ledgerwood Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


Judy Ledgerwood’s Sailors See Green (2013) features an energetic layering of patterns: a web of silver zig-zags dance across stripes of pink, orange, and green. The painting’s moments of subversion—the dripping silver web disrupts a standard grid and the stripes are not perfectly straight—drive the work’s liveliness. Ledgerwood drew inspiration for these patterns from textile design (often thought of as “women’s work”) and found the color palette through traveling in India.

Installation view, Riot Grrrls, MCA Chicago. December 15, 2016 – June 18, 2017. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

Amy Feldman’s Heavy Vector (2013) echoes Ledgerwood’s rhombus-like forms and drips of paint. Darling’s juxtaposition of these works emphasizes the energy and levity of Ledgerwood’s work, while simultaneously accentuating the weight and power of Feldman’s composition.

Amy Feldman, Heavy Vector, 2013. Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of the Andree Stone Emerging Artist Prize, Richard Gray Gallery, Roberta Kramer, and Emerge. © 2013 Amy Feldman Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.


Feldman’s Heavy Vector (2013) reflects her self-described painting style: “big and bad, bleak and tragic and beautiful.” The bending white form carves through the sea of grey, yet upon closer inspection we can see that the boundaries between the colors are blurred. White strokes of paint appear in the grey background, while drips of grey slide down the white shape.

Though this exhibition is small, these works reverberate loudly and make a lasting impression. Drawn together as an antidote to the male-dominated art world, Riot Grrrls’s combination of playfulness and visual sumptuousness makes this exhibition friendly to quick passersby and museum dwellers alike.


Top Pick For: Fans of bold, abstract art
Not recommended for: Those who do not like abstract art


On exhibit through June 18, 2017.
Monday: CLOSED
Tuesday: 10AM - 8PM
Wednesday: 10AM - 5PM
Thursday: 10AM - 5PM
Friday: 10AM - 5PM
Saturday: 10AM - 5PM
Sunday: 10AM - 5PM


Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60611


Suggested Admission: $12 for Adults and $7 for Students and Seniors

Free for MCA Members, members of the military and police and fire departments, veterans, and children 12 and under

Admission is free for Illinois residents on Tuesdays, year-round

Online at
By phone at 312-280-2660

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