‘SHE’ and ‘the woman’s card’

With apologies to Dickens, this seems to be the best of times and the worst of times to be a woman.

At a moment when women dominate higher education and professional schools, they stand on the threshold of one of their own achieving for the first time the highest office in the United States and becoming the most powerful person on the face of the earth.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s opponents seek either to demonize her and her sex, ridiculing her for playing “the woman’s card” (Donald Trump), or to throw chivalry into sharply false relief by confining women to the gilded cage of the pedestal (Ted Cruz) and the nostalgia of the kitchen (John Kasich).

And that’s the good news. Murder; rape; genital mutilation; sex slavery; child marriage; forced conscription into terrorists squads; a lack of access to education, employment, health care and reproductive rights; cyber death threats to and bullying of female sportswriters (a subtheme of my forthcoming novel, “The Penalty for Holding”) and, that old standby, unequal pay for more-than-equal work: The challenges and atrocities that women face are staggering.

All of which makes the incandescent “SHE: Deconstructing Female Identity” – at ArtsWestchester in White Plains, N.Y. through June 25 – a most timely exhibit indeed.

Organized by Kathleen Reckling, the brilliant gallery curator and an avowed feminist, “SHE” considers that identity and the woman’s card through what have traditionally been three power centers for women – their bodies/nature, the home/domesticity and fashion.

Nancy Davidson’s “Maebe” – a giant weather balloon squeezed into a Venus Willendorf shape by a huge black lace-trimmed blue corset – pays tribute to Mae West, the 1930s bombshell who wore a much tinier version and encouraged women to own their sexuality.

Meanwhile, Debbie Han’s bronze busts and Lightjet prints recast female expressivity and racial diversity as so many Venuses. Laurel Garcia Colvin celebrates women’s accomplishments in her deft and Delft-colored environment “Beyond a Room of One’s Own,” echoing the title and spirit of Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay pleading for creative freedom. And Barbara Segal – past mistress of interpreting clothing in marble – contributes a laugh-out-loud-in-delight Birkin bag in striped green marble and gold leaf. And yet….

And yet, I bet the marble Birkin bag is only slightly heavier than the handbags – and baggage – women carry in life. The body that is so fought over, dissected and repudiated, so identified with nature, can be a symbol of racial tyranny (Debbie Han’s inkjet print “The Eye of Perception No. 8”) or a rank garden (Kathy Ruttenberg’s mixed media work “Nature of the Beast’). The home that is still the province of even the most high-powered career woman can become a prison of striped wall coverings (Rebecca Mushtare’s “After the Yellow Wallpaper,” inspired by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist horror story “The Yellow Wallpaper”) or reduced to trivia (Tricia Wright’s striking red and white “Marginalia” installation).

You look at these provocative works, and you wonder: Do they play the woman’s card? Do they reduce women to their gender or the gender stereotypes of the sex symbol, the domestic goddess and the fashionista merely by compartmentalizing the realms that have been traditionally associated with women?

What’s missing in this show is the four-star general who makes a mean batch of brownies, the molecular biologist who can’t get enough of red lipstick, the artist who sexualizes the male nude, the single career woman whose beauty has deepened with time. In other words, what’s missing is woman in totality, SHE in all her seemingly contradictory human complexity.