In the first one to two seconds of looking at Kelly Reemtsen’s paintings, my male brain saw brightly popping images of women clad in sun dresses and chic accessories, holding garden tools with a vague Stepford ambience. In the next second or two I realized that several of the women were holding some “serious” gardening equipment: chainsaws, heavy-duty hammers, even a crow bar for that particularly pesky posy.
Fancying myself as a sensitive, insightful critic, I thought I understood the foreboding post-feminist message: the oppressor, still oppressive, was gonna get it.
However, Reemtsen herself is playing with this split in perception: the women in her paintings aren’t, in fact, the threat they seem. “These girls are not fighting anyone,” she tells me, “they’re working. It’s about self empowerment—they’re using the tools they need in order to get the job done.”
Besides paint, Reemtsen uses panoplies of hammers, saws and other fabricating equipment for her paintings and sculptures. Her studio, just outside of Downtown Los Angeles, is neatly kept, and adjacent to her living space. All the festive dresses in her paintings can be found in her closet—though the chainsaw, hammers and other typically masculine tools are kept in a separate one. So the paintings are still lifes of a kind, portraying objects from the artist’s own life as a female artist interested in fashion and challenging gender stereotypes.
Reemtsen was born in Flint, Michigan and grew up in the lakeside neighborhood of nearby Fenton. “I made a lot of stuff as I was growing up,” she tells me. “I was only always sewing, taking clothes and making something else out of them. I’d switch the sleeves from one shirt to another.” She also experimented with big, bold statements of color at a young age: “When I was around 12 years old, I painted my room a couple times when my parents were sleeping. One time I painted a solid pink, and the other time I painted it like an outside landscape, with a blue sky on top.”
This deconstructing and reconstructing, the taking apart and putting back together, continues to this day. A graduate of Central Michigan University and California State University Long Beach, she initially studied fashion design, but realized that she more enjoyed the 2 and 3-dimensional classes required of fashion makers, than the fashion itself. However, the highly gendered industry had an impact on the artist beyond the tools of the trades.
Reemtsen’s work has been exhibited throughout the United States, including De Buck Gallery, based in New York. Her recent show “Smashing” included her portraits of women—always anonymous, their heads just out of the frame—all standing atop chairs and ladders. Two 40-inch sculptures of lipstick tubes sat on plinths, upside down as if being smudged out. The aesthetic of the paintings is in the style Joan Brown, the deceased artist to come out of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, but also contemporary, in the vivid, colorful way of Marilyn Minter.
Strong and still retaining their traditional femininity, Reemtsen’s interest in feminist histories extends to the trailblazers beyond the art world: the prominent 60s and 70s activist and longtime journalist Gloria Steinem; world champion tennis player Billie Jean King; Tina Fey—“because she acts, writes, and produces so much of what she does;” civil rights activist Rosa Parks; and “every mom.”
Because the paintings are charged with a political undertone, it’s impossible to avoid the question the women’s lack of representation in the American market and canon: why do female artists still represent less than 50 percent of dealers’ portfolios, group shows, and museum exhibitions? For Reemtsen, this is just a symptom of the larger problem: “It’s very collector and money-driven. I think a lot of dealers play it safe and represent the painters they know they can sell instead of giving female painters a shot. I get why they do that—they need to stay in business. But it’s very similar in the music and entertainment business, and it’s the same thing with pay scale, no matter the job. It’s not just the art world, it’s the entire planet.”
Though the political stakes of Reemtsen’s paintings and sculptures are high, their immediate look is “bright and chipper,” as she says. Indeed, the ideological influences on her work are met with the atmospheric influences of a bright and beautiful L.A., of her passion for fashion and for things usually perceived/imposed as feminine.
This is perhaps the crux of the artist’s work: gender is mutable, and the things that typically signify what it means to be a woman or a man are socially constructed. And historically, men have written these rules. So when you see these paintings of women holding the tools that men are associated with commanding, the automatic assumption is paradox and threat. Rather, it’s about challenging the idea of what women do. “I work so hard every day, and I’ve been pounding away at it for years, so when I see this hammer—it really speaks to me.”
When I ask her if things will ever change, Reemtsen pauses, and says: “Maybe one day. All I can hope is that I can inspire women to work.”