At the entrance to 4%ers, a seven-foot-tall woman straddled a five-foot-long teddy bear, which was bound in rope. Her stomach rolls rippled fiercely as the naked woman tugged the cord, choking the conquered animal. Her own hair resembled a wild mane, the look on her face one of cool satisfaction.
This realistic charcoal rendering is by San Francisco’s Ileana Tejada, a Mexican-American artist and former athlete whose work centers on depicting the nuances of female masculinity. Her drawings are always self-portraits meant to confront viewers with her body. According to a recent interview Tejada did with curator Rachel Ralph, her athletic figure created issues when she was a young woman, much better at sports and weight-lifting than her female peers.
“My femininity was stripped away from me at a very young age,” Tejada explained. “I wasn’t girly enough to be a real girl and wasn’t dude enough to be a boy.”
Tejada is one of nineteen artists presenting work about the complexities of womanhood in the second annual 4%ers, an all-female group show curated by Ralph that’s currently on view at Athen B Gallery.
Throughout last year, Ralph was the sole proprietor of the long-running San Francisco Mission District gallery Fecal Face, which shuttered in February. It was there that she first decided to curate an annual all-female show.
In a recent interview, Ralph was frank about how she inherited a gallery that historically showcased more men than women — and how she blindly perpetuated that practice. That is, until she one day realized the inequity.
To a certain extent, Ralph felt duped by her arts education, she said, which formalized the centuries-long status quo of men receiving more promotion and respect from curators, critics, and historians. All of a sudden, the implicit biases that pervade the art world came into focus.
“It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, my own femininity has been completely disregarded in this history and I’ve just been expected to study these men as gods,'” she told the Express. “It’s like, ‘Where are all the women doing these things?'”
In an attempt to level the playing field, Ralph decided to curate an annual group show that would only feature women — but not in an explicitly advertised all-female show. She would, however, allude to it with the title — a reference to a poster by legendary feminist art-world provocateurs the Guerrilla Girls, and specifically their report on how only 4 percent of the artists on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s modern art section were female as of 2012.
This year, in a nod to the way women are pigeon-holed by stereotypes, Ralph framed the show around an archaic medical diagnosis historically imposed on women: hysteria. That’s the one that was slapped on any woman experiencing extreme emotions or a range of physical maladies and assumed that the “disease” must stem from the womb. In response, the artists revel in their most extreme expressions.
San Francisco artist Erin M. Riley’s woven textiles depicting penises hang on the wall adjacent to Tejada’s work. Riley is best known for her series “Year of Porn,” for which she wove textile depictions of stills from erotic films — specifically, the exact frame playing when she climaxed during movies she was masturbating to.
Across the gallery hangs Rebecca Morgan’s R. Crumb-esque portrait of a woman projectile vomiting, tears streaming down her cheeks and snot escaping her nose.
The trifecta of works appropriately sets the tone for a show that appears to intentionally veer away from any definitive concept of femininity — and instead, in its best moments, is unapologetically complex and contemporary.
To supplement the show, Ralph conducted interviews with many of the artists that were published on the Athen B blog. “We are all body, from the hormones, the bloat, the menstruation, the wetness from arousal, we exude smells and pheromones, we are much stronger and solid than many people understand,” Riley told Ralph.
“I wanted to express how trapped it feels to be stuck in these words that denote tea parties and smelling like flowers.”