For Linda Stein, art and activism go hand in hand. An artist for more than four decades, Stein has addressed such topics as bullying, persecution, and gender justice in her work, drawing on history from the Holocaust to 9/11. Her central interest in gender empowerment led her to create the ongoing project The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein. This traveling multimedia exhibition, which has been presented at more than 24 museums and universities around the country, was on view at the Santa Barbara Center for Art, Science & Technology (SBCAST) when I visited it and has since been moved to Via Maria Villa for the duration of its run as part of Stein’s spring residency with The Squire Foundation.
Begun in 2010, The Fluidity of Gender features sculptures created primarily out of leather, metal, or mixed media, as well as prints and video. Drawing inspiration from figures such as Wonder Woman with whom female bravery is front and center, the sculptures blur the line between perceptions of masculinity and perceptions of femininity through androgynous shapes. Many of the works project a skin-like coat of armor in which zippers or badges create the impression of toughness; others are embellished with comic strips and altered graphics extolling progress in gender justice. And while androgyny may be key, Stein still creates identifiable curves of breasts or hips, celebrating these features equally as one may pecs or abs.
Walking into the exhibition feels a bit like walking into a room of Roman sculpture — though far more colorful. Mounted on mannequins or pedestals, Stein’s works appear as a collection of torsos. But while the impact of the figure may be similar, idealization is nowhere to be found. Celebrating distinctiveness, the sculptures’ subtle details are like codes to be deciphered. Visitors are invited to try on a selection of the wearable pieces and embody the persona they exude; the sculptures thus become performed. When hung on the wall, the works imply the presence of giant, omnipotent Venus de Milos wrapped in leather and suede. Here, toughness blends with the mythical to create figures that feel both prehistoric and modern.
In an interview I conducted with the artist, Stein expressed the importance of uplifting others and creating works in which empathy can be taught and felt. Always incorporating educational components in her exhibitions through direct outreach to students or public lectures, she consistently thinks about how the work can be activated and serve as a point of departure for empowerment. Exploring how heroism and strength can be projected through the lens of clothing, gender, and popular culture, she invites viewers to consider the relationship between protection and expression.
Stein’s lived experience reflects this focus. Starting out as an abstract artist, she became drawn to more figural shapes and to the concept of protection after being forced to flee from her Tribeca home on 9/11/2001. Knowing this history, one may view the sculptures as shields — the literal armor keeping one safe from bodily harm. But they are equally about the concept of camaraderie, the idea that, whether one is male or female, survival is something experienced together. Furthermore, as powerful as they may look, the sculptures are created out of thrifted textiles and accessories — materials that carry histories from the bodies they once adorned. Indeed, the works are about vulnerability as much as they are about power.
Whether through prints, sculpture, or storytelling, Stein’s art invites individuals to ask: Who is a hero? By breaking down stereotypes and creating dialogue, she makes her intention clear: She wants her audience to engage with the shapes, materials, and messages of the sculptures and perhaps even try one on.
The Fluidity of Gender: Sculpture by Linda Stein is on view at Via Maria Villa (4515 Via Maria) through April 25. An interactive lecture with the artist will be part of the Squire Foundation fundraiser CRAV: Artful Sensations on Thursday, March 22, 5:30-8:30 p.m. For more information, visit thesquirefoundation.org.