Parall(elles) Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Ruth Glennie's Corvette for the 1958 General Motors Feminine Auto Show

Parall(elles) puts contemporary design work by women in the spotlight

A review of the latest exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

The first piece of design you see at the Parall(elles), the latest exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is a pristine silver-olive Corvette.

Designed by Ruth Glennie in 1958 for the General Motors Feminine Auto Show, the Corvette stands at the entrance both stunning and pointed, for this is easily the exhibit’s most traditionally masculine object on display. Glennie’s prototype, the only survivor of the auto show, immediately establishes the tone of Parall(elles), a show dedicated to North American women designers.

“The exhibition,” says curator Jennifer Laurent, “aims to broaden and enrich the complex narrative of women and this branch of art by reappraising the historical work through a modern-day lens and fostering a deeper understanding of contemporary contributions.’’ 

A brief moment in 1958, then, before we return to the emergence of industrialization. Displayed in a monochrome room, these initial pieces — some of the first “professional” design work crafted by American women — resist the anonymity of mass production. As the accompanying text summarizes, “the Arts and Crafts movement emerged as a reaction against the damaging effects of machine-based production on society and the poor quality of mass-manufactured goods.” Here, at least in part, is a moral enterprise; an effort by artisans to retain creative agency. To treat the daily objects of our life with the same care and originality we expect from Art, as Maria Longworth Nichols Storer does with her “Vase” from 1880, awash with fish swimming in jade green waters. Like the best pieces on display, this one reveals that Storer has treated her medium as a painter would a canvas. 

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts exhibition Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design
View of the exhibition Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design. Photos by Denis Farley

Moving through the decades towards the modern day, the developing history of women’s design is one of expansion. A brief itinerary of materials includes books, jewellery, shoes, lamps and their shades, radios, furniture, wallpapers, carpets and objects that cross the line entirely from utility to the abstract. This feeling of an expanding system is achieved in no small part by the space and colour of the curation, especially the huge, bright red room that covers the 1970s and onwards. “In search for a uniquely ‘female aesthetic,’” we read here, “many 1970s feminist artists aimed to elevate traditional forms of ‘women’s work’ to the status of ‘fine art.’” What arrives at this time is what might be called a literary element: poetry woven into Faith Ringgold’s nostalgic “Tar Beach 2 Quilt,” and Judy Chicago’s Test Plates, each presented like a muscular Georgia O’Keefe painting. Other work defies any binary between art and craft, between any consideration of high or low, like Jane Kaufman’s “Untitled,” a wall of crow-black feathers and glass beads, which reaches an aesthetic both feminine and completely alien. Or Dextra Quotskuyva’s “Awatovi Birds,” crafted with such vivid colour and fine detail, it becomes a living creature, as if found perfectly formed at the floor of an ocean.

After these spacious, deeply textured exhibits, the small, white room of the 21st century feels almost like Appendix A to a sprawling novel. Our century has of course only recently begun, but the work on display is a little cramped in, and while some of the garishness of previous decades has been slipped off, there is perhaps a loss of the organic, or the chaotic. There is of course still beautiful work here. McCauley Wanner’s various covers for prosthetic legs, for example, decorated in a way that sits somewhere between an electric tattoo sleeve and Ruth Glennie’s Corvette. However, while it may end on something of an anti-climax, in its mission to “develop alternative readings of traditional histories and find new ways to illuminate women’s extraordinary contributions to design,” Parall(elles) is overall a huge success. It is a show curated not in spite of the patriarchal estate, but in celebration of a more complete and kaleidoscopic map of artistic memory. ■

Parall(elles): A History of Women in Design is on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke W.) through May 28, 2023.

This article was originally published in the March 2023 issue of Cult MTL.

For more Montreal arts coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.