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‘Politically Vulnerable’ open to public at grand opening of Exhibit S

There is an important dialogue happening in Sacramento right now – instigated by art and focused on the role of sexuality in modern feminism – and the women of the city are weighing in. The art responsible is the work of local artist Maren Conrad. Her collection is titled "Politically Vulnerable" and will – along with work of Matt Brown, Teddy L Believest and Tapigami’s Danny Scheible – be on display for a public showing at the grand opening of Exhibit S on Thursday, July 27 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

When Conrad’s 12 paintings of wives, girlfriends and mistresses of California governors were pulled from Vanguard bar because of a complaint that they portrayed women in negative light, she wasn’t sure what to think. To her, the paintings were an expression of female empowerment.

“I had a moment of panic, bewilderment and self doubt,” she said. “Had I misinterpreted where we are as women? Were these ten women that I felt so compelled by a reflection of my limited life experiences?”

“Politically Vulnerable” depicts women that Conrad says displayed strength through vulnerability, succeeding in their own rites while also being tied to powerful, political men. It was pulled after Sacramento lobbyist Donne Brownsey, who didn’t see strength through vulnerability but instead 12 portraits that degraded women by defining them by their sexuality, emailed a complaint to Vanguard’s marketing director. That email led owners to decide to remove the artwork.

'Politically Vulnerable' open to public at grand opening of Exhibit S
Maren Conrad and “Politically Vulnerable”
Conrad took her paintings back to her downtown studio and her story to the people. Glenda Corcoran heard of the collection via Facebook on June 11. She said it took her 15 minutes to decide she needed the art. Two hours later, the paintings were hers.

“A news station had shown up (at the studio),” said Corcoran. “I hid in the back and listened to Maren beautifully describe the layers of history behind each woman – strong, powerful, intelligent, flawed, beautiful. It resonated with me. It sounded like generations of women who came before me and the generations who will come after.”

Brownsey and Corcoran’s conflicting impressions of the collection aren’t necessarily surprising. They reflect a heated, ongoing debate among feminist circles on how to address the issue of female sexuality within the feminist framework. Regardless of what you think of Conrad’s work, it has spurned Sacramento to start an important conversation about these issues. Here is how Brownsey, along with some of our city’s powerful female voices, responded to Conrad’s artwork and concept.

For women who work in and around the Capitol – it is just the reality that women sometimes are held to different standards than men. I think that unfortunately her artistic take on this would have emphasized old thinking.

Donne Brownsey, in an interview with the Sacramento Press after the collection was pulled

And while on the surface the subject matter may seem to be simply “women who just happened to have slept with governors,” clearly there’s something much more complex at work here and Brownsey’s reasoning for her protest smells more like slut-shaming than feminism.

Rachel Leibrock, Sacramento News & Review

Clearly she speaks for a younger generation of liberated women who think nothing of cramming their feet into stiletto heels. Feminists of an earlier generation would be appalled to see women celebrated because of their physical beauty and the reflected glory of their relationships with men.

Victoria Dalkey, Sacramento Bee

Laura thought that meant that to lead an “authentic life” – just like Maria Shriver encourages – is to find the courage to be honest with yourself about who you are and what you want. Rachel went further and thought it meant that you get to be sexually confident and a CEO. We can be independent and vulnerable. We can want a husband and not kids. We can be smart and hot.

Rachel Smith and Laura Braden, Girls on the Grid

It calls up a lot of feelings because it really taps into this ongoing debate within feminism – the second-wave feminist ideas that women’s sexuallity was a tool of oppression, portraying women as sexual beings was a way to demean women, and then this sort of third-wave feminist idea that women can be empowered and claim their own sexuality as an aspect of that empowerment. I think it’s a complicated matter and there are lots of different angles to it, but I think it’s interesting that (Politically Vulnerable) has called up so much controversy. It certainly points to how salient this issue is in feminism today. 

Elizabeth Sweet, UC Davis feminist scholar and gender-branding expert 

Clearly there is no “one-size-fits-all” feminism, and the debate over how to address sexuality is far from over. One thing is certain – “Politically Vulnerable” has started an interesting discussion.

Join it. “Politically Vulnerable” will open to the public at Exhibit S in the Downtown Plaza on Thursday, June 27. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. The studio will be open all day, ending with an evening gallery show from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Exhibit S will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

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