Women Artists Making Their World

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Philadelphia artist Linda Lee Alter paints bright cheerful scenes of disturbing situations. With degrees in art education and art therapy, the septuagenarian created whimsical fabric wall hangings early in her career, influenced by folk art and her seamstress grandmother. When she switched to painting she created allegorical fables and tales from the Old Testament.

Ms. Alter’s most recent work focuses on the effects of trigeminal neuralgia — facial pain – a condition from which she has suffered since 2000. Close-up portraits, they express how people with trigeminal neuralgia feel. Some of the titles are “Pain, Pain, Fear, Fear,” “Taking Cover,” “Burning Up” and “Springtime Remission.”

In addition to producing artwork, beginning in the 1980s Ms. Alter become a collector. She focused on living American artists, largely from the Philadelphia area. Becoming aware of the poor representation of women in art galleries and museums, Ms. Alter decide early on that her mission would be to collect art by women and someday donate it to an institution to make women artists more visible.

The institution to receive her collection of nearly 500 works in 2010 was the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which had included women in its exhibitions and educational programs since its beginnings. The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World, works from the Linda Lee Alter Collection, is on view at PAFA through April 7. After that time, the works will be integrated into the galleries year round. Also on view are recent works by Ms. Alter.

The works in the collection were chosen to represent different voices and visions, but the thread that holds it all together is, ultimately, the collector’s taste. “From the very beginning, I collected only artwork I responded strongly to and wanted to live with,” says Ms. Alter. “As a work of art reflects the artist, so a collection reflects the collector. I collect art that … expresses an artist’s unique personal worldview.”

There’s the wildly whimsical “Polishing the Menorah” by Bertha Leonard, a painting with so many patterned wallpapers and textiles, Matisse’s rooms, by comparison, look tame. There are self-portraits of women in domestic situations, such as caring for children, and then there’s “Lil Doing Tai Chi, Swampscott, MA” by Nan Goldin.

A stained glass “Autobiography” by Judith Schecter contains a grid of made-up scenes. “Most women still have the major responsibility for childcare and care of the home,” says Ms. Alter. “Women still make less money than men for all kinds of work. In many families, the mother is the only breadwinner. Often, women artists can only find time to make art very early in the morning or after their children go to sleep at night.

“With little time for making art, fewer resources and less support—it amazes me that so many women artists create outstanding art,” Ms. Alter continues.

There are works by Miriam Schapiro, who reclaimed “women’s work” – a term that had been used to belittle needlepoint, ceramics, quilts and other crafts traditionally done by women; ecstatic visions of the sea by Elizabeth Osborne; and “Claudia Bach Pregnant” and seated, nude, on a green sofa, by Alice Neel.

Everything from rooftops at dusk to yellow panties with purple polka dots works well in this collection. Sarah McEneaney paints herself in her studio, separating en egg yolk to make egg tempera. Her cat is sprawled on the paint-splattered floor, one paw resting on the artist’s foot.

Also included are works by Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith, Viola Frey, Louise Nevelson, Bettye Saar, Sue Coe, June Wayne, and Judith K. Brodsky.

The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 North Broad St., Philadelphia, through April 7. www.pafa.org; 215-972-7600.

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