Maren Conrad, Vanguard and the art of new school feminism

It’s been a whirlwind couple of days for Sacramento artist Maren Conrad.

But even though there have been surprises and huge disappointments, it’s also quickly proving the theory that when it comes to art, a little dose of controversy can be a good thing. A really good thing. But more on that later.

By now you’ve likely heard of Conrad and the hoopla surrounding her work which, up until last weekend, adorned the walls of the new Vanguard Bar & Lounge restaurant.

If you haven’t been following along, however, here’s how everything went down.

Approximately six weeks ago, Vanguard owner Trevor Shults commissioned the 33-year-old Sacramento artist to create a series of paintings for the downtown establishment, which will have its grand opening on Friday, June 14 (1415 L Street).

Conrad came up with “Politically Vulnerable,” a series of 12 paintings depicting 10 notable wives, girlfriends and lovers of California governors.

Think Linda Ronstadt (Jerry Brown), Maria Shriver (Arnold Schwarzenegger) , Piper Laurie and Nancy Reagan (both Ronald Reagan).

Conrad installed the works at Vanguard and even did an interview with the Sacramento Press about the collection’s feminist nature.

And then, as they say in politics, the shit hit the fan.

On Saturday, Conrad learned that the collection was at risk of being pulled because Donne Brownsey, a lobbyist with Sacramento Advocates, Inc. deemed its subject matter offensive.

So offensive, in fact, that she emailed the restaurant’s marketing director and asked that the collection be removed–or else she’d take her all business elsewhere.

Initially, Conrad thought the Vanguard team would stand behind her art.

I told [Trevor] you have a huge opporunity to swing this in your favor,” Conrad said in a recent phone call to SN&R.

Make that “had” a great opportunity.

Shortly thereafter Conrad received a text informing her of the restaurant’s decision to remove the art. She’d need to come by and pick up her pieces.

Cue the irony: On Tuesday, the Sacramento Bee published a glowing piece about Vanguard’s opening–complete with pictures of Conrad’s work. That’s the same day Sacramento Press published its  article–this one about Vanguard’s decision to cave to Brownsey’s request.

As the local Internets erupted in protest, Brownsey released a statement to Sacramento Press:

“This is no comment on the artist and her work. I just think it was an unfortunate choice of a theme. I think it’s obvious – when you read something describing a new commercial establishment like a new club, that has a theme like mistresses, lovers and muses of California governors.”

Frankly, Conrad says, Brownsey clearly doesn’t get it.

“[Her viewpoint] is based on an old-school approach to feminism, one in which women don’t talk about their sexuality especially in relation to politics,” she says. 

Indeed. And while on the surface the subject matter may seem to be simply  be “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.

The pieces, which comprise intricate layers of metal leaf, paint and resin, glow with a seemingly vintage patina. The one of Ronstadt (above), in particular, evokes a sunny ‘70s California vibe. Ronstadt’s direct gaze, however, takes the work beyond nostalgia, sexiness or even celebrity culture. This was a woman, after all, who eschewed living the life of a traditional political missus, choosing her career over a life as Jerry Brown’s first lady.

The point Maren says, was to spotlight a group of women she says were “courageous” for their roles–women who were powerful or interesting and noteworthy in their own right.

Her artist’s statement puts it this way:

“Behind the scenes of politics, where “great men” rise to power by carefully protecting themselves from the vulnerabilities of their personal identities and histories, these ten women–wives, girlfriends, and mistresses of California governors–reveal their personal power by revealing their stories. Taken together, they represent the strength of baring one’s identity, telling one’s history, and facing one’s vulnerabilities, a strength often denied in the image-crafted world of politics and debased in the tabloid world of entertainment that finds its home in California. Though they are united by their shared connection to powerful politicians in the state, these women are celebrated for possessing their own personal puissance.”

“[Brownsey] protested something without understanding its framework,” Conrad says.

Conrad says she tried to reach out to Brownsey–to no avail. In an email, the artist invited Brownsey to meet with her, to read her artist’s statement, to reconsider notions of feminism and politically vulnerability.

“[I wrote that] we have an opportunity to build a bridge here,” Conrad says.

Brownsey reportedly rejected the opportunity, writing back that she knew the incident was “very disappointing” for Conrad because “your commission got pulled” but she wouldn’t have time to meet until at least mid-summer, if even then.

Now, Conrad says,  she’s moving forward.

Conrad says she’s received an overwhelming amount of support and, better yet, the “Politically Vulnerable” collection has found a new home in the possession of Sacramento lawyer Glenda Cocoran who purchased all 12 paintings.

(Conrad says she received several offers for purchasing the art in the wake of scandal but  wanted to ensure that the collection remain in tact as a whole)

Meanwhile, reports that Conrad may create another set of work for Vanguard are partially true.

“{Vanguard owners] have said publicly that they want to [work with] me but we’ll see we’ll see how that works out,” she says. “I’m not going to let them dictate that I [paint] flowers–It’ll be like, ‘yeah, you could have just ordered prints for that.'”

While she says she doesn’t blame Shults–”I don’t think it was ultimately his decision,”–the restaurant’s owners will have to “extend an olive branch” before any collaboration is resumed.

“I spent weeks of my life putting in 12-17-hour days to paint these, it was not a feel-good moment in my life to get that message.”

Still, she adds, what started with a shocking request has yielded new ventures.

From the purchase of her collection, to an upcoming June 27 exhibit of the pieces at her downtown studio (which will include a blown-up rendition of Brownsey’s email) to the “love and support” she’s received from friends and strangers alike, Conrad says the experience has ultimately been,  weirdly perhaps, overwhelmingly positive.

“I came out the clear winner in all of this,” she says.

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