Kate Gilmore's Art is One Part Girly, Two Parts Gritty, and Completely Awesome

Ever feel like feminism should really be defined as smashing your head repeatedly against a solid wall of assumptions? Do you like drywall, sledgehammers, and cocktail dresses; hearts, stars, and smashing stuff? Kate Gilmore’s performance art videos are for you.

New York-based artist Kate Gilmore constructs obstacles of varying complexity in order to physically fight her way out of them. Her website showcases the plethora of adverse conditions she’s manufactured for herself over the past nine years, from pushing her head through plywood in “Star Bright, Star Might” (2007), to hammering her foot out of a tub of dried cement in “My Love is an Anchor” (2004), to scrambling up a ramp in roller skates in “Cakewalk” (2005). Although boots and a hardhat would be most people’s choice outfit for such strenuous tasks, Gilmore dresses herself in perfectly color-coordinated heels, gloves, party dresses, and makeup.

Some of Gilmore’s videos are comical. In “Every Girl Loves Pink” (2006), for example, she battles a box of tissue paper while dressed like Princess Peach. Others, as you could probably guess, are downright cringe-inducing. Regardless of tone, Gilmore’s films are fascinating visual challenges to both male hegemony within the art world and the cosmetics of power.

Gilmore has a background in sculpture, so you won't find it surprising many of her performances begin with built, sculptural environments. Sculpture as a medium has a particularly macho history in the 20th century: From futurists to minimalists to land artists, the male perspective pervaded. In many of her videos (see 2010’s “Standing Here” or 2004’s “Double Dutch”) Gilmore infiltrates sculptural structures in dainty outfits that provoke a sense of estrangement, a sense she’s stumbled where she doesn’t belong, i.e. an art world and medium historically dominated by men. To make her escape, Gilmore must destroy these structures. Sometimes the process is aggressive and empowering. Sometimes it makes her cry in distress and pain.

Only once Gilmore has finished does the viewer realize Gilmore hasn’t “destroyed” the built environment, but rather, endowed it with new creative potential. In “Double Dutch” her heels have dotted the platform with holes, in “Standing Here” the interior of the column she strips is revealed to be painted yellow, perfectly matching her outfit. Gilmore’s actions call our attention to negative space, a symbolic assertion that female artists, though overlooked, are just as capable of creative acts.

Hearts, ribbons, stars, and pink abound in Gilmore’s videos, a reappropriation of the trappings of femininity that in the Days of Yoko Ono, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman represented objectification and submission. Gilmore’s work questions why these accessories aren’t associated with power (creative or otherwise) and appears to establish that very connection.

Watch one of Gilmore’s performances online and you’re likely to binge-watch them all. If you're in New York, you can catch her work at the Lobby Project at New York City Center July 10, or see her second-ever museum solo show if you happen to be near Maine College or Art, Portland, Maine this summer.