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Ryerson Image Centre spotlights three daring photographers — and did we mention they're all women?

The three exhibitions opening at Toronto's Ryerson Image Centre this week are all dedicated to female artists. Why? Because it’s 2016, kids, but that means more than jumping on some trend.

Preview work by Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Spring Hurlbut and Izabella Pruska-Oldenholf

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      All three of the new shows opening at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto this week focus on the work of contemporary female photographers: Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Spring Hurlbut and Izabella Pruska-Oldenholf.

      They aren't the only ones. There's a trend toward all-woman shows, like Champagne Life at London's Saachi Gallery or No Man's Land at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, exhibitions conceived with the express intention to chip at the art world's glass ceiling. Women make up half of all working artists, but their representation — whether we're talking collections, or media coverage, or gallery representation — takes up a significantly smaller chunk. (If you're looking for data, ArtNet hashed out some of the wonky stats this past summer.)

      Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Untitled [Children dressed in costumes], 1968-69. From the series Irish Tinkers. Gelatin silver print. (Wendy Snyder MacNeil Archive, Ryerson Image Centre)

      Why the spike in the number of all-female shows? Because it's 2016, kids — but whether they really help balance the scales is up for debate. Are curators just wrapping up the issue up in a pretty pink box, marginalizing an already marginalized group of artists?

      Arguably, what's happening at the RIC this winter is different. Although it aims to "celebrate contemporary female artists," the programming wasn't originally conceived that way.

      When planning began for the winter 2016 exhibitions, the gallery's director, Paul Roth, says RIC had one objective: to present a "pretty serious analysis of three of the most experimental, thought-provoking and pioneering artists of our time.

      "And they were all women."

      Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Son (Ronald) and Father (Vernon), 1976. From the series Hands. Platinum-palladium print on Rives BFK paper. (Wendy Snyder MacNeil Archive, Ryerson Image Centre)

      Yes, all three artists have XX chromosomes. It's a significant link, Roth says, "but relatively meaningless intellectually."

      And yet, just because an all-women exhibition like this remains an anomaly, it raises issues nonetheless. For one thing, the question of whether to present the shows to the public as an all-female exhibition weighed on Roth's mind.

      "It made me really hesitant to frame them in this way. And I wrestled with it quite a bit before we decided to do it," Roth tells CBC Arts.

      "I think, to be honest with you, we decided to do it because I thought it raised a lot of interesting questions about why some of these people are often likelier to be marginalized or likelier to not sell their work or not have dealers. Likelier to go uncollected by institutions. […] I figured there would be people who would ask questions about it. And to me, that's really interesting."

      Spring Hurlbut, Airborne, 2008, still frames from video installation © Spring Hurlbut. (Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects)

      MacNeil is actually the first artist whose archive was acquired by RIC. Three of the institution's four archive collections, Roth notes, are dedicated to women, Berenice Abbott and Jo Spence being the others.

      "In the case of Wendy she was a really pioneering portrait photographer who thought in really interesting ways of what is considered a portrait," Roth says of the American artist, who was particularly active during the '70s and '80s. "She was always thinking of how she could portray a person with the most minimal approach to them," by focusing on family relationships, for example, or just a defining feature, like their hands.  

      Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Marie Baratte, 1972. From the series Biographies. Gelatin silver print. (Wendy Snyder MacNeil Archive, Ryerson Image Centre)

      Like MacNeil, Toronto artist Spring Hurlbut reinvents the idea of portraiture in her video, Airborne (2008). Using cremated remains, she memorializes the dead — capturing individuals' ashes as they waft through the air in slow motion, their names flashing on screen.  

      "Izabella Pruska-Oldenholf is linked in a different way," Roth explains. The Toronto filmmaker uses news images from RIC's Black Star Archives to create composites — a technique notably used by MacNeil — to form scenes of displacement and travel in her specially commissioned video, The Relics of Lumen.

      "Photography has had great female practitioners since the very beginning," says Roth. "Each of the artists that we're working with is an experimentalist, a person who works in really unusual ways in order to find a really penetrating and true statement."

      The Light Inside: Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Photographs and Films. Jan 20-April 10 at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto. www.ryerson.ca/ric

      Spring Hurlbut. Jan 20-April 10 at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto. www.ryerson.ca/ric

      Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof: The Relics of Lumen. Jan 20-April 10 at the Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto. www.ryerson.ca/ric

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