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Review: Victoria Gallery & Museum: LINDA STEIN: Gender Scrambling

Linda Stein’s story is harrowing and powerful, so naturally her collage is a reflection that. In 2001, she ran for an entire day away from what is now known as Ground Zero, away from the falling Twin Towers.

For nearly a year after 9/11 she was, as she calls it, “displaced” from her home as a result of the attack. The experience led her to reform her life and her work in equal measure, focussed on a vivid memory of a recurring childhood nightmare of running.

In her childhood, she was running from villains and victimisers towards symbols of safety. In her adulthood, she found herself living that nightmare, and struggling to find the safety she had hoped for.

So her art became a protective armour, figuratively and literally evoking suits of armour. In more recent years, that work, initially triggered by 9/11 became more about protecting herself from the victimisers of her nightmares. In her childhood they were fictional, but no doubt inspired by experience. In adulthood, those victimisers were heavily defined by masculinity, a trait she represents boldly in her 2012 series Gender Scrambling.

The series, donated almost in full to the University of Liverpool’s collections breaks down gender into tiers, presenting famous figures of masculinity on a scale from masculine to feminist hero.

On paper, I thought this would be perhaps a little too blunt, but there’s a tongue in cheek humour to the collages that makes it unmissably clear that Linda Stein is using these works as a way to both contextualise her feelings on gender, and to protect herself from the boxes society typically uses.

Armour, as with her work following 9/11, is a recurring theme, used as the ultimate masculine symbol, but seemingly only provided to the most useful and powerful feminist icons.

Linda Stein identifies as female, but question what that label actually means. The women she uses to present that spectrum of female range from fashion models to Elizabeth Warren, and it’s in those political portraits where her message is strongest.

Barack Obama, presented in suit and tie, sees his lower half scribbled into the beginnings of a ball gown, while the power generally associated with masculinity is given to the American activist Bella Abzug. Abzug’s body is replaced by a ripped male model.

The whole exhibition is blatant in its messaging, which results in what can only be described as a series of accessible ideas. And, despite this series being from 2012, when binary gender as a visible public debate was still relatively young, Stein manages to navigate the subject clearly.

Perhaps the takeaway here is that you should listen when new ideas emerge, and not rant against them on twitter.

LINDA STEIN: Gender Scrambling is open at the Victoria Gallery & Museum until 2nd September 2023

Words, Patrick Kirk-Smith