“I think you’re a pushy bitch.” That’s what a gallery owner once said to Courtney Kenny Porto when she attempted to get postcards printed for an upcoming exhibition. It was an instance that left the 24-year-old artist momentarily speechless, but dramatically underscored why she’s a feminist and why she often focuses on feminism in her drawings, paintings, and prints.
“I didn’t even identify myself as a feminist until recently,” comments Kenny Porto. “I was in a bubble. My mom raised me as empowered, and I felt I could do anything. She is a woman who doesn’t allow herself to be treated beneath what she deserves, and I have that same expectation.”
As the artist has learned through instances such as the above, however, those expectations aren’t always met. “As I get older, I see things that don’t make sense, especially in terms of gender roles,” Kenny Porto observes. For that reason, she uses her art to examine feminism through myriad interpretations, including one of the most recognizable: the female figure. “I’m fascinated and drawn to the female form,” she says. “Aesthetically, I love the curves with the breasts and hips.”
Her works, though, are not straightforward representations of women’s bodies; they are explorations of deeper themes. Her Hair Series, for example, portrays women with long, flowing locks, ponytails, loose buns, and side ponytails. Kenny Porto based the works on a study that examined how women are perceived according to those styles—i.e. on hair alone. “In one style—the side ponytail—women are perceived as the most approachable,” she says. “The long straight hair was the least. And that’s the one men prefer.”
In recent work, Kenny Porto has taken on a subject that most people—especially men—consider taboo: menstruation. She produced three large-scale works directly imprinted from a tampon, and while the images are abstract, the artist’s ability to create a dialogue is easily identifiable. “When I go to the grocery store, I still hide my tampons,” she says, “but what is a tampon? It’s a piece of cotton. A period is a natural part of being a woman. We should not be embarrassed by it. That’s the whole message—get over it.”
While Kenny Porto has gotten over her own embarrassment, she’s not about to let go of feminism.
“People ask, ‘What’s the point of feminism today? You have voting rights, etc.’ But it’s a problem of cultural ideas and paradigms,” she emphasizes. “If a man sleeps around, he brags about it. If it’s a woman, she’s a whore. Feminism is about a mental attitude.”
Mental attitude is exactly what Kenny Porto has. How did she handle the gallery owner who tried to use coarse language to intimidate her? She was a consummate professional and not the word to which the gallery owner attempted to reduce her.
“I shook hands,” she says, “and said we shouldn’t work together.”