Moto Mavens Transform Riverside
By Ingrid Reeve
Pink glittered helmets line the entrance to the “Women Who Ride” exhibit at the Riverside Art Museum. It is a traveling exhibit of the photography by Lanakila MacNaughton. The show opened at the tail end of 2013 and unofficially promotes 2014 as the year that motorcycles finally become an unbiased symbol of gender equality in the United States. While there is still at least one country where women are not allowed to drive, for most Americans, thinking that motorcycles are a man’s toy should be like thinking that cars are a man’s toy, and this exhibit sets out to show just how comfortable women are on bikes. The answer to the question why is a simple two word answer: Why not? How the show proves the point is a longer story.
Fair is Fair
The exhibit consists mostly of larger than life photographs on walls, but the space in the center of the gallery is also utilized—two large panels on projector style screens and an American flag hangs from the ceiling. A few motorcycles nicely occupy the space in between, and wood benches invite the viewer to sit and contemplate the work. A quick scan of the room reveals the exhibit is true to its name; photographs of women who ride line the gallery walls, but there is one man. He is included in Adrienne & Christopher, (2013), one of the many photos hung on the walls. He takes the back seat and is kissing the woman rider. He’s quite handsome and clearly an accessory to this woman—hey, fair is fair.
A wide range of women are represented. MacNaughton states “I hope to help discover and present female riders from all different communities, riding backgrounds and styles, and influence connectivity amongst riders from these different areas.” The titles of the photographs seem to correspond to the women’s names, and most of the works include backgrounds—desert landscapes, highways and ocean scenes, to name a few.
One image, Tamara Raye (2013), a larger than life photograph, portrays a woman in a leather jacket, leather gloves, helmet and necklace who is cropped from the waist up. Her upper body floats in a blue field of color emphasizing her torso and seemingly her mind through the elimination of her legs. The image is a nice change in tone from sultry to dreamy, but the all of the photography in this exhibit serves as enjoyable eye candy.
The women portrayed are by and large, sinuous. They know how to pose on their bikes and represent the epitome of confidence. Some do tricks- they lift their legs or ride in dare devil positions. Many are only partly clad in leather, or even light fabrics, leaving legs, abs or arms exposed making them—and the danger level in their stunts—that much more alluring. In a photograph titled Stormie, the rider wears a white laced bustier with an exposed midriff and some ink paired with cutoff denim shorts—short ones, of course. Her feet and head, the most essential body parts for riding, are the only parts that are somewhat protected. She wears a strong helmet with a pattern and glitter. Her leather boots aren’t necessarily made for riding, but they fit the bill. Her attire says “I’m not afraid,” and as the viewer, I’m convinced that her knees won’t get skinned anytime soon. She’s looks as comfortable riding and doing stunts as I do on my living room couch recliner.
Not all of the women are half naked, nor does it seem to be a necessary method to communicate their strength and comfort. Whether they are fully covered or not, the message seems to be consistent: Not “I’m amazing and confident and I’m showing off,” just “I am.”
So while it’s riveting to see these badass bombshells on bikes, it really shouldn’t be. And that is what is so provocative about the show. The works are fresh and exciting, revealing that women as explorers are still on the frontier. We have much to do and much to see, and much to claim as our own. These images, through their novelty, carry with them facts of recent history, including unfortunate but all too common trends of oppression. Instilled in them is the memory of a time when motorcycles, among other symbols of power, were associated exclusively with men. Yet the photographs document a new generation of women in a new light.
A New Wave of Riders
One of the most striking elements to the collection is the cumulative feeling of lightheartedness that is created through the level of ease and joy the photographed women exude. They stand in contrast to women riders of a previous generation, whose attitude and look revealed that they’d worked hard to earn their respect in the rider community. Representing a new wave of women riders, the women featured in this exhibit are not here to prove to anything to anyone. They just are. This seems both revolutionary and tame—and so contemporary.
There is a danger to this new zone. The paradox is indicative of the time we live in. How does an attitude of ‘nothing to prove’ fit into a larger picture where those oh-so-obvious rights, like women in the workforce, voting booth or on motorcycles, are being subtly undermined through the politics of economics? This generation seems bound to find out how the two fit together, but the upside is that beauty is inspiring. MacNaughton does a brilliant job at capturing moments of true joy. Jeannette, Summer, Katie and the other women photographed were clearly born to ride. They seem complete and their presence on a bike effortlessness. Furthermore, their joy, comfort and style makes them seem like complex, interesting and multifaceted women. They’re not just bikers, they’re professionals, mothers, wives, career women and more.
The Women’s Motorcycle Exhibition Website adds depth to this theory with profiles for each of the women riders written by the artist. Summer, for example, who is clearly a natural rider and stunt artist, is shown in Summer (2013) riding her bike standing with one foot on the seat and the other leg flying in the air behind her. She holds the handles with short leather gloves and a smile on her helmetless face. Her body covers most of the letters on the fuchsia lined sign behind her, but we can make out the letters that spell “cool,” and couldn’t agree more. “Summer is a hair stylist, snowboarder and motorcyclist,” MacNaugton writes. “I showed up to Summer’s house and she had a black stripper pole in her living room, a tarantula and an assortment of handguns.”
Profiles of other women in the traveling exhibit are also offered on the website. The aforementioned rider, Tamara Raye, is a musician. She “works at Disneyland as an engineer for rollercoasters.” Jenny and Nina, two women shown riding together, are “long lost sisters separated at birth.” Ginger Mcabe owns New Church Moto, which, in the words of MacNaughton, “is an amazing custom leather seat upholstery line in Portland Oregon.” These types of images that highlight women in their comfort zone freely expressing their passion, diversity and strength have the power to create a new form of inspiration based on freedom and beauty.
Real. Life. Women.
There are many elements to this show that make it worth seeing for men and women of all generations. Naturally, the inspiring photography is one of them, but another is the opportunity to see motorcycles and motorcyclists outside of their usual context, isolated in a white cube gallery space. A beautiful red bike sits on the left hand side of the gallery. Observing it, I am hypnotized by the parts and individualized, well cared for pieces, like a pretty clear gem on what I can only imagine is one of the gear shifts and a pipe that seems to be decorated with polka dots, which may or may not be functional holes. For the first time ever I deeply understand why huge crowds of people go to bike shows and why my husband once gathered all of his friends to stare at the revving engine of his new car. When art lovers use expressions like “art opens minds,” this is undoubtedly one type of experience they/we are referring to. Since it is often the case that an entire scene that feels like home to one group of people is overwhelmingly different to another group of people, the opportunity to see and understand someone else’s passion and perspective in a curated context is invaluable.
Furthermore, the real life relics complement the photography through the opportunity to experience and relate to size. The helmets, for example, which seem so light on the heads of the riders, look heavy and somewhat uncomfortable in real life. The size of the motorcycles is a cue to the true athleticism of the riders. Many are large, stretched out motorcycles. Standing by one reveals that to jump on and ride one requires not just agility, but sitting at a thirty degree angle just to reach the handles. They’re not new, showroom bikes. They’ve clearly been on adventures and belong to the female riders featured in the photographs. Parts have been broken, fixed and replaced throughout the years, and, besides adding size and history, they also add a strong element to the show in terms of imagined sound.
“Women Who Ride” is the type of exhibit that can subtly breaks preconceived notions. It also has the potential to inspire people of all generations and connect those who love to ride—or were born to ride but don’t know it yet.
“Women Who Ride” at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111, www.riversideartmuseum.org. On view thru March 16, 2014 with a Winter Celebration on Feb. 6, 6pm-9pm. General admission is $5.