Three faces of art

Three faces of art

Weekly writers take on the first international survey of art and feminism

By Julie Riggott , Nikki Bazar , Tracy Spicer 04/05/2007

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Since “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” opened in March at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the art community has been all abuzz about the

“F-word.”

At least that's how some people refer to feminism, as if it's a dirty word. It's a term often filtered through stereotypes: People perceive it as being all about bra burning, fist pumping and man hating.

What exactly is feminism? Curator Cornelia Butler uses Peggy Phelan's definition in the exhibit's catalog: “The conviction that gender has been, and continues to be, a fundamental category for the organization of culture. Moreover, the pattern of that organization usually favors men over women.”

It's hard to deny the truth of those words, considering that women didn't even have the right to vote until 1920. How can it be acceptable that America condoned — and continues to condone in some ways — such inequality?

That's the point the feminist movement was trying to make, often in parallel with the civil rights movement, in the late 1960s and '70s — the era many consider the second wave of feminism and the one MOCA chose to focus on in “WACK!”

The name of the exhibit is not an acronym, but a play on those of actual activist groups in the '70s, such as Women Artists in Revolution (WAR), Women's Action Coalition (WAC) and Women, Students and Artists for Black Art Liberation (WSABAL).

At the same time, “the violent and sexual connotations of ‘WACK' serve to reinforce feminism's affront to the patriarchal system, while the exhibition's conjoined subtitle is intended to acknowledge the intersection of feminism and art that is this exhibition's raison d'être and the source of its revolutionary potential,” Butler notes in the catalog.

Butler worked for more than eight years selecting painting, sculpture, photography, film, video and performance art by 119 artists from 21 countries for this first international survey of art and feminism.

“My ambition for ‘WACK!' is to make the case that feminism's impact on art of the 1970s constitutes the most influential international ‘movement' of any during the postwar period,” she explains in her introductory essay.

The importance of her mission cannot be overstated, as the movement has yet to earn proper recognition in the art world. From MOCA, “WACK!” will travel to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Long Island City, NY, and then the Vancouver Art Gallery in British Columbia. And it's already spawned a series of events and related exhibits around the LA area.

How will the art world receive “WACK!”? Hopefully better than the general public has viewed feminism. Even among women, the term was and still is divisive.

For her book “The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy — Women, Politics and the Future,” Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner queried 300 college-educated women between the ages of 18 and 34 and found that 68 percent disliked labels and “the word ‘feminism' chafed the worst.” Meanwhile, there is definitely a third wave of feminism, with some seeking a new name and others embracing the original.

What follows are reactions from three women too young to have been a part of the first or even the second wave of feminism, who maybe didn't even have a firm grasp of what feminism is before attending the exhibit, but who certainly now have a better understanding of the “F-word.”

Witty versus angry

By Tracy Spicer  

I definitely missed the boat when it came to experiencing the height of the women's movement. I wasn't alive when Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected the world's first female prime minister, when Billie Jean King won the iconic 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs, or when Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed as the first female associate justice of the US Supreme Court.

The closest thing to a “movement” for my age group was the laughable mid-to-late-'90s “girl power” cultural phenomenon, spurred on by the Spice Girls. Even as a middle-schooler, I could see that message was blatantly contrived coming from a UK pop quintet decked out in micro-mini dresses, fishnets and thigh-high platform boots. That's empowering? Sorry, Posh Spice.

Feminism oftentimes gets a bad rap, especially in its monumental mid-20th-century heyday. Many twentysomethings nowadays envision that era's movement as an assembly of man-hating, ball-busting banshees burning their bras in an attempt to take over the world.

So with a hazy knowledge of what the feminist movement actually entailed, I walked into “WACK!” expecting in-your-face patriarch-bashing artwork — and there certainly is some. However, most of the works weren't angry, but rather witty in their approach to addressing male-dominated society.

French artist Annette Messager's visually impressive “Les Tortures Volontaires” (“Voluntary Tortures,” 1972) is a collection of 86 gelatin-silver prints of what seem to be old newspaper clippings and advertisements demonstrating beautifying rituals, gizmos and bizarre sur-geries. The women depicted are being nipped, tucked, plucked, peeled and stuck in off-the-wall machines, all in order to reach a certain socially acceptable aesthetic. One image shows a faceless woman's breast being cupped by a plunger-like contraption in attempts to make her breasts larger, while another shows hands peeling a clear, filmy mask off the face of an attractive woman. Another particularly disturbing image shows a woman being smeared with mud while lying awkwardly on her back.

Tucked in a dark, box-like space of the Geffen lies Serbian artist Marina Abramovic's “Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful” (1975). The stylistically simple 14-minute, black-and-white video projection depicts a naked close-up of Abramovic facing the camera while grooming herself.   These everyday grooming habits, however, soon resemble torture — as she's brushing her hair, her strokes become violent and her face intense, all while she's murmuring “art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful.”

Somewhat surprisingly, I learned that Abramovic does not label herself a “feminist artist.” In a 1999 interview for Art Journal, the performance artist told Janet A. Kaplan that she never connected to feminism because in her country, the former Yugoslavia, women had a dominant role in society, from the household to the government and military. “I never felt that I didn't have things because I was a woman,” she stated.

And with artwork by female artists from all over the world, WACK! unveils fascinating insights into how women from different backgrounds — from Copenhagen to Cairo — view feminism and express themselves creatively not only as women, but as artists.

Both physical and conceptual

By Julie Riggott    

Going into this exhibit, I knew very little about the feminist movement, but I expected angry art referencing female genitalia — basically artists getting in your face with their sexuality. I guess I thought of “feminism” as a bad word. The stereotypes had succeeded in making me feel I was not a feminist, despite my experiences with sexual inequality and my strong beliefs in the importance of equality across all artificial boundaries of otherness. Not all artists represented in the exhibit considered themselves feminists, but according to curator Cornelia Butler, they still   made a contribution to that social and political climate.

One of the first works I saw was a series of photos by Ana Mendieta called “Volcano Series”; they resembled ... well, you know. Then French artist Niki de Saint Phalle's sculpture of a headless woman painted with psychedelic colors and patterns lying in the birthing position with an open vagina quite explicitly made its point.

But the works that presented a glimpse of the culture of that time were quite thought-provoking. Australian artist Ann Newmarch's work revealed magazine articles that gave women advice such as “lick your lips when guys look at you,” and “look rich when you travel so attractive men will offer to carry your luggage.”

Despite the fact that she had participated in the international “intermedia” network Fluxus, Denmark's Kirsten Justesen inspired feelings any person — female or not, struggling or not — could relate to with her 3-D painted cardboard box holding a black-and-white photo of a woman curled up inside.

A playful drawing by England's Margaret Harrison depicting Captain America as a transvestite in stockings and heels and Senga Nengudi's conceptual pantyhose filled with sand and stretched to their physical limits added a dose of levity, as did Mary Beth Edelson's works with feminist artists' faces pasted over men's heads in famous revolutionary paintings or even “The Last Supper.”

There were a few works that made men their subject, including paintings by Welsh artist Sylvia Sleigh and New Zealand's Alexis Hunter, as well as erotic oils by Joan Semmel.

But there were surprisingly few examples of traditional media such as drawings, pastels, paintings and metal sculptures. I was drawn to Faith Ringgold's self-portrait, a Picasso-influenced work in deep shades of brown and green with bold, black shadows.

Many exhibits were more about thoughts and ideas than the physical world. They involved written documents and videos that take a lot of time to digest. That makes it difficult to get everything out of the exhibit in one visit. You'd need maybe a whole week.

I left the show with a broader view of the feminist cause and its contribution to art and thought — and an appreciation of the fact that women in this broadly defined movement probably had to get in your face in order to get attention.

Maybe we all need to use the “F-word” a little more often.

  ‘WACK!'   and   ‘Critical Space'

By Nikki Bazar     

Oddly enough, I've never associated feminism strictly with the 1960s and '70s, but with earlier figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft and, more than a century later, Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I've never been against anger, but I have always preferred impassioned reasoning and superior intellectual argument.

The inherent flaw in my last sentence is that it attributes the quality of being angry to the feminist movement in the '60s and '70s, which I think reveals that the lasting impression of that era of feminism suffers from reductive stereotyping. That being said, I entered the “WACK!” exhibit with expectations formed, I guess, from succeeding generations' simplistic presentations of the movement.

There was no such problem at MOCA's exhibit. The press release promised an exploration of “the dynamic relationship between art and feminism,” and the exhibit certainly delivers. The tone of the art ranges from celebration and inspiration to sadness, degradation and, indeed, anger.

I found myself drawn to pieces that used nudity as a tool, and there were several, including Ewa Partum's “Change — My Problem Is a Problem of a Woman,” Lili Dujourie's video trilogy and Carolee Schneemann's “Interior Scroll.” Many women used the projection of their own nudity as a way to subvert objectification. Elsewhere in the exhibit, a very frank examination of pornography highlighted the potential pitfalls of that approach.

Like Julie, I also enjoyed Mary Beth Edelson's work, which brought comic relief to the show while still offering incisive commentary on the patriarchal fisheye lens of history. I've always been a fan of the “Don't get mad, get funny” school of thought.

And just a note on the “Andrea Zittel: Critical Space” exhibition running alongside “WACK!” until May 14, in which the artist presents installations of domestic living spaces. Zittel's investigation of domesticity and mass consumption is an interesting companion to its neighboring exhibit, prompting the question: “Are we more liberated?” A displayed quote by the artist reads, “Things that we think are liberating can ultimately become restrictive, and things that we initially think are controlling can sometimes give us a sense of comfort and security.”

Though Zittel's work is not strictly feminist, her work aptly expresses the dilemmas and conundrums of feminism, and her presence here does not seem coincidental. Together, the two exhibits form a welcome rebuttal to the reductionist portrayals of the movement that have haunted us for years.

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