In Art News
The Women of Feminist Art Rock My World
WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Vancouver Art Gallery consumed me. I spent 13 hours in the galleries over two days. (I didn't take a single break in all that time; I went through as if in a trance.) The show has something like 40 hours of video and also includes photography, painting, sculpture, installation, film, documentation, sound, a large rubber net to play in, and even one paper relic that was famously dipped in vagina 34 years ago. I rushed from work to work, watching videos of performances I've only seen in photographs, discovering new sides to artists I've known for years, marveling at how funny, smart, brave, and radical these women were and are.
WACK! is the first survey of international feminist art from 1965 to 1980. Curator Connie Butler worked on it for eight years. It opened in 2007 in L.A., went to New York and D.C., and finishes its tour in Vancouver, B.C. (Seattle Art Museum turned down WACK! due to a scheduling conflict, according to chief curator Chiyo Ishikawa. The loss is Seattle's.)
As a critic, I walked out with few complaints. I was so occupied by what was there that I was only mildly disappointed by what wasn't (the show is slightly reduced from its humongous iteration in L.A.; for instance, the important artists Eva Hesse, Isa Genzken, and Yayoi Kusama are left out and other artists such as Mary Kelly and Betye Saar get somewhat short shrift). The feminism of WACK!—ranging from Judy Chicago's formalist fireworks performances (who knew?), to Martha Rosler's cool conceptual collages, to Betye Saar's furious Aunt Jemima assemblage, to Bonnie Sherk's functioning farm under a freeway, to Hannah Wilke's narcissistic answering-machine tapes (I could go on for days)—well, this version of feminism feels right. It feels organized but unpoliced. Like the perfect protest.
Which brings me to how I felt about WACK! as a woman. After watching groundbreaking lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer's magnificently innocent Superdyke (a romp!) and Multiple Orgasm (which is just what it sounds like, in clenching close-up), Lisa Steele's seminal video in which she documents all of her scars and their causes on the occasion of her 27th birthday (this public diary presages the rise of the personal blog in many ways), Rosler's 38-minute video in which every part of a woman (including vaginal depth) is measured by scientists—I'm leaving out so many examples here—I felt unprecedentedly good about my own body.
A few days later, I find myself steadily losing that feeling. Rising in its place is a crazy sorrow. Is there any reason why art this old still has this much radical power—except that the actual revolution just never came?
The inevitable question that arises is: Which is worse, the art world or the larger society around it? In Doug Harvey's LA Weekly review, he warns of WACK! providing cover for the "patently sexist, racist, and classist" art world itself. "What did punk—or feminism—mean?" he writes. "It meant nothing. It meant business as usual. 'See how Daddy has made note of your complaints?'"
It's hard to agree with this without wanting to commit hara-kiri. In some ways it's also hard to disagree. Is the art world classist and racist? Oh, hell yes. Especially classist: The nonprofit art world still takes the majority of its cues from the inherently money-and-status-driven art market, so much so that even museums inculcated in political correctness aren't self-conscious enough to be apologetic for the myriad ways in which they favor the rich and glorify luxury. Gender has fared best of the triumvirate when it comes to the art world. And the art world, I'd argue, has been more "feminized," to use a term that needs serious reclaiming, than American society at large, which is, for the most part, still far behind the rest of the developed world in terms of women in ruling positions and attention to issues that disproportionately affect women, like workplace flexibility, equal pay, paid family leave, health care, the welfare system, and child care. This is not to say art is a paradise of gender equality—far from it. For her 2006 installation at Winkleman Gallery in New York, Jennifer Dalton crunched the numbers on how many female versus male artists "make it"—out of art school, to solo shows at galleries, to retrospectives at museums. Dalton used lights to represent the number of women at various stages of the progression. By the pinnacle of a career—the museum retrospective—almost all the lights had gone out. Pointedly, Dalton called the work This Is Not News.
WACK! raises important questions about the interrelationship between aesthetics and ethics in art history. Few artists today are overtly feminist, but almost all use techniques pioneered or identified with the feminist art movement—performance, body experimentation and documentation, social intervention, play, confession, amateur videography, performance-as-sculpture, participatory art. Not all of these forms can be claimed by feminists alone, since the heyday of conceptualism, early video, dematerialization, and performance happened simultaneously with feminist art across the board in American and European art. But insofar as these forms and practices contain embedded ethical systems (such as feminist-based collectivism's deconstruction of the lone heroic artist, for instance), have those forms carried those systems forward in the art world, Trojan-horse-like? If so, when will all those supposed horses open up and the ingrown feminism of art come spilling forward? Is a loose performance group like, say, Grand Openings, inherently feminist?
And most freakishly, why does an entire segment of young women artists still avoid calling themselves by the F-word? In the WACK! catalog, Butler quotes scholar Peggy Phelan for her no-frills definition of feminism: "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." How can it be controversial to agree on that much while still acknowledging progress?
From a simpler art-historical perspective, WACK! is a dream come true—a chance, finally, to know more fully art that has otherwise been passed down largely in photographs or through a kind of oral tradition.
Carolee Schneeman's performance (done twice, in 1975 and 1977) of pulling a folded and oiled scroll out of her vagina is widely represented in still images (I presume there is no video of either event), but I had no idea the scroll itself still exists. I had a pang of sadness seeing the yellowed strip reduced to a relic in the gallery, but on the other hand I was grateful to see the size of the paper and to read the words on it (an exhortation by Schneeman not to let the bastards get you down, basically).
Ana Mendieta's one-minute performance in which she drags her red-paint-saturated sleeves down a white wall, leaving a desperate-looking trail, is most often represented by a single photograph that has circulated widely. In this photograph, Mendieta is about halfway down the wall, and her behind is thrust at the camera in a pornlike pose. The image leaves the impression of Mendieta offering her body up for delectation to the camera, but by watching the full video you discover a much more awkward, vulnerable movement of her body. This is the kind of subtle, new fullness I mean when I say I'm grateful for this show.
There is so much still to learn about feminist art and artists, because so little of this work has been directly experienced over the years in exhibitions. Museum surveys of movements are often organized before the paint on the art is even dry; the natural moment for this one would have been in the 1980s, when the booming market and the attention of the art world was notoriously focused instead on hot young male neoexpressionists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Because of these conditions, WACK! is full of pleasant surprises. There are surprises about well-known artists: Lee Lozano boycotted women at one point! Mary Heilmann started out by basing her abstractions on vents in her house! And however radical you thought the Brazilian participatory-therapist-artist Lygia Clark was, a documentary will convince you she was Even farther out!
There are pleasant surprises in the form of artists I'd never encountered before, too: Mimi Smith, Ulrike Rosenbach, Lea Lublin, Kirsten Justesen, Susan Hiller—all these made a new mark on me. Canadian women from the period have been added for this tour stop, to mostly good effect. (Vancouver artist Kate Craig's classic close-up video scan of her naked body is one example; another is Vancouver artist Liz Magor's rectangular floor sculptures made of compacted clothing.)
If feminist art ever sounded like a ghetto, this show should forever settle that it's anything but. Nothing in WACK! is a dead end; in every work you spot precedents, or resonances with better-known (but not necessarily better) influential works by male artists from the same period. The French artist Orlan is known for the endless cosmetic surgeries she gets in her lifelong process of body-sculpting. But an early work in WACK! is a sculpture in which she casts herself as a virgin and a whore, and spectators can pay to kiss her. It's one of many lead-ups—also including Valie Export's famous "tap-and-touch cinema," in which she wore a box with a curtain on her naked body and allowed passersby to fondle her breasts while they looked her in the eye—to the 2003 artwork when Andrea Fraser had sex with a collector in exchange for about $20,000 and called it Untitled. In an example of confluence, the same year that Vito Acconci performed his Following Piece, 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon stalked a young woman as she walked through the city for a painfully long video called Rape. The point is not about who got there first (in that case, I don't even know), it's about recognizing how central feminist art is in the development of all contemporary art.
Butler, the curator who's now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had a massive undertaking in organizing WACK!. She had to overcome the mountain of expectations that had built up as the show became more and more overdue over the years, for one. I also imagine her fighting with artists behind the scenes. (A few artists were at the opening in Vancouver, and Harmony Hammond mentioned to me that she'd have done things differently.) Probably Butler's most controversial move was including artists who didn't self-identify as feminists, or whom the feminists derided—like Hannah Wilke. The architecture of the VAG, with its little side rooms off the galleries at regular intervals, is fortuitous because Wilke's poster declaring "BEWARE OF FASCIST FEMINISM" gets a side room to itself along with her lechery-encouraging phone-message recordings (many are from powerful men who have a crush on her or have already been sleeping with her; even Francis Coppola is trying to reach her). But in later life, Wilke turned the tide of feminist opinion somewhat with her willingness to turn her camera on her dying, cancer-ridden—frankly, ugly—naked body, just as she'd so constantly advertised her gorgeous younger body. She's represented in WACK! not only by the sexy works but also by her materially ingenious wall sculptures that look like white flower blossoms and are made of layers and layers of soft latex connected together with snaps.
If feminist art had to be represented by a single medium, it would probably be video, since the emergence of the handheld camera dovetailed with the focus on female self-exploration and the re-creation of a female body that existed outside the parameters of art history and mass media. Performance would be a very close second. Mierle Laderman Ukeles taking the keys to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, opening it up, guarding the art, cleaning the art, mopping the museum's front steps. Lea Lublin caring for her baby in a gallery, as an exhibition. Suzanne Lacy leading a Greek-chorus-style protest on the steps of city hall during the campaign of a serial rapist and killer (the Hillside Strangler, which turned out to be two men) in Los Angeles. These were forceful, direct happenings.
But feminist art doesn't have to speak loudly, or with grave seriousness, or in nontraditional mediums. Senga Nengudi's pairs of splayed pantyhose with crotches full of sand (a clear precursor to Ernesto Neto's heavy sacks) can be used in performances, but here they're presented as a majestic and absurd abstract sculpture. Ree Morton's "LSS Maternal Instincts" banner with light bulbs is like a sweet announcement for some nurturing fleet of ships. I was grateful to see that WACK! doesn't skimp on painting and drawing: Sylvia Mangold's realist painting of a small pile of laundry on her wood floor, Nasreen Mohamedi's barely there abstract pencil drawings that, in a whisper, champion the chronically overlooked.
After all this time, some of these artists are dead. Some are still working, and teaching, and organizing. Some have found themselves, due to the impact of "WACK!" and other feminist surveys in the last few years, reborn on the market, their phones ringing with (sometimes first-time) calls from New York dealers. Feminist scholar Amelia Jones has warned about what it might mean that the art world is suddenly so receptive to feminist art. New York magazine critic Jerry Saltz has criticized the contemporary mania for the revolutionary spirit of 1968—a spirit this show so fully characterizes. In my quiet moments, I worry about these things as well. I worry that this exhibition is a gravestone for feminism. That this is as far as it's going to go.
But inside the exhibition, I just want to keep looking. And looking. And looking. I may go back. I hope to see you there.