Feminist art is having quite a resurgence this season. MOCA’s WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution is gathering a lot of attention on the West coast, while the Brooklyn Museum recently opened its hotly anticipated Global Feminisms show to coincide with the launch of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. For a new generation of artists and art goers, these historically and politically engaged exhibitions reexamine what feminist art is, where it came from, and where it is going.
Galerie Lelong’s Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited 1960-1980 is a tightly focused, museum-quality show that reexamines the early wave of feminist artists that used performance, photography, and video to explore issues of identity, sexuality, and the female artist experience. The exhibition seeks to broaden the canonical, Anglo-American view of feminist art by presenting a selection of works by artists that are international, yet united in their topical urgency.
The body, whether nude or heavily costumed, is featured prominently in most of the works in the show. Valie Export’s confrontational Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969/2001, was part of a performance in which Export, wearing a pair of crotch-less pants, roamed the aisles of a porn theater branding a machine gun and urging the male audience to respond to her sex. Hannah Wilke’s series So Help Me Hannah, 1978, features Wilke holding a gun and wearing nothing but high heels, performing provocatively staged scenes of victimization and aggression. Both artists juxtapose the nude body with a deadly weapon, reclaiming their bodies as powerful and potentially dangerous, but also question what it means for a woman to undress for her art.
Wilke’s other work in the show, Through the Large Glass, 1976, a 29 minute video in which Wilke reenacts a striptease as seen through Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), is stunning for its controlled, deadpan critique of 1970’s fashion photography and common representations of women. Wilke’s work remains particularly potent; her tactics are often so seductive that the viewers are left wondering if they are looking at Hannah Wilke or her art? Using the body as the very medium of their art, these and other artists exposed and disrupted the social constructions of femininity, re-signifying the female body in the process.
Gendered roles are also scrutinized, particularly those dealing with the domestic sphere. Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, and Helen Chadwick’s photographic series In the Kitchen, 1977, each confront the kitchen as a space of mindless ritual and trauma. Chadwick’s constructed interior spaces are coffin-like chambers, and the photos are displayed laying flat in a vitrine as if it were a mausoleum of domesticity.
The transient nature of the mediums of photography and video are highlighted by many to examine cultural and personal shifts in sexual and gender identity and point to the fluidity of each construct. Alter egos (as used by Eleanor Antin, Adrian Piper, Birgit Jurgenseen, among others) likewise question the idea of a stable self, with Antin also incorporating text in her work to disrupt the stability of the photographic image.
Much of the work in Role Play documents actions or past performances and will exist as artifacts for future generations. While not all of the work may look fresh today, many of the ideas that these artists explore are still dealt with by contemporary feminists and artists alike. For instance, Lorraine O’Grady’s interventions as Mlle Bourgeoisie Noire (represented here by Mlle Bourgeoisie Noire Shouts Out Her Poem, 1981), in which she disrupted private art events, anticipates the activist work of the Guerrilla Girls and others; the subject of under-representation of female artists in galleries and museums remains as topical today as it was decades ago.
The familiarity of many of the themes explored in Role Play speaks to the influence these artists have had on artists of the 1980’s, 90’s, and today (Cindy Sherman’s oeuvre, which has certainly eclipsed other 70’s feminist artists in terms of fame and financial success, seems particularly indebted to the artists in this show). Overall, the exhibition presents an edited yet thorough view of the feminist art movement, and should act as a great primer for audiences who desire a contextualized history lesson when approaching contemporary art.
Role Play contains work by the following artists: Marina Abramovic, Helena Almeida, Eleanor Antin, Lynda Benglis, Helen Chadwick, Valie Export, Anna Bella Geiger, Birgit Jürgenssen, Shigeko Kubota, Anna Maria Maiolino, Ana Mendieta, Senga Nengudi, Lorraine O’Grady, Yoko Ono, Adrian Piper, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, and Francesca Woodman.
The exhibition is on view at Galerie Lelong, 528 W. 26th St., New York, NY 10001
March 15 – April 28, 2007
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Dmitry Komis is a freelance writer and independent curator living
in New York City.