"The Amazing Decade: Women and Performance Art in America, 1970-1980," an exhibition originally curated in 1980 and published as a book three years later, has been restaged at the 18th Street Arts Complex. Part rejoinder and part companion to Turner/Krull Gallery's recent "Action/Performance and the Photograph," this important show reminds us that while Vito Acconci was making art by masturbating, Chris Burden being shot and Dennis Oppenheim orchestrating a sunburn, Faith Wilding was waiting.
A large-format photograph of Wilding on the stage at Womanhouse, 20 years after the fact, is both poignant and damning. This image is one among a number of photos documenting public rituals, theatrical events, autobiographical narratives, sustained masquerades and acts of mourning. Performed over a 10-year period by more than 40 female artists, these works are characterized by sly humor, political commitment, spiritual enlightenment and rage.
The latter characteristics--spirituality and rage--make women's performance a difficult subject for men and, more crucially, for the art historical apparatus. Art history favors a theoretical stance and, however ironic, a distanced approach to the self.
As a result, much of this work is remembered by only a handful of feminists, and perhaps by those who happened to be at the Brown Derby the afternoon the Waitresses showed up costumed in soft sculptures with multiple breasts, or who were out on the streets when Leslie Labowitz, Suzanne Lacy and others donned black hoods and capes to memorialize the victims of the Hillside Strangler.
Tastes in art and strategies of art history are cyclical, and what once may have seemed dated now seems fresh, while what struck us as radical or marginal now seems both inevitable and central. If anything, the art documented in "The Amazing Decade" is increasingly relevant, especially as so much of the most interesting work being done today--by men or women--is performative.
One cannot think of Janine Antoni's "Chocolate Gnaw" without Hannah Wilke's earlier "Chocolate Venus," or even about Madonna's perpetual transformations without Eleanor Antin's earlier parade of personae. Yet it's likewise difficult to understand Jeff Koons' full-throttle narcissism, Rirkrit Tiravanija's steaming pots of curry and Matthew Barney's fungible sexuality outside this diverse body and period of women's performance art.
Historical revision is clearly in order. So is celebration. "The Amazing Decade," on its second go-round, well serves both imperatives.
* 18th St. Arts Complex, 1629 18th St., Santa Monica, (310) 453-3711 or (310) 453-0217, through Nov. 27. Closed Saturdays through Tuesdays.