An abundance of insights
THERE are many appealing aspects to “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” the sprawling and critically well-received exhibition chronicling the global emergence of feminist art practice in the 1970s. One is its sheer size.
At MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary (through July 16), the show features 430 works by 119 artists. Given the abundance of film and video -- Chantal Ackerman’s work alone has a running time of just under five hours -- it is doubtful that even the most diligent visitor will actually see the whole show, multiple visits or not. Surveys of this size are usually a bad idea; one wants curatorial discrimination. But this time the magnitude emphasizes the monumental scope of the shift in thinking, which artists with a feminist perspective labored to bring about. Revolutions are rarely modest.
The size also fits the global sprawl of today’s art, which has no single production center. Gone is the Modernist idea of a cultural capital, replaced by a Postmodern web of networks. It’s tempting to think that feminism had something to do with that change too.
One effect is that “WACK!” breaks down into three general categories of work. There’s art I was quite familiar with, art I knew about but hadn’t experienced in any depth and, finally, art I’d never heard of. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt, while discovery can point toward yet more uncharted paths.
Here are three works I encountered at the Geffen Contemporary that illustrate that soul-satisfying range. They are not meant to represent the best or worst of the show, but they are emblematic of what makes it so compelling:
1. The human stain
MARY KELLY’S “Post-Partum Document” (1973-79) upset a lot of people when the first of its several sections were shown at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1976. In the manner of a pseudo-scientific study, it inspects the relationship between a mother (the artist) and her newborn son during his first years of life. The subject is common enough in the last thousand years of Western art, thanks to the Madonna and Child. (Kelly went to Catholic colleges before she chose art school.) But the connection between them had never been considered quite like this.
Part 1 of the multipart work -- “Analyzed Fecal Stains and Feeding Charts” -- is probably its most infamous segment, as the subtitle might suggest. Think Dr. Spock crossed with Dr. Freud. Flanked by graphs and tables, the work comprises 28 framed paper diapers chronicling the month of February 1974. A list of what Kelly’s baby consumed each day -- 2 teaspoons cereal, 1 teaspoon carrots, 1 ounce water, etc. -- is carefully typed on each diaper. The list is a caption just beneath a ghostly brown or yellow stain.
Seeing these charts is very different from reading about them in a book, where Kelly’s work is invariably discussed in psychoanalytic and other academic language. Those terms are surely legitimate. But they don’t come close to conveying how flat-out funny the piece is nor how one’s risible reaction to it is essential to its larger meanings.
“Eeewww!” is not an appropriate academic response, but it certainly applies when you’re nose-to-the-glass scrutinizing baby poop. (Don’t even think about the conservation issues facing the Art Gallery of Ontario, which owns the daily record of infant excretions.) After Italian Conceptual artist Piero Manzoni’s notorious 1961 packed and sealed cans containing 30 grams of his own excrement, Kelly’s work does come with a built-in artistic lineage. And there’s always Freud, who wrote that children recognize feces, as matter that comes from within, as their very first creations.
What makes the work funny is the relationship between Kelly’s art and the collapsing edifice of formalist aesthetic interpretation in the 1970s. Formalism had latched onto the slight innovation in Helen Frankenthaler’s big abstract painting “Mountains and Sea” (1952) as the engine meant to drive the next big wave of Modernist art into the end of the 20th century. She made her paintings by staining raw canvas with thinned and fluid pigments, creating diaphanous veils of transparent color. Kelly’s diapers, by contrast, were “stain paintings” of a rather different order.
Marcel Duchamp might well have admired their visceral critique of art’s traditional foundation in visual perception, since Kelly’s paintings literally make you look away. And given Frankenthaler’s notorious political conservatism, the fact that the younger artist’s feminist criticism is spoken in her elder’s formalist language offers its own particular pleasure.
Since the 1980s, enjoyment has returned as a motive for looking at paintings -- and happily so. But the “Post-Partum Document” is a notable tear in art’s fabric.
2. Help from the audience
AT the Berkeley Art Museum a big bowl filled with lapel buttons stood on a pedestal at the entry to a recent show of Yoko Ono’s 1960s paintings. “Imagine Peace,” the white buttons said in the black Helvetica type characteristic of the period. A visitor was invited to take one.
“Imagine Yoko had talent,” I thought to myself, marveling at the banality of her art. There isn’t much to recommend the degradation of Fluxus and Conceptual art into pop culture platitudes of wishful thinking.
The big exception in Ono’s career is “Cut Piece,” a fascinating performance first done in Kyoto, Japan, in 1964 and then the following year at New York’s Carnegie Hall. (Its origin coincides with “Grapefruit,” the book of simple instructions for paintings that were the focus of the Berkeley show.) The performance came nine years after Ono began to make art and two years before her fateful London encounter with John Lennon. A 9-minute video of the Carnegie Hall recital of “Cut Piece,” filmed by renowned documentarians David and Albert Maysles and transferred to DVD is a highlight of “WACK!”
Seated casually on the stage floor, like the Little Mermaid sitting on a rock in Copenhagen’s harbor, Ono wears her hair pulled into a simple chignon. The 30-year-old artist is dressed in black -- cardigan sweater, skirt and fishnet stockings -- appropriate to a classical recital hall. Beside her on the floor are a pocket watch and a large pair of scissors. Off-camera, audience members had been invited to come up on stage, of their own volition and one by one, and cut a piece of fabric from her clothing. In simplest terms, the audience was asked to participate in a practice as old as art -- the creation of a nude.
But there’s a considerable difference between an artist in a studio working with a model, engaged in a private act for later public consumption, and a real-time confrontation with another human being on a theatrical stage. In the Maysles’ film we watch 16 men and women willingly accept the offer. With varying degrees of reticence or brio, they cut away her clothing.
Occasional twitters and smattered applause punctuate the soundtrack. Ono sits stonily, and as exposure increases, the inevitable sense of personal violation mounts. Will people defile her, just because they’ve been told they can?
When a young man who had been on stage once already returns to make a second cut, a look of slight concern crosses the artist’s face. And with good reason: He begins to cut through her slip, all the way across her bodice, then both straps of her bra, up around her collar and finally the remains of her sweater. Unlike the generally meek snips that preceded it, his session is lengthy and overeager.
Eyes darting, lip bitten, the artist’s concern shifts into passive alarm. The man retreats, she crosses her arms to cover her breasts and the film ends.
Will people defile her, just because they’ve been told they can? The question has been answered.
3. Bad boys
WHO is Alexis Hunter? Since 1972 the New Zealand-born artist has been living and working in London, where she moved at age 24. Before “WACK!” I was wholly unfamiliar with her work. Her single contribution to the show -- a six-panel, 25-foot-long painting called “The Objects Series” (1974-75) -- is the kind of work that’s easy to slide right by. Its Photorealist style is one that rarely pays off.
Take a second look, though, and you’re hooked. This sexy work appears startlingly fresh, almost as if it could have been made today.
Each black-and-white panel shows a cropped image of a different young man, focusing on torso and limbs and omitting the head or face. The backgrounds are generic -- the men stand next to a car, sit on a living room sofa, loiter on an urban rooftop and such.
A narrow range of decorative elements replaces the individual identity a face or setting would otherwise project. This conspicuous adornment includes jewelry -- rings, wristbands and watches, oversize belt buckles, lanyards, metal studs, etc. -- as well as prominent tattoos. Given the artist’s upbringing in New Zealand, where Maori tattooing is prevalent, the permanent ink decorations add emphasis to the transient metal and leather ones.
The ornamentation repeats with variations across all six canvases. An upper arm sports a rose with a scroll that reads “Mother.” A heart borne on wings alights on a shoulder, like some exotic butterfly. Daggers above the legend “Love & Hate” pierce another heart, inked on a forearm. A snake coils around a blade. Given the painting’s date in the post-Pop art ‘70s, long before tattoos became ubiquitous fashion accessories for suburban kids, these designs mark their already objectified wearers as bad boys. Most also show a good deal of skin. As the work’s title suggests, Hunter has objectified the men, not personalized them.
If gender reversal were the only thing going on in these paintings, however, they’d be conventional and dull.
The black-and-white paintings were obviously made by copying photographs. Many feminist artists abandoned painting, because of the baggage that came with its traditional status as a trophy in masculine society. Hunter stopped in the late 1970s and like lots of women turned instead to camera work. That modern medium had only a brief history and, like the women, was commonly assumed to have second-class status in art.
Hunter’s Photorealist fusion of camera work with painting assumes an unexpected dimension. “The Objects Series” smartly identifies painting with the elaborate attributes of male adornment. The six-panel work also uses photographs as painting’s matrix, leading it around by the metaphoric nose. Thanks to the beautifully rendered Photorealist style, a lush assertion of feminine power enhances the erotic edge of its otherwise masculine imagery.
Where: Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Fridays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays
Ends: July 16
Price: $5 to $8
Contact: (213) 626-6222; www.moca.org
Checking up on the revolution
FROM 1967 to 1971, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art undertook one of the most adventurous contemporary art programs ever attempted in an American museum. Called Art & Technology, it teamed international artists with California corporate leaders so that the region’s burgeoning technological power might be made available to art. Projects produced by A&T; were shown at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan, and then in a LACMA exhibition.
Critical response was mixed, but one aspect of A&T; stood out like a sore thumb: The back of the exhibition catalog features a grid of 64 participants’ photographs -- and every one of them is male. Statistics like that were not uncommon. They helped fuel art’s feminist revolution in Southern California, chronicled in part by the Museum of Contemporary Art’s current exhibition, “WACK!”
The A&T; program partly reflected the gallery scene, where women’s art was scarce and men’s was abundant. Leading L.A. galleries like Ferus, Dwan and Nicholas Wilder showed mostly male artists, while print publisher Gemini GEL rarely invited women to use its workshop.
Forty years on, how have things changed? To get a rough idea, I did a wholly unscientific survey. I made a list of the first 50 L.A. galleries that came to mind, and then I checked the artists rosters on their websites.
Things have improved dramatically -- but not nearly enough. Of well over 800 artists represented, the ratio of men to women was a little more than 2 to 1. I doubt that ratio matches art school enrollments, which feed into the gallery system.
The numbers game can be misleading. For example, it can’t account for collectors’ tastes. And quality is excluded; that matters for an overview, since most of the last decade’s best new painters are women.
But my unscientific survey did turn up something interesting. Eight galleries had roughly equal representation or better, and in two of those women far outnumbered men. It should probably come as no surprise that women own or are partners in all eight of them.
-- Christopher Knight
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