Sisterhood is powerful again. Last spring’s “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at MOCA gave rise to an explosion of woman-centered exhibitions throughout the Southland. Now, a new public art initiative takes feminism back to the streets.
Cindy Sherman’s billboards of herself as a faux B-movie star loom over Hollywood & Highland. Jenny Holzer’s grids of neon colored posters plaster quotations from revolutionary leaders all over town. Louise Lawler fills the Huntington Library’s botanical gardens with birdcalls based on the names of famous male artists. And on video billboards on Sunset Boulevard and at LACMA West, Barbara Kruger’s “Plenty” is a montage of images and text messages for passing drivers.
The works are part of “Women in the City,” a “viral public art exhibition” in the streets of Los Angeles that unfolds throughout the month. Featuring Sherman, Holzer, Lawler and Kruger, the project is intended to celebrate the first generation of women artists to attain widespread success in the art world and to bring their work to an even larger audience.
“In a moment in which art is becoming the king, the queen of the commodities,” says curator Emi Fontana, it’s important “to have a show that has nothing to sell, just for people to enjoy and to confront it and to be provoked.” She sees the project as a way to mark the advances women have made, not just in the art world, but in all spheres of public life.
For the most part, “Women in the City” revisits works from the ‘70s and ‘80s (Kruger is the only artist to make a new piece specifically for the show). In some cases it simply re-presents works that were originally intended as outdoor installations; in others it translates works intended for the gallery into public spaces.
Holzer’s “Truisms,” a series of cliche-sounding yet subtly provocative sentences such as “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” and “Decadence can be an end in itself” will appear in its original form, animated on LED and video screens at Hollywood & Highland and on a marquee at the Roosevelt Hotel.
Usually presented as 8-by-10 photographs, Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” have never appeared on billboards before (in fact, they represent Sherman’s first public project). Two of the images went up at Hollywood & Highland last week, and two more will appear later in the month, one on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, the other at Wilshire and Fairfax.
Lawler, whose work often investigates the conventions of the art world itself, says she feels awkward about reprising two of her early works. One, titled simply “Birdcalls,” infiltrates the botanical gardens of the Huntington Library in San Marino. It is a sound recording she first made in 1972 in which she recites the names of prominent male artists of the period as warbling bird songs. “I’m sure the birdcalls will be more easily overlooked,” she writes in an e-mail, but “it is a roll call of male artists, no matter where it is.”
The second piece, “A Movie will be shown without the picture” (which is exactly what its title describes), will appear Thursday at its original 1979 location at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. “There was already an intentional disconnect involved with this project,” Lawler writes, referring to the cognitive gap the piece creates between image and sound, “but now it is removed again and I’m sure will be receiving a different kind of attention.” The original work was shown to a small audience as a midnight screening. This time it will be shown at 7:30 p.m. and followed by a reception honoring the artist. (A complete list of art locations, and related events, is available at www.westofrome .org.)
No ol’ boys’ club
Fontana, who owns a gallery in Milan and launched the organization West of Rome in L.A. in 2005 to foster public art projects, is aware that the works are often operating in a different context from the one in which they were created. “Most of the work in some way will not be immediately recognizable as art,” she says. “That’s also the part that interests me. It’s a kind of perverse pleasure. It’s just adding more signs to this city that already has so many.”
In some locations, Holzer’s and Kruger’s video works alternate with paid advertising. “I love that,” Kruger says. “If people look at my work outside, I don’t care if they think it’s art or not . . . I’d rather just be making meaning.”
Her piece is intended to evoke everyday feelings and impulses such as consumer desire or road rage and examine how they affect interpersonal relationships -- “You know how your mind wanders when you’re in the car,” she says. “I always try to make work about how we are to one another, and it’s great to be able to address the street in that way.”
Although her work is well known now, Kruger recalls when it was still a novel thing for a woman to be a presence in the art world. “I think that Cindy and Jenny and Louise and I emerged at a time when women for the first time really entered the art market and it was no longer that we had to be marginalized and only show in women’s spaces,” she says. “That was a very important break.”
“Women in the City” demonstrates and revels in how far its artists have moved from the fringes. “There’s an automatic familiarity with this work,” says Jenni Sorkin, an early member of the “WACK!” curatorial team. “There’s a kind of luxury in doing a big public art project with mainstream artists in that there’s an automatic visibility to it.”
Still, despite high-profile artists and support from heavyweights in the L.A. art scene such as the Broad Art Foundation and LACMA, it’s difficult to predict whether everyday Angelenos will see the show as a statement about women -- or as a “show” at all.
“It seems to me a hard city to pull off a public art project,” Sorkin says. “L.A. is such a disparate place . . . you’d have to make a big effort to go see all the pieces.”
For Fontana, L.A.'s sprawl is part of the show’s appeal. “It’s interesting for me to do this kind of project in Los Angeles because it’s such an amazing culture of different ethnicities,” she says.
She also hopes that “Women in the City” will remind a new generation that relationships between the sexes were not always as they are now. “Not dealing with feminism is for me the same as not dealing with history,” she says, “I think a good artist should always deal with history.”
For Kruger, the moment when feminism collided with mainstream art history was pivotal. “When I started, the art world in New York was like 12 white guys,” she says, “It’s so much better now because there’s so many more subjectivities, so many more stories to tell and pictures to show that are somehow reflections of what it means to be a woman and to be a person of color, to be gay or straight, to be a white guy, to be whatever.
“There’s just not one vision.”