Academic journal article Genders

Agreeable Objects and Angry Paintings: "Female Imagery" in Art by Hannah Wilke and Louise Fishman, 1970-1973

Academic journal article Genders

Agreeable Objects and Angry Paintings: "Female Imagery" in Art by Hannah Wilke and Louise Fishman, 1970-1973

Article excerpt

[1] "Who has the guts to deal with cunts?" asked sculptor Hannah Wilke in 1973 (Schwartz). Louise Fishman, a painter, told critic Sarah Whitworth that her thoughts immediately turned to women's genitals when she decided to examine consciously what part being a woman played in her work (58). Both saw their art as participating in social and political discourses of the day. Wilke sympathized with comedian Lenny Bruce, who had been arrested on obscenity charges for language in his stand-up routine on several occasions between 1961 and 1966, the year she first exhibited her small ceramic "Agreeable Objects" in an erotic art show. Like Bruce, Wilke wanted to shock a complacent society that she perceived was ruled by prejudice and fear and transform its negative attitudes towards sexuality, particularly women's sexuality (Huestis and Jones). Fishman had marched with other gay rights activists in 1970 on the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and belonged to a consciousness-raising group of lesbian and straight women artists that discussed feminist art and politics (Tyler Galleries). Sexuality, aesthetics, and political expression were inextricably linked in their art production.

[2] Wilke and Fishman considered themselves feminists, but sexuality was the most contentious topic for the Women's Liberation Movement in the early 1970s. In particular, the role lesbians should play in feminist organizations deeply divided East Coast feminists. Between 1970 and 1973, vigorous debates over lesbian separatism equated a woman's choice of sexual partner with a political statement. At the National Organization for Women-sponsored Congress to Unite Women held in May 1970 in New York, an ad hoc group of radical lesbians disrupted the proceedings to bring their grievances to the attention of their straight sisters (Echols, 214-20). The Radicalesbians issued a position paper, "The Woman-Identified Woman," in an effort to reunite the polarized factions by establishing common ground--rage--between heterosexual and lesbian feminists. Sexual desire had become an incendiary topic for feminists just at the moment feminist artists began to develop a visual language with which to represent it: vaginal imagery, otherwise known as "central core" or female imagery. This sort of imagery was highly developed and encouraged on the West Coast, at the Feminist Art Program first established by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro at Fresno State College, and in exhibitions of women artists such as "21 Artists: Invisible/Visible," curated by Dextra Frankel at the Long Beach Museum of Art. While it was less prevalent on the East Coast, Wilke's and Fishman's art nevertheless fits the genre. Wilke's sculpture, made of soft flesh-like latex sheets layered and wrapped around themselves, looked like enormous vulvas. Fishman worked more abstractly, weaving scraps of frayed canvas and other materials into tactile assemblages that alluded to skin or hair. Female imagery at the time and in more recent studies has been presumed to represent heterosexual experience, a further function of lesbian voices marginalized in feminist discourse. My case study seeks to correct that imbalance. Looking closely at Wilke's and Fishman's work and its context between 1966 and 1973, I will argue that female body imagery was instrumental to feminist political discourse by serving to relocate the lesbian sexuality that feminist politics strategically repressed.

[3] Female body imagery, including both centrally-organized vaginal imagery like Wilke's and more abstract references to the female body like Fishman's, played a crucial role in feminist art criticism beginning in 1971, when the Feminist Art Program students and faculty edited a special issue of the feminist journal Everywoman. The discussion continued in Feminist Art Journal, Ms., Art News, and other publications. Some feminist artists and critics deliberately worked to identify and define what qualities art by women shared, following the late-1960s radical feminist agenda to define women as a "sex class" (Firestone, 11-23). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.