Magazine article Artforum International

Worlds Apart: Helen Molesworth on Generations of Feminism

Magazine article Artforum International

Worlds Apart: Helen Molesworth on Generations of Feminism

Article excerpt

TAKING THE SIXTH STREET EXIT off the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles these days puts you square in front of an enormous mural featuring a group of well-dressed lovelies. When I saw it, my heart skipped a beat--was it the cast of The L Word, fittingly grown to Attack of the 50 Foot Woman proportions in their hometown? Nope, it was an ad for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the members all dressed in black tie--a uniformity that accounted for the freeway-enhanced gender confusion. It was as if all of LA, seen through the lens of The L Word, were engaging in a reconsideration of gender. One woman, with a sultry gaze and a mane of dark, wavy hair, stood apart from the group, jauntily holding a violin. Good thing for the company's marketing department that the first violinist is a looker, I thought.

Such was, for me, the opening frame of a recent weekend spent in LA, the purpose of which was to see two exhibitions: "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution," curated by Connie Butler, at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and "Shared Women," organized by artists Eve Fowler, Emily Roysdon, and A. L. Steiner at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. The two shows are hardly equivalent: "WACK!" was years in the making, includes hundreds of works dating from the 1960s and '70s by 113 artists, and is nothing short of a Herculean (or maybe Sisyphean) attempt to write and rewrite the history of the notoriously underrepresented and heterogeneous feminist art movement. "Shared Women," on the other hand, couldn't have felt looser, more of the moment. And while the approach to LA MOCA was framed by the relatively demure sexing up of the orchestra, the walk to LACE, located on Hollywood Boulevard, reeked of sex of a different kind--the down-and-dirty, condoms-on-the-pavement, hookers-on-the-corner variety. Segueing from this environment to the gallery was a fairly porous experience: The show was replete with sex and souvenirs (in the form of artists' multiples).

Context aside, there are, not surprisingly, many similarities between the two shows. Both are exclusively all-women exhibitions, messy to the core, with no explanatory wall texts and with a dizzying array of media. Both are exuberant, filled with a palpable fight-the-power energy that, during wartime, feels like just the thing. Both are filled with nudity in a decidedly realistic vein. No John Currin here, folks, no talk of paint handling when what's really at issue is tits and ass. But in the sex lies the difference between the two shows. "Shared Women" is a queer affair. This doesn't mean all the artists are lesbians, but all the work is queer--by which I mean the work colonizes preexisting positions in order to subvert them with pleasure. The logic of drag was in full effect as the younger artists of "Shared Women" riffed on the feminist elders of "WACK!" To wit: Eve Fowler's 2005 portrait of artist K8 Hardy squarely facing the camera with her bush sprouting out of a hole cut into the crotch of her jeans, a la Valie Export's Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969. True to the transformative power of drag, however, this image, with its lush palette and the sitter's sweet and direct gaze, felt like a contemporary parody of a John Singer Sargent society portrait--a far cry from Export's gun-toting attack on patriarchal scopophilia.

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The most remarkable attribute of "WACK!," for me, was the artists' complete and total belief that they were going to transform the world. At stake in every work was the problem of how to live as a complete, whole, and free human being. Fuck Minimalism, these women had real problems to solve--problems that demanded new aesthetic forms, new communities, new identities. Hence Tee Corinne's 1975 Cunt Coloring Book (these were the days when no one knew what pussies looked like) or the Berwick Street Film Collective, where artists formed an alliance with cleaning women to fight for better labor standards (these were the days when women earned much less than men--hmmm, this parallel construction might not hold up). …

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