AGENTS OF CHANGE
Women, Art and Intellect
547 West 27th Street, Suite 201, Chelsea
Through Feb. 24
In a gathering wave of feminist shows this season, “Agents of Change: Women, Art and Intellect” is a modest but timely arrival. Organized by the artist Leslie King-Hammond, dean of graduate studies at Maryland Institute College of Art, with an immaculate installation by Lowery Stokes Sims, former president of the Studio Museum in Harlem, it’s a multiethnic, multigenerational selection of work by 19 artists spanning some 40 years. If there’s a theme, it’s a loose one: feminist art happened in many forms; it is still happening in many forms.
The earliest piece is a 1963 painting by Faith Ringgold, “American People Series: Between Two Friends,” in which two women, one dark-skinned, one light-skinned, face each other across a solid vertical divide. It was way ahead of its time in pointing to a major rift, along racial lines, in organized feminist politics to come.
Ana Mendieta’s 1974 photographic series, “Untitled (Body Print),” mixes sexuality, violence and mortality in a moving and disturbing performance: these pictures could be about Iraq today. Nancy Grossman’s “Sketch for Double Tethered Figure” from the same year paved the way for her extraordinary leather-bound sculptural heads, which blew conventional images of femininity to smithereens and helped open the door for younger artists like Laura Aguilar, Nicole Eisenman, Catherine Opie and Kara Walker.
Many artists with roots in the 1970s are now doing their most ambitious work. One is Joyce Kozloff, who has been producing a multipart, installation-scale world history of war and colonialism. And, as always, artists are in communion with other artists: Miriam Schapiro channels Mary Cassatt; Lesley Dill draws on Emily Dickinson; Mimi Gross, in a life-size group portrait, gathers a roomful of female artists associated with the influential cultural critic Arlene Raven, who died last year and to whom the show is dedicated.
Judging by appearances, most, if not all, of the women in the portrait are white. The old racial rift has not been bridged, and this reality demands concentrated attention and debate, starting now. The Ceres show, an initiative of the Feminist Art Project centered at Rutgers University, coincides with the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Manhattan this weekend. The conference has scheduled a series of panels on feminism, which will, presumably, address ethnicity, “queerness” and divide-to-conquer art marketing.
Of course, art conceived from a feminist perspective has always tried to trip up the machinery of the academic art industry and raise a collective voice, in myriad ways only beginning to be defined. You’ll find some evidence of this in the Ceres show; some more in “Re:Generation,” a survey of emerging female artists at Smack Mellon in Dumbo, Brooklyn (through March 11), and still more in “What F Word?” at Cynthia Broan Gallery in Chelsea (through March 17).
Taking the Measure of Sexism: Facts, Figures and Fixes
BY Maura Reilly POSTED 05/26/15
We can and must draw on the history of feminism as a struggle for universal suffrage. If, as Adiche declares, a “feminist” is quite simply “a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” then it is a concept that many can readily embrace. Indeed, the year 2014 saw an unprecedented number of celebrities “come out” as feminists—Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, John Legend, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling, Laverne Cox, among others—demonstrating not, as some skeptics propose, that feminism is being dumbed down, but rather that the quest for equality has moved across the bastions of academia to everyday discussions.
We can and must build from the historiography of feminist and women’s art shows, which for over four decades have either directly or indirectly addressed concerns of sexism in the arts. Beginning in the 1970s with landmarks like “Womanhouse” and “Women Artists: 1550–1950,” through the 1980s and 1990s with “Bad Girls” and “Sexual Politics,” to the more recent “WACK!” and “Global Feminisms,” exhibitions have functioned as curatorial correctives to the exclusion of women from the master narratives of art history, and from the contemporary art scene itself.
We can and must continue to organize conferences, launch feminist magazines, like Ms., Bitch, andBust, and run blogs like the CoUNTess, an Australian website run by Elvis Richardson that started in 2008 and is soon to embark on a year-long data-collection study titled Close Encounters, funded by the Cruthers Art Foundation. When complete, Close Encounters will be the first online resource to establish a benchmark for gender representation in contemporary visual arts in Australia.
We can continue to establish and participate in feminist coalitions such as the Women’s Caucus for Art and the Feminist Art Project. We must continue to start feminist collectives and artist-run initiatives like A.I.R. Gallery and Ceres Gallery in New York; ff in Berlin; Brown Council in Sydney;Electra Productions, the Inheritance Projects, and SALT in London; FAG (Feminist Art Gallery) in Toronto; and La Centrale in Montreal. We can establish and participate in direct-action groups fighting discrimination against women, like Women’s Action Coalition, which was hugely vocal and influential during the ’90s, Fierce Pussy, the Brainstormers, and, of course, the Guerrilla Girls.
Feminist manifestos generate publicity, which pushes the conversation forward. In 2005 Xabier Arakistain launched the Manifiesto Arco 2005, which demanded equality in Spanish museums. It was symbolic—none of the museums acted on it—but it did garner international press.
Teachers can and must offer women’s and feminist art courses and teach from a feminist perspective to present a more inclusive canon. Similarly, participation in feminist curatorial initiatives like “fCu”(Feminist Curators United) or “If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want To Be Part of Your Revolution” (a curatorial group from Amsterdam founded in 2005 by curators Frédérique Bergholtz, Annie Fletcher, and Tanja Elstgeest) moves academic feminism into the public sphere.
We can hold collectors accountable. If one encounters a private collection with few women in it, one might consider sending a Guerrilla Girls “Dearest Art Collector” postcard, which reads, “It has come to our attention that your collection, like most, does not contain enough art by women. We know that you feel terrible about this and will rectify the situation immediately.” Art collectors have the power to demand a broader selection than what they’re being offered by most gallerists.
We can also hold museum boards accountable. Boards have acquisition committees to whom curators present objects for possible purchase. With the majority of boards composed of male members, a curator’s task is all the more difficult if s/he is presenting work by a woman artist for consideration. If museum collection policies were modified to attend to gender discrepancies, then perhaps acquisitions could be more justly made.
Not only do we need to ensure that women’s work is purchased, we need to continue to curate women-only and feminist exhibitions as well as ones with gender parity. “In order to address . . . disparity, curators need to work much harder, and become much more informed, especially when examining art from other contexts that they are not familiar with or not living in,” says Russell Storer, senior curator at the National Gallery in Singapore. “Curators need to become aware of what women are doing, how women are working, the kind of ideas and interests that women are dealing with, and that can be quite different to what male artists are doing.” This is not affirmative-action curating, it’s smart curating.
And, yes, we need to keep crunching the numbers. Counting is, after all, a feminist strategy. In 2013,The New York Times Book Review responded to data showing it infrequently featured female authors by appointing Pamela Paul as its new editor and making a public commitment to righting the balance.
This is what we need to do in the art world: right the balance.
Maura Reilly is an author and curator based in New York. In 2007, she co-curated, with Linda Nochlin, the exhibition “Global Feminisms,” for the Brooklyn Museum.