Fillip

Fillip 9 — Winter 2009

If You Aren't Mad as Hell You Haven't Been Paying Attention
Lea Feinstein and Christian L. Frock

In 2007, a series of high-profile exhibitions re-examined feminist art from a historical perspective, most notably WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a number of institutions also presented exhibitions that attempted to explore feminism from a contemporary standpoint.1 Critic Lea Feinstein and independent curator and writer Christian L. Frock sat down to talk about this renewed interest in feminist art.

Christian L. Frock: Recently, in the Bay Area, there were many exhibitions that were positioned as explorations of feminism, and I am not exactly sure that I know why. I saw very few works that felt politically rigourous enough to be called feminist, but perhaps I am applying an outmoded idea of feminism to these exhibitions. For example, is it a “feminist exhibition” when the roster is strictly limited to women artists? Or, is an exhibition inherently feminist when it is organized by a woman curator? What is it that made these exhibitions specifically “feminist”? I feel that if an exhibition is going to be exploring feminism it should examine certain ideas that connect it to feminism as an ideology as it relates to contemporary issues.

Lea Feinstein: Like what?

Frock: Referencing traditional notions of the feminist movement—to my thinking it came about because women were arguing for equality in the workplace; it had to do with reproductive rights, gender identity, sexual politics. And, you can flesh this out because you were part of the second wave. What was the milieu?

Feinstein: I was thinking about that this morning. In retrospect, it is always hard to see what the context was—definitely the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement—and I was thinking, “How did it happen? How did the bra burning happen?” It felt to me like a confluence of events. At the same time, there were male/female struggles at SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], the Weathermen were having debates about men and women sharing power, students were rioting in the colleges....

Frock: And all of this was in response to...?

Feinstein: This is what I would call the climate in which feminism became a movement. Feminist art takes place in this larger context, along with Gloria Steinem and the advent of _Ms. _magazine. It was definitely about reproductive rights, equal rights in the workplace, childcare—all of these things that are still issues and that we are still fighting for. Women were trying to decide what kind of birth control to use and whether to change their last names when they got married or not. They were trying to decide if they could live with their boyfriends without telling their parents. How do all of these things affect the art that was being made as well? In the 70s somebody asked if I wanted to work on this project by a woman named Judy Chicago; women were all going to get together and sew table runners. I said let me see what the work looks like. I looked at some of the plates, and I decided I wasn’t interested. I am not a big fan of “vaginal” art, you know?

Frock: What about Carolee Schneeman’s scroll?

Feinstein: Yeah, Interior Scroll _(1975). Well, performance art is different—I do like the performance part of it. Annie Sprinkle. She’s another later feminist—she just got married in a performance art piece recently at UC Santa Cruz as part of the _Interrupt! Intervene! Art as Social Practice conference this spring. She did another performance once that comes to mind where she basically laid on the stage and invited people to come up and do an exploration of her vagina. I pair that in my mind with Yoko Ono’s original performance of Cut Piece _(1965) where she sat still and invited people to come up and cut off her clothes. That level of vulnerability was a hallmark of early feminist performances. The thing that was amazing was that it all cracked open—and I am not talking about Annie Sprinkle now because she was later—I am talking about earlier. I am thinking of the Fluxus artists in the 60s, like Shigeko Kubota’s performance _Vagina Painting, _(1965) where she tied a paint brush around her waist so that it hung down between her legs, and then she dipped it in ink and created a long scroll painting during the _Perpetual Fluxus Festival. I think that the vaginal stuff grossed out a lot of people—it grossed out a lot of guys, right and left.

Frock: Those are the works that also alienated a younger generation of women and made many distance themselves from a feminist identity. The perception among my generation, post-third wave, was that feminist art practice was angry and gross and violent—especially the vaginal work.

Feinstein: But, I don’t think that all feminist art has to be vaginal. I know that I am very much a feminist, but to me feminism is a much broader discussion. It has to do with equal pay for equal work. It is about Elizabeth Cady Stanton—women’s right to vote, empowerment of women across the board. But the movement fractured a lot. I have been reading Richard Meyer’s writing about the controversial cover of the WACK! catalogue, which is Martha Rosler’s collage of Playboy pin-ups (1966).2 Lots and lots of controversy about that, between women of all stripes.

Frock: Sure—because there are some feminists who take issue with pornographic images and some who consider it empowering.

Feinstein: One woman said that she flew to Los Angeles to see the show, bought the catalogue, and was sitting on the plane between two guys on her way home. She took the cover off the book so that she could read it because she didn’t want them gazing at the book. She didn’t want to send any signals.

Frock: Why? Because she didn’t want to be perceived as a reader of Playboy? Oh, but that could have been a performance in and of itself! That was a lost opportunity on her part. [Laughter]

Feinstein: The thing that I want to talk about from that period was the experience of seeing art for the first time that really felt like “who I was”—and it wasn’t Judy Chicago or any of those people. There were a couple of critical artists: Magdalena Abakanowicz was one of them, but I really found out about her later. Lee Bontecou, who was the only woman being shown at Leo Castelli when I was in graduate school in the late 60s and early 70s, who later disappeared and has more recently been resurrected. She was making these pieces that were welded steel rods with some kind of fabric. They looked like exhaust pipes. They were a mix of hard and soft materials and there were holes—she has continued to make eye sockets—but for whatever reason, the work was about cavities. Those pieces were very wonderful to me. She was very important to me; so were Louise Bourgeois and Eva Hesse.

Frock: And this is to say that they were important to you at a time when they were all actively making work. For you to say that Eva Hesse was important to you is so different from for someone of my generation to say that her work is important to them. It is all part of a historical context for me—for you, it was a firsthand experience of groundbreaking work.

Feinstein: Her artistic DNA has multiplied so many times and is so rich and fertile for the artists who have come after her. One of the most important characteristics of her work was that it was unheroic. That is to say that it occupied a certain zone between the viewer and the wall, or the viewer and the traditional art space. It wasn’t held apart. It was enough in your face, but it was made from soft material that would eventually decay. It had a lot to do with what we now call “body process” and the fragility of life. Kiki Smith’s work over the years is very strongly in line with Hesse. Things that reminded you, like what Mr. Rogers said, “Boys are fancy on the outside and girls are fancy on the inside.” There was a whole discussion about “fanciness on the inside.” I think that this is where installation comes from. With installation you are in the middle of the womb and to see the fanciness you have to be inside before you can see what it is about. I really feel like installation has come from Eva Hesse in that way. And, Louise Bourgeois is another person who I think is extremely important for her investigation of the psychoanalytic. Her installations feel like you have stumbled into some corner of a person’s mind where some primal sexual trauma has taken place—and we all know that it came from her father fucking the baby sitter—but basically Louise Bourgeois made six-foot marble phalluses and soft forms that to me felt like no man would have ever made. I had revelations when I saw that stuff. I had never seen work like this before—and it wasn’t about blood, it wasn’t about vaginas. I could say “I am looking at myself,” and that was huge to me.

Frock: Modern Painters did a commission with Louise Bourgeois last spring—she had the cover and then there was a series of reproductions of watercolours inside. The cover was a stunning watercolour image of a pregnant female body with the baby, the fetus, inside. And it was a real body, not glamourized, but real in the sense of proportions. It was phenomenal to have this thing come in the mail—so raw, all red, and just amazing.

Feinstein: And, it spoke to you in a deep way. Those are the kinds of things that I am talking about. When I was pregnant and had my first son I imagined making a book called The Mother’s First Aid Guide, and the first chapter would have been called “Fatigue: The Great Psychosis” because of how tired you are. At the same time I stumbled upon Mary Kelly’s Postpartum Document (1973–79). There wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about her entries—what was remarkable was that she had made that time in her life into her work. I know that there are a lot of other people who have done that, too....But the fact that she had made something about that was fabulous. It was a topic that was as good to make art about as war, and I wondered why I hadn’t seen more of it—art that told me the truth about what it felt like to be woman, a mother. It is like menopause. Why isn’t there more work about menopause?

Frock: That is, in a sense, what I keep coming back to. You say, for example, that you don’t see enough work about menopause or artists dealing with menopause. And I wonder about other issues that are relevant to women today—new issues that no one could have anticipated 40 or 50 years ago when feminism was cracking open, such as the option to have children later in life, freezing one’s eggs, same-sex marriage, and so on. I wonder: if feminism were a movement that was happening now with the same vigour that it had in the beginning, what would be the issues that we would be up in arms about? I realize that some of my contemporaries might argue that feminism is still vigourous—but I am talking about the level of vigour that was demonstrated at the onset, one that parallels rage. What is being done now with the same emotional equivalent as bra burning? I don’t see work with the same kind of emotional force that I am expecting to—especially odd since there are so many shows. I see WACK! taking place in Los Angeles and going on the road as a historical exhibition, a retrospective. And, there have been so many shows around the San Francisco Bay Area in the last year that aim to address feminism, but I don’t feel like they are addressing contemporary feminisms. Perhaps this is as a result of the settings—these shows are all either in museum spaces or fairly established alternative spaces with a tendency to show works that are “institution-ready” and less experimental or performative. Either the work seems to be derivative of the historical works or the notion of feminism as a thesis is very loosely defined by bringing together a group exhibition of women whose work addresses disparate issues that may or may not have any political agenda at all.

Feinstein: Well, I think that one important thing to consider, in terms of feminism and women’s rights, is that it is much more global than it was. We are much more aware of what is happening—like with the sex trade in Eastern Europe or about what happened in the Bosnian War—and about how women in other countries are brutalized or deprived of education. The political picture has gotten bigger. They used to say in the 70s that “the personal is political,” but I think that the global is personal now. When you see a video like Maja Bajevic’s Double Bubble (2001), with a Bosnian woman talking about getting beaten up, and it is playing in an American museum, you identify with her.3

Frock: In a conversation that I had with Marcia Tanner, the curator of that exhibition, she referred to her point of view as “feminist-inflected” and went on to say that the artists in the exhibition don’t present themselves as feminist artists in the tradition of Judy Chicago or the WACK! contingent in that their work does not deal only with patriarchal exclusion, but the ways in which patriarchal power structures oppress everybody. That kind of leads back to what you started to say about there being a broader spectrum of political concerns as part of the vernacular and that feminism now is less about the individual experience and more global.

Feinstein: Yes, I think that does address it. Of course, there are still women’s issues worldwide. I am thinking about Deepa Mehta’s 2005 film Water, about an 8-year-old girl who is betrothed to a man who dies, and she has to go live in the widows’ house for the rest of her life as an outcast, as is the tradition in India. It’s a story that really speaks to me. Films, in this way, have offered an education about the plight of women in other cultures. I think that video art works are doing that now, too.

Frock: And also in other new media, like the audio installation by Swoon and Tennessee Jane Watson, Portrait of Silvia-Elena (2008) at Yerba Buena. On the surface, that work seemed to nail an urgent feminist issue, a crisis really: the femicide happening in Juarez, Mexico,4 which should be at the forefront of any contemporary feminist discussion. People should be rioting in the streets, but it is happening in a remote part of the world, and the press about it is very limited. That is the type of work that I am expecting to see in an exhibition about contemporary feminism, except I want it to be more impactful and to incite outrage. That piece was one of the better examples of work that addressed a dire, contemporary feminist issue in the Yerba Buena exhibition. At the same time, I was disappointed that the museum hadn’t attempted to make the work more accessible; I am not sure that someone unfamiliar with Juarez would have understood this work at first pass. There was very little in terms of explanation, and the audio aspect of the work was all in Spanish. It felt like a lost opportunity to make the story public. My feeling is that feminism is a kind of activism: if you are going to make work in this vein, or show it for that matter as a curator, it had damned well better rock the boat. It should not be easy to overlook.

Feinstein: I think that what makes the shows that we have seen in the Bay Area a bit sterile and myopic is the tendency to look at the issues as being divorced from all of the other things that are happening in the world. So, when I see a show like The Way that We Rhyme at Yerba Buena and I see photographs such as Eve Fowler and Math Bass’s Gloria Hole (2007), it feels to me as if a lot of feminist issues—or at least the “angry” ones that you have talked about—parallel some of the controversies that you could read about in Ms. written by people who were super-militant and would argue that you were not really a feminist if you slept with men or wore lipstick. I never subscribed to that. I think that this position alienated a younger generation of women.

Frock: So, in a way, what we are seeing is the result of a neutralized argument about contemporary feminist issues. The passion, hostility, and raw physicality as it was cultivated by the second wave generation of feminism has been mitigated. Now, post-third wave, the discussion is less vivid and the urgency has dissipated.

Feinstein: It reminds me of going to see a panel in the early 1970s with the Christian Science Monitor art critic Theodore Wolff. He was speaking about new sculpture. He was saying, in public, to a large group, that all the best new work was being done by women—but, he said, “I don’t have the words to write about it. I don’t know how to talk about it.” He could see that it was good and important, but he didn’t know how to create a discourse around the work. It was a huge thing for me to hear him say that, like I had a responsibility to write. Not like I could bridge the gap, but that I could at least speak the language. I did love, though, that he was smart enough and honest enough to say that he didn’t have the words to write about the work. I think that a lot of the reasons why women’s work, feminist or not feminist, wasn’t covered was that people had to invent a new language. The question then was, “How do you begin?”

Frock: And now, it seems, the question has evolved to, “How do we continue?”

Notes
  1. Additional exhibitions included Small Things End, Great Things Endure, curated by Jill Dawsey and Maria del Carmen Carrión, New Langton Arts, San Francisco, 17 January– 15 March 2008; and Make You Notice, curated by Patricia Maloney, San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, San Francisco, 27 March–24 May 2008.
  2. Richard Meyer, “Richard Meyer on the WACK! Catalogue,” Artforum (summer 2007): http://artforum.com/inprint/id=15381.
  3. Featured in We Interrupt Your Program, curated by Marcia Tanner, Mills College Art Museum, Oakland, California, 16 January–16 March 2008.
  4. In 2003, Amnesty International issued a report, Intolerable Killings: 10 years of abductions and murders of women in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua, highlighting the pattern of killings and abductions of women in Ciudad Juárez and the city of Chihuahua. The report concluded that 370 women had been murdered in a variety of contexts, possibly a third of which indicated sexual violence. More than half of the cases have still not resulted in the perpetrators being brought to justice, and doubt remains about the soundness of the judicial procedures given allegations of torture. See “Mexico: Killings and abductions of women in Ciudad Juarez and the City of Chihuahua—the struggle for justice goes on,” http://amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR41/012/2006/en/dom-AMR410122006en.html.
About the Authors
Lea Feinstein is an artist and critic. Her writing has appeared most recently in Artnews magazine and SFWeekly. She lives and works in Stanford, California.

Christian L. Frock is an independent curator and writer. Her independent curatorial endeavor, Invisible Venue, collaborates with artists to present art in unexpected settings in and around a 101-year-old flat in West Oakland.

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