Sunday, August 28, 2011

!Women Art Revolution

"Altogether, 12,428 minutes of footage were 'patched together like a quilt'."

Amidst graffiti that spelled ‘vomit,’ neighbourhoods of dilapidated homes, and scenes like this one my husband shot, we found ourselves in a stunningly beautiful place in downtown Detroit last week-end. We attended the final night of the summer film series at the Detroit Institute of Arts in this stellar auditorium: (click here). I was as excited about the venue as I was about the film: !Women Art Revolution, directed by Lynn Hershman Leeson (a featured artist in the exhibition whose catalogue I worked on at the Neuberger Museum of Art earlier this year, The Deconstructive Impulse).

Leeson recounts in !W.A.R. how she wrote reviews of her work pseudonymously when she was an emerging artist, resulting in her first exhibition. Her next big accomplishment was a major sale of her work, but the collector backed out upon learning her gender because he said it would be a poor investment to buy the work of a female artist. (It’s no wonder Eleanor Antin said of her nude self-portraits, “I’m so…obviously a woman. They’re not going to take me seriously.”) Today, that body of work by Leeson is valued at 9,000 times its original price. Look who’s laughing now. Impressively, Leeson financed the film with sales from her own work, which makes me want to promote it even more.

!W. A. R. is not unlike The Heretics, which I blogged about last year. That’s not a criticism, and it may be inevitable given that both documentaries cover similar time periods, with Leeson’s being about the development of feminist art in America and Joan Braderman’s The Heretics being about the development of a magazine in New York City about feminist art. !W.A.R. is a great counterpart to The Heretics, in part because much of the footage was filmed on the opposite coast, from her living room in Berkeley, California. Some interviews were filmed elsewhere, like the one with Judy Chicago in a bathroom noted for its decent acoustics. Many of the same artists and critics, such as Harmony Hammond and Lucy Lippard, are interviewed in both films. And both films have a quirky sensibility, complete with sound effects and playful cartoons/animations. For example, !Women Art Revolution shows a cartoon of Nancy Spero being forced to show her portfolio to a gallerist on the floor instead of on a nearby sculpture stand. That is the least of the unconscionable behaviour discussed in the interviews. As in The Heretics, many of the women interviewed by Leeson root the feminist art movement in social justice and general consciousness raising. For me, there are two unforgettable clips in !W. A. R.. One is Arlene Raven’s deadpan description of her effectively going on strike as a domestic servant, followed almost immediately by the collapse of her marriage; right when you might laugh at the absurdity of cause and effect, she reveals that she was raped three days later. The other clip is of African American artist, Howardena Pindell, remembering how as a child, she was tied to her cot during nap time to prevent her from using the same bathroom as the white children. The film balances these sobering tales by including interviews with the likes of Marcia Tucker, who notes that humour is the greatest tool in fighting adversity. And it is interesting to hear from artists like Faith Wilding, who didn’t feel feminist rage as a newly married woman but found herself in the movement nonetheless.

Altogether, 12,428 minutes of footage were “patched together like a quilt”. A highlight of the film is its inclusion of archival footage other than interviews. It was a real treat to see the opening of the Womanhouse installation in which CAL ARTS students each took over a room in an old house; Congress debating whether Judy Chicago’s installation, The Dinner Party, was pornographic; and protests at the Guggenheim when a survey exhibition excluded female artists and included Carl Andre, who was acquitted controversially shortly beforehand in the murder of his artist-wife, Ana Mendieta, who fell to her death from their New York apartment.

The focus of !W. A. R. is definitely on the 1970s, but it does extend to later developments, such as the creation of the Guerilla Girls (the mask-wearing educators who continue to ask pointed questions of institutions through posters, protests, and lectures to remedy the double standard facing women artists). Also included is a discussion of the major feminist exhibition, WACK!, and interviews with several contemporary feminist artists. The one that stood out for me as a librarian was Jane Antoni saying that she couldn’t find library books on any of the feminist artists her professors suggested she look up.

Towards the end, film critic B. Ruby Ritch expresses concern that the survivors of the feminist artist movement are like old KGB agents, relegated to a scrapbook that no one’s interested in now. With its poignant interviews and its plethora of images by women artists, !Women Art Revolution will hopefully prove otherwise.

p.s. As a Canadian, I thought it was great to see images by Suzy Lake and a quotation by Blake Gopnik included in the mix!

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