The first feminist movement marked a time in history when women were fighting for their right to vote and to equal pay, among other things. During this time, women were also struggling to be accepted within the art scene. The feminist art movement paralleled the struggle of feminism. Women wanted to be recognized as artists in a male-dominated environment.
“Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” currently showing at The Geffen Contemporary at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, includes 119 artists from 21 countries. It is the first international survey of artwork that emerged from art and feminism in the 1970s. While the exhibit demonstrates just how the feminist movement changed the way art is seen, some of the exhibit’s explicit content may not be apt for some viewers.
Judy Chicago, a leading feminist artist featured in the show, actually found herself moving away from any female art context in order to be accepted. Her work became very minimalist, but the feminist revolution gave her a chance to be herself as a woman.
Chicago’s “Through the Flower,” a sprayed acrylic painting on canvas, was a way of providing a free space for anyone, no matter what gender. Chicago believed that art should be available to anyone.
Like Chicago, Nancy Grossman describes the feeling of oppression in her assemblage titled “No Name.” Two heads are covered with sadomasochistic masks. One has its mouth stitched shut and the other has several parts of its face, including its mouth, zipped up. The ambiguity of the heads takes on whatever meaning the viewer gives it.
Aside from symbolism, text was a major element used in several of the art pieces. In Monica Mayer’s installation “El Tendedero (The Clothesline),” she asked several women in different fields to fill out a piece of paper that began with the phrase “As a woman, what I hate most about the city is.” The majority of the women wrote in that they hated men.
In a previous installation, Mayer hung 800 of the pieces of paper to mimic a clothesline. During the showing of that installation, Mayer said her work took on more meaning and became more public when women viewing the installation chose to fill out the reverse side of the pieces of paper with what they hated most. Photographs of this installation are included in “Wack!”
In a more literal use of type, “Torture of Women” by Nancy Spero, made in 1976, tells stories of women who were tortured. The piece is set up in large frames occupying an entire gallery wall. Each frame has typewritten text, explaining pieces of different women’s stories with illustration accompanying the text.
Adrian Piper added meaning to her pieces by using a block of type on top of a single picture to express the themes of sex, race and class in the form of personal stories in her three-piece series “Political Self Portrait.” Portrait No.1 reads: “I see why it is that friendship with another woman is so important to me, yet so fragile. It is because we have not yet learned genuinely to trust one another, in spite of all that the women’s movement has achieved.”
Emerging out of the feminist revolution and feminist art was sex-positive feminism, which revolved around the idea that sexual freedom was also part of women’s freedom. This idea opposed legal and social efforts to control sexual activities.
A section of the exhibit is dedicated to adult publications like “Partner” with several racy spreads of women expressing their right to free speech through pornography. Although some of the artworks on display may seem to lose their aesthetic value to feminism, the exhibit should still be appreciated as a representation of the feminist movement.
“Wack!” includes multiple dimensions of the feminist revolution through photography, short video installations, paintings, assemblages and other mediums. The exhibit will be on display through July 16 at the Geffen Contemporary in downtown Los Angeles.