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Push-Pull of Feminist Art

Four respected figures in feminist art share their opinions about what has happened to the movement in the years since Judy Chicago's controversial 'Dinner Party' was first assembled in 1979.

April 21, 1996|Suzanne Muchnic

Is feminism still alive and well in the art world? Or did it fizzle after its explosion in the 1970s? Has feminism made a difference in the visual arts? Does anybody care? These questions come to mind with the reassembling of Judy Chicago's groundbreaking feminist collaborative sculpture, "Dinner Party."

The work, designed by Chicago and executed in 1974-79 by a volunteer labor force, celebrates 1,038 women in Western history. Thirty-nine honorees are represented by symbols of sexual imagery on ceramic plates, set on a monumental triangular table; names of the remaining 999 appear on white porcelain floor tiles. When the piece was first shown, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979, it drew record attendance and became a flash point for criticism of feminist art. Supporters hailed the work as a breakthrough for women, while detractors objected to its formal character, sexual focus and cult-like status.

"Sexual Politics: Judy Chicago's Dinner Party in Feminist Art History" brings the work to Los Angeles for the first time, in a major exhibition opening Wednesday at UCLA at the Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. The show places Chicago's massive project in a context with works by about 50 other women, inviting new evaluations of feminist art. In anticipation of the discussions that certainly will follow the show's opening, Times art writer Suzanne Muchnic assembled a round-table gathering of four women who have strong opinions about and diverse experiences in feminist art, both the new and the established.

Judy Fiskin, 50, is an artist who is represented by the Patricia Faure Gallery and teaches photography at CalArts. In 1973 she was co-director of Womanspace Gallery, a pioneering feminist showcase at the Woman's Building in Los Angeles. Amelia Jones, 34, is curator of "Sexual Politics" and associate professor of art history and theory at UC Riverside. Libby Lumpkin, 44, is an art historian, critic and contributing editor to Art issues. magazine and teaches at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her book "Little Histories" will be published next year. Rachel Rosenthal, 69, is an interdisciplinary solo performer who founded L.A.'s experimental Instant Theater in 1955 and was a leading figure in Los Angeles' women's movement in the 1970s. Since 1989 she has been director of the Rachel Rosenthal Company, a nonprofit performance group.

All of the participants preferred to look at the big picture, not just at the topical "Dinner Party." In an animated and frequently heated session, they talked about the evolution of feminist art, its influence and its current status.

QUESTION: During the course of this discussion we'll take a long view of feminist art, looking both backward and forward as we size up its status and impact. But let's begin in the present. Where does the feminist art movement stand right now?

Libby Lumpkin: I think it's dead. It's had tremendous successes; post-modernism is feminist, so we're living in a feminist time. But in terms of art, it has become prescriptive. I think the current reigning feminist discourse is yanking artists in rather than pushing them forward.

Amelia Jones: I strongly disagree. Calling it a feminist art movement is no longer an accurate way of dealing with it, but I would say that feminism is an incredibly central, if often hidden, component of much contemporary practice. So in that sense it's a really lively, important aspect of a lot of the work that's being done now. What I disagree with the most is this idea that there's a kind of monolithic feminism that is prescribing what artists are supposed to be doing. Various groups of people have articulated specific ideas that have then become rather frozen.

Looking back to the '80s, we can now see that the "male gaze" rhetoric--the idea of getting away from representing the female body at all, to completely erase the possibility of men engaging pleasurably in representations of the female body--became a very prescriptive kind of dialogue. But one can also look at the incredible diversity within feminism, which now I would say is largely characterized precisely through its multiplicity. It never was a singular discourse, but even less now than ever.

Lumpkin: I don't even know an artist in this generation who isn't feminist. My problem is that the discourse tends to look at certain art that has feminist themes and call that feminist art. I'm much more interested in art that has feminist effects rather than feminist themes. I understand that there are a lot of diverse theories because I spend a lot of my time reading about them, but they're all tied together by this basic kind of assumption about women--that they're virtuous.

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