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Look Out, World, Here They Come!

A new generation of female artists steps to the fore, shaped by fundamental changes in society and art.

March 30, 1997|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

A lot of people have been noticing a change in art gallery exhibitions during the last several seasons. I'm talking about the abundance of interesting new work by women, which is being shown in unprecedented numbers at Santa Monica and L.A. galleries.

Many of the artists are relatively new to the scene. Among them are Jennifer Steinkamp, who makes computer-animated video projections that employ pulsating, brightly colored geometries that magically open up and dissolve their rigid architectural settings; Sharon Ellis, who paints excruciatingly beautiful, jewel-like landscapes in which ecstatic subjective experience is pitched at a very high key; and Sally Elesby and Carolee Toon, whose decorated wire sculptures and sleek, carefully groomed paintings, respectively, are extending the possibilities of abstract art.

Notably, lots of unusually memorable work is also being produced by women in their early to mid-30s. In fact, as an unaffiliated group, this younger generation may constitute the majority of today's most consistently interesting new artists.

It's worth noting that no unified ethos is represented by these young artists' work, and no medium is excluded from their practice. There's no "movement" afoot, while painting, sculpture, video, installation and photography are all being employed to superlative effect.

Sharon Lockhart makes haunted photographs that exude the palpable tension of imminent catastrophe, drawing on precedents as diverse as German portrait photographers such as August Sander and Thomas Ruff, European Romantic landscape painting and slick advertising layouts from today's fashion and lifestyle magazines. Jennifer Pastor concocts uncanny, eye-dazzling sculptures that depict a natural world subsumed by wondrous artifice.

Monica Majoli paints slowly to render mostly small erotic images, whose hyper-realist clarity contradicts their blurred distinctions between masculine and feminine, pleasure and pain. Toba Khedoori's intimate, delicately drawn images, such as train cars and cross-sections of houses, traverse vast sheets of wax-coated paper, speaking of hidden mysteries and exposed obsessions.

Monique Prieto turns computer graphics programs into a deft compositional tool for making buoyant abstract paintings, in which gentle pillows of pastel color slide across raw, unprimed canvas. In a marvelous retrieval of abstract painting from the institutional margins, where photo-based and Conceptually oriented installation art remain dominant, Michelle Fierro's abstract pictures are assembled from studio floor-sweepings.

The prevalence of painting doesn't mean installation art is over. Diana Thater's big video installations, which often incorporate disturbingly fractured scenes of nature, aren't often shown in L.A. venues these days, but they're generating considerable attention in shows in Europe and New York.

These are women who work in every imaginable corner of art's diversified field, and all of them have been gaining substantial critical notice, both at home and outside L.A. That hasn't happened before to nearly the same degree.

So, the obvious question that arises is: Why now?

And the most obvious answer is: It's a generational thing.

The seven younger artists cited above were all born since 1962. Their expectations are different from those of women born earlier. The hard-fought social gains of feminism are now a fundamental given, not a newly asserted idea that needs to unseat established habits.

The difference is inestimable between a girl-kid contemplating art school in a pre-feminist era and a girl-kid contemplating it since 1980. An essential alteration in the culture has transpired, and there's no going back.

Wrapped up within this social change, and of equal importance to it, is a fundamental artistic difference from much earlier, specifically feminist-inspired art: None of this new art could be described as having a morally instructive theme. A corner seems to have been turned, representing for women an acceptance of the same wide-open thematic freedom as men have long enjoyed in making art.

The generational shift is of course rippling through the art world at large. A change in art production is being met by changes in art distribution.

Young galleries such as Acme, Blum & Poe, Regen Projects and Richard Telles Fine Art have in part emerged into prominence by giving a platform to newly emerging artists who are women. Their expectations are likewise different: The newer dealers, like many of the newer artists, are of a generation for whom the idea of women making significant art and developing influential careers isn't just conceivable, it's expected.

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