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A Studio of Her Own

ART/WOMEN/CALIFORNIA, 1950-2000: Parallels and Intersections, Edited by Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni, University of California Press/San Jose Museum of Art: 388 pp., $65, $35 paper RUTH HARRIET LOUISE AND HOLLYWOOD GLAMOUR PHOTOGRAPHY, By Robert Dance and Bruce Robertson, University of California Press/Santa Barbara Museum of Art: 286 pp., $65, $35 paper

July 21, 2002|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch is a contributing writer to the Book Review and the author, most recently, of "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

"Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art Sections are women," proclaims a poster issued by an art collective called the Guerrilla Girls in 1989, "but 85% of the nudes are female."

A healthy corrective to the plight of women in the art world, however, can be found in "Art/Women/California," an impressive and illuminating survey of art by women in California during the last half of the 20th century. The book offers more than 100 color plates and black-and-white reproductions of artwork by female painters and sculptors, photographers and videographers, performance artists and installation artists.

Some of the images are intentionally shocking and unsettling, some are fanciful and lyrical, some are unashamed works of agitprop, and a few are all of these at once. The artists reflect such diversity in race, class and sexual orientation--and their artwork is so different in style and theme--that it sometimes seems that the only thing they have in common is the fact that they are women. Yet the editors and the contributing essayists manage to find the commonalities in experience and aspiration that bind the artists while, at the same time, embracing "a sensibility that identifies and cherishes differences."

A wide-ranging collection of essays by about 20 scholars comment upon and explain the art. Most of the essays are enlightening, even if a few are encoded in the arcane language that art critics and historians sometimes use. The art, however, always speaks for itself, and thus allows us to understand what the essayists are trying to say. "Spirit Catcher," for example, is a mixed-media assemblage by Betye Saar, a Southern California native whose ancestry is European, African and Native American. Her childhood experiences included visits to her grandmother's home in Watts, where she saw Simon Rodia at work on those monumental constructions of "found art" that survive as the Watts Towers.

When she started making art of her own in the 1960s, Saar followed Rodia's example by fashioning armatures of wood and basketry and embellishing them with stones, shells, bits of broken glass and other objects, creating works of art that "refer to the spiritual traditions of Haiti, Mexico, and Africa while also drawing on deep resources of personal memory and experience." The result, as we see in "Spirit Catcher," is a vaguely human form that looms as a kind of modern totem.

Some of the artists in "Art/Women/California" are visionaries who "explored ways for making art unfettered by the male-dominated aesthetics of the time," co-editor and co-curator Daniela Salvioni explains, even if their work was "marginalized and relegated to the status of curious asides in the official histories."

Other artists, less revolutionary in style and intent, she adds, "were often dismissed as feminized versions of the 'real' thing." What set these artists free, according to the editors, were the cultural upheavals of California in the '60s and, in particular, a renewed militancy and sense of mission in the feminist movement.

"Feminism," Salvioni insists, "forcefully made content, instead of abstraction, art's essential and critical component."

That point is illustrated, for example, by "Mattresses and Cakes," a 1993 work by Nancy Rubins in which the artist "molds the feminine domestic raw materials into a threatening, bulging sculpture some twenty feet high," writes essayist Laura Meyer, thus confronting the viewer with "the storage (and threatened release) of terrific amounts of energy."An example of art as political theater is found in a conceptual art piece titled "Ready to Order?" by The Waitresses, a group of performance artists who performed vignettes in various Los Angeles restaurants in 1978 to dramatize the problems of women who work in the food service industry, including issues of "work, food, money, stereotypes of women, and sexual harassment."

And sometimes the artist's message is both artful and forceful, as in Yolanda M. Lopez's pen-and-ink drawing of a fierce Aztec warrior in an "Uncle Sam Wants You" pose: The figure points at the viewer with one hand, crumples a set of "Immigration Plans" in the other hand, and demands of us: "Who's the illegal alien, PILGRIM?"

Ultimately, all of the artists whose work is presented and scrutinized in "Art/Women/California," whether they are activists or aesthetes, remind us that art has the power to change the way we experience the world around us--and to thereby change the world.

"Perhaps by reflecting on the myriad ways California women artists and activists have urged us to disengage from those aspects of our lives that we tend to take most for granted, and strive for new social and psychic landscapes," urges Angela Y. Davis, one of the contributing essayists, "we can begin to redefine the promise of California." (The companion exhibit to the book is at the San Jose Museum of Art through Nov. 3.)

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