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California Grrrls

The major survey 'Parallels and Intersections: Art/Women/California' sheds light on an oft-neglected group of female artists from 1950 to 2000

September 29, 2002|SCARLET CHENG

SAN JOSE — It's after-hours at the San Jose Museum of Art, a renovated library building in the heart of this city's old downtown, and JoAnne Northrup, the museum's senior curator, finds a moment to talk about the exhibition filling the institution's entire gallery space. "Parallels and Intersections: Art/Women/California, 1950-2000" is intended, she says, to be a landmark show of female artists who created landmarks in art history.

"There hasn't been a major, comprehensive women's art show since the one at LACMA in the mid-'70s, and that covered 1550 to 1950," says Northrup, who served as organizing curator for the San Jose exhibition. "That show was extremely important, but it was 25 years ago, and it didn't really discern important regional differences. California artists have been very often on the forefront and cutting edge of art making, and we recognized there was a void to be filled. This was a way of refining the idea of a women's art show, narrowing it down to a region, to a fruitful time period."

The show features 90 female artists who have lived and worked in California since 1950. There is sculpture by Los Angeles artists Betye Saar and Liz Larner. Conceptual artist Alexis Smith is included; Judy Dater's extreme parodies on femininity hang near a monitor running a documentary on "The Dinner Party," Judy Chicago's multimedia celebration of the mythical and historical heroines of "herstory."

Culled from more than 50 lenders by independent curators Diana Fuller and JoAnn Hanley, the exhibition has been broken into two parts: Media-based works went up first and will come down in October; paintings, sculpture and mixed-media works are on view until Nov. 3.

In essence, "Parallels and Intersections" explores the art created as women's roles and consciousness shifted in the second half of the 20th century. In the book that accompanies the exhibition, Susan Landauer, the San Jose museum's chief curator, calls it "subject matter that mainstream art history has neglected, not least of which is the effect of post-World War II sociopolitical conditions on the themes, issues and practices reflected by these artists."

Fuller, a former San Francisco gallery owner and the show's lead curator, and Hanley, a new-media project coordinator at USC's Annenberg Center for Communication, had a rich vein of West Coast art history with which to work. Fuller ticks off a few milestones: Judy Chicago setting up a women's studies program at Cal State Fresno, then coming to California Institute of the Arts in 1971 to run the seminal Feminist Art Program with Miriam Schapiro; the creation of Womanhouse, in 1972, a set of installations that caused a national sensation; and the founding of the Woman's Building in downtown L.A., another important feminist art institution.

"We chose artists who through their work influenced a broad spectrum of people," says Fuller. "I lived through these years and these women affected me and everyone else."

When Fuller suggests a route through "Parallels and Intersections," she starts at the staircase that leads from the first to the second floor at the museum. There, the story that underlies the exhibition gets graphic treatment in the form of a giant photographic detail from Judith Baca's "The Great Wall of Los Angeles."

The mural, which lines half a mile of the Tujunga Wash in the San Fernando Valley, is one of L.A.'s most famous public art works. For the San Jose show, Fuller chose a signal image--Rosie the Riveter. Rosie may have dutifully served her country during wartime, but in this vignette she's being sucked, feet first, into the vacuum cleaner operated by a Happy Homemaker inside a television screen, that homemaker being the 1950s ideal of the American woman.

It was also, says Fuller, a time when more women began attending art schools and tackling careers as artists. One can see the progress simply by counting the works from each decade: The 1950s and early 1960s are represented by only a handful, including a grouping of Ruth Asawa's cascading crocheted wire pieces in the lobby and Jay DeFeo's painting "The Jewel" in the main gallery. By the late '60s and '70s, the numbers are growing.

The "parallels" referred to in the show's title address five cultural communities in California--Fuller included works by African American, Asian American, Latino, European American and Native American artists. "Intersections" refers to those artists' shared concerns--feminism, for example, is an element in many of the works--and techniques.

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