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Landmarks from a younger vantage

March 04, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic

TWO generations of artists have emerged since the 1970s, when feminists made themselves heard, but discussions about the importance and meaning of their legacy continue. The Times raised the issue with artists of these later generations at various stages of development. Here are some of their thoughts:

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Carla Gannis, 36, New York; MFA, Boston University

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina with a very strong mother. I was in beauty pageants. I was a cheerleader and homecoming queen. The first thing I felt when I went to art school was a lot of guilt. I felt that I couldn't be taken seriously if I expressed myself as a feminist because of this background or even if I liked to fix my hair. That misconstrues what feminism is about, but that's how it's been stereotyped.

The first book I read where I started to feel comfortable in my own skin is "Manifesta." It was written in 2000 by two authors the same age as me who worked at Ms. magazine, Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards. It says it's OK if you played with dolls, it's OK if you like to wear makeup and nail polish. It's such a liberating book because it deals with contradictions. "Manifesta" says that feminism isn't a bad word, but it has evolved into a word that means militancy and that's really sad. Sometimes female artists think if they come out just making feminist art, their work won't be seen as viable on its own terms.

My art has gone through such a transformation, from painting self-portrait oils to digital media. Now I'm obsessed with the female archetype of Jezebel. I'm re-imagining her through different characters in digital collages. I'm taking a lot of things from films, re-contextualizing them and overlapping time. The whole thing is, for so many years artists -- men and women -- couldn't use the word beauty. I want to explore issues of beauty. But I never want to be didactic. I want things like composition and color to be as emotive as narrative or ideology.

I'm interested in Pipilotti Rist, Mariko Mori and Cindy Sherman, people who are working with new media and identity politics. There is always a bit of humor to it too, not just earnestness. Among writers, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates are all incredible artists. You can ascertain what their politics are, but it never overcomes their craft. It's a fine line.

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Ruby Osorio, 32, Los Angeles; studied at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Mexico City

I didn't study feminist theory. I wasn't schooled in the movement of the '70s, but when I look back at that period, some of my big heroes are Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman and Louise Bourgeois. I don't think when they were making work they were asking themselves, "Do I have a feminist agenda?" They were raising questions that were compelling to them. They make very powerful work without having to espouse a feminist agenda. I relate to that line of thinking. I think the feminist movement has made it easier for artists today to pursue personal concerns, but to say an artist is feminist in some ways is limiting.

When I make work, I look at what interests me. A lot of my work is involved with internal psychology, literature, things in my experience. Sometimes I incorporate stitching, the element of craft, which came out of my personal history, women in my family. Some people look at my work from a literal perspective in that they are seeing female characters. I think my work is more than that. I've had women be very critical because my work seems very frivolous, dealing with the idea of beauty and incorporating fantastical elements. A lot of people in the art world really resist that because they think everything needs to be reduced to the conceptual, to the idea. I believe that I deal with that, but it's not always easily read on the first take. But part of the exciting thing for me being a young artist is that I have a whole lot of time to unravel those questions.

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Carson Fox, 38, New York; MFA, Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University

I went to Rutgers because it was pro-female. They promote women's work, underrepresented minorities and people from countries that don't receive a lot of attention. I really do self-identify as a feminist. In my work I think of myself as a second-generation pattern and decoration artist. But I don't see myself fitting in anywhere.

The artists I find inspiring are people like Kiki Smith. She works in all kinds of media and never feels like she has to be identified as a painter or a sculptor. I work in series, but I never stick with one thing for more than a few years. I don't know if that came from the feminist movement, but when you think of all the roles women have to play and how versatile they are, their art might reflect constantly thinking in all directions, being open-minded and not being allowed to have a single task.

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