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The next big thing

`WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution' is signature MOCA, an ambitious attempt to rethink the history of contemporary art.

March 04, 2007|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

BIG ideas in contemporary art are in short supply, but the Museum of Contemporary Art is about to spring a whopper. "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" -- a global survey of a messy, contentious, perpetually controversial art movement -- opens today at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, the museum's cavernous showcase in Little Tokyo.

"My ambition for 'WACK!' is to make the case that feminism's impact on art of the 1970s constitutes the most influential international 'movement' of any during the postwar period," curator Cornelia Butler states in the exhibition's hefty catalog. Although feminist art is often thought to be a ragged footnote of art history, she contends that the feminist social movement fundamentally changed the practice of art, exerting a stronger impact on artists than any other force in the last half-century.

Based on the conviction that entrenched social and cultural systems favor men, hard-core feminist art often takes the form of protest, and it can be extremely strident. But feminist ideas also have propelled relatively subtle reconsiderations of how art is made, where it is shown and what it has to say. Butler, on staff at MOCA for 10 years before her recent move to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has grappled with a huge range of material.

Eight years in the making, the exhibition fills 22,500 square feet of exhibition space with about 450 works -- sculpture, painting, photography, film, video and performance -- by 119 artists from 21 countries. The title, "WACK!," is a made-up word, inspired by acronyms adopted by activist groups and political communities that concentrated on women's issues and cultural projects in the 1970s.

From its punchy moniker to its lineup of works recalling feminist art's glory days, the show is intended to be noticed, and there's little doubt about that. Together with the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, to be inaugurated in three weeks, "WACK!" already has inspired a nationwide bonanza of feminist exhibitions, symposia and performances, many of them in Southern California.

With all that action, feminist art is likely to become a much more substantial component of art history.

But that's what MOCA does. One of the museum's primary claims to fame is its resume of big, complicated, thematic exhibitions that shine a bright, scholarly light on contemporary art movements, slices of history and seminal moments. It has organized surveys of Minimalism, Conceptualism and performance art and explored subjects such as "At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture," "Art and Film Since 1945: Hall of Mirrors" and "Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900." "Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s" took the pulse of the city's vibrant scene; "Ecstasy: In and About Altered States" explored art's relationship to drug culture.

"One of the defining and differentiating aspects of MOCA's program is that we have always taken on large thematic and historical topics," says Jeremy Strick, director of the museum. "I think MOCA is the only museum that consistently has this as part of its program. It's something everyone here feels is very important. We are a museum of contemporary art. We are about presenting the most significant art of our time and placing it and contextualizing it.

"One element of that is the individual artist and the monographic show, but individual artists come out of a historical context, a context of ideas and practices. It doesn't do to simply show their work in isolation. To present the big ideas that have really animated the development of contemporary art is what we are here to do. It's our mission."

Paul Schimmel, MOCA's chief curator, attributes the tradition partly to "the destiny of the Geffen," a vast, bare-bones industrial building that lends itself to creative thinking on a grand scale, and to the early leadership and vision of the late Pontus Hulten, the museum's founding director, and Richard Koshalek, his successor.

"Right from the beginning, there was a certain kind of ambition that you don't see everywhere," says Schimmel, who organized "Helter Skelter," "Ecstasy" and "Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979." "The Automobile and Culture," one of the first exhibitions to fill the Geffen (then called the Temporary Contemporary), was a crowd pleaser largely dismissed by critics. But the 1984-85 extravaganza set the stage for more rigorous art historical projects.

"Each one of these epic shows is something somebody has been thinking about for a long time," Schimmel says. "We all have ideas, and it's a process of discussing what works best, what we are most passionate and knowledgeable about."

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