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A feminist breakout

MOCA surveys the powerful influence of gender politics on art over the last half-century.

March 05, 2007|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

MOST any weeknight it's possible to turn on television's political chat show "Hardball With Chris Matthews" and watch the host launch jaw-dropping slurs in the direction of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). He's described her as "witchy," "uppity" and a "girl" prone to "giggling," with nary a burble of protest from program guests. He characterized her unveiling of a presidential candidacy as being "like a stripteaser."

One measure of the 1970s feminist revolt is that today, in our shiny new millennium, a woman can be the front-runner in polls for the 2008 presidential race, while a man can direct gender-based insults at her with virtual impunity. Sexism, like the poor, will always be with us. But it also mutates like some intransigent virus, determined to survive.

Celebrity status even awaits the woman who chooses femininity as a disparaging bludgeon, internalizing society's deep-seated prejudice. The widely read New York Times pundit Maureen Dowd famously dissed former presidential candidate Al Gore for being "so feminized ... he's practically lactating." And in recent weeks she's pictured Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) as "legally blond," and compared him to flirtatious Scarlett O'Hara at the Twelve Oaks barbecue. Pity the man who isn't a crude cliche of manliness.

At the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" traces the invigorating collision between gender politics and art that characterized so much art production in the 1970s. This historical overview's timely, topical relevance is inescapable. MOCA, virtually alone among American art museums, has a long record of doing the heavy lifting required to organize essential surveys that chronicle powerful developments in art of the last half-century. "WACK!" now adds feminist art to an unparalleled roster that includes, among others, histories of Minimal, Conceptual and performance art.

The culture-altering clash of feminism with art can partly be encapsulated by "Soft Gallery," a snazzy reinterpretation of a 1973 installation by Argentine artist Marta Minujin, collaborating with Richard Squires. Some 200 mattresses have been lashed together with rope on a steel superstructure to create the floor, walls and ceiling of an enormous walk-in cube. A mattress is a site for sleeping, perchance to dream, as well as for sexual liaison. A gallery is a site for art encounters.

Put them together and a mattress gallery resonates as a site for pleasure, play, invention and -- quite possibly -- for highly charged psychological and social conflict.

If you're unfamiliar with Minujin's work, you're probably not alone. Former MOCA curator Connie Butler has assembled an exhaustive review of work by 119 artists from 21 countries, and one of her show's virtues is the abundance of unfamiliar work.

Fittingly for today's internationalism, "WACK!" seeks to move feminist art out from beneath a familiar American (and, somewhat less so, British) umbrella, to chart its global emergence instead. The show's two largest bodies of work represent well-known California rabble-rousing pioneers, Martha Rosler and Lynn Hershman, but the next largest are from international artists with far lower profiles: Croatia's Sanja Ivekovic, India's Nasreen Mohamedi (who died in 1990 at 53) and Australia's Ann Newmarch.

Rather disconcertingly, "Soft Gallery" also looks like it could have been made last week. True, the free-standing cube is a contemporary reinterpretation of a temporal event: In 1973, the artists lined the interior of an actual Washington, D.C., gallery with mattresses salvaged from a nearby hotel. But would anyone be surprised to see either version as a brand-new work by a young artist showing in a Chinatown or Chelsea gallery now?

One premise of "WACK!" is that feminism has been the most influential movement for art in the last 40 years -- more effectual than Pop, Post-Minimalism or Conceptualism, which usually take that honor. Butler might be right, but there's a downside to that pervasive influence.

Form is what conveys visual experience. Feminist artists therefore faced a nettlesome formal conundrum: Painting and sculpture were the traditional province of masculine prerogatives. "WACK!" reconfirms that the most common solution was to set aside painting and sculpture in favor of camerawork -- still photography, media-based collage, documented performances, films and video art. Works in those mediums constitute most of the show.

In the 1960s and '70s camera images occupied an art ghetto of lesser stature -- not unlike women artists themselves. Given art's clotted, exclusionary history, why not turn toward a thoroughly modern medium that did not come trailing so much baggage? One that, in the case of video, was even brand spanking new? If the art world's social restrictions are simply a microcosm of the larger world, why stay locked inside?

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