Feminism under Glass

Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution
Vancouver Art Gallery / Fuse Magazine Review

Alexandra Phillips

Rarely has a show of the scale and scope of WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution been assembled. Representing 119 artists from 21 countries this exhibition is organized into conceptual themes surveying the years from 1965 to 1980. Curated by Cornelia Butler at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles with its only Canadian stop in Vancouver, the exhibition’s goal, in Butler’s words, is “to make the case that feminism’s impact on art of the 1970’s constitutes the most influential international “movement” of any during the postwar period…” The “ideology of shifting criteria” that constitutes feminism she writes, asserted two central tenets in the work of women artists: “the personal is political, and all representation is political (15).”Wary of “decade-based historical models (21)” Butler chose this period because the impact of the civil rights movement and the cultural revolution of 1968 propelled profound changes in art and society in the years following. The show’s title was chosen with an ear for evoking the names of activist groups of the era such as the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) or the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell (WITCH).

Butler notes that for many of the included artists (Faith Ringgold, Judith Baca, and Ana Mendieta, among others), art production often converged with political activity on other fronts such as race, class, sexual orientation, and the anti-war movement (16). WACK! constitutes not a chronology of a movement’s progression through time, but a holographic, mural-sized snapshot of the myriad discourses, practices, and challenges to the masculine canon that constituted feminist art.

This much-anticipated show opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery supported by a conference and workshops featuring feminist icons including Griselda Pollock, Judy Chicago, Faith Wilding, Harmony Hammond, and Mary Kelly, as well as local artists such as Marian Penner Bancroft, Jin Me-Yoon, Alanis Obomsawin, and Liz Magor. For those who lived through the period represented the show had the character of a pilgrimage- a great reunion of the sisterhood, with Magdalena Abakanowicz’s massive woven vermilion work: Abakan Red, hanging in the circular stairwell at its radiant center.

It was with a sense of spotting celebrities from a favorite old film that I viewed works such as Mary Beth Edelson’s Heresies: cheeky collage interventions into the canons of art history, Nancy Spero’s phallicized anti-war watercolours, Betye Saar’s construction: The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, and Eleanor Antin’s photo documentation of a diet titled Carving: A Traditional Sculpture. While Miriam Schapiro was represented by the breakaway abstract OX paintings instead of her textile “femmages”, the exhibition best captured the spirit of the times in the videos: Marina Abramovic’s neurotic hair-brushing in Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, Martha Rosler’s taxonomic disrobing and measurement of a woman by two lab-coated men in Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained, 1977, or Yoko Ono’s invitation to cut away pieces of her clothing as she sits vulnerable and unmoving in Cut Piece. WACK! in Vancouver was also complemented by a sampling of work from 18 Canadian artists representing film, video, sculpture, painting, quilt-making, and installation.

For a field trip of first-year Emily Carr students WACK! had a completely different character: this difference revealing the show’s principle shortcoming. Working our way through the exhibition it was apparent that the changes wrought by feminism have been so profound that works that once provoked shock and outrage are now regarded as curiosities. At no point did these young artists make the connection that the proliferation of media and practices that constitute contemporary art is very much the legacy of feminist inroads, and it was left to their instructor to describe the conditions women and girls encountered in the 70’s when there were virtually no female lawyers, doctors, city managers, presidential candidates or other professionals outside the traditional “nurturing” domains of teaching or nursing. Likewise for this post-Stonewall, post-Ellen generation the debt owed to feminism for confronting heterosexism and the unpacking of gender construction is only vaguely understood, just briefly explored in works such as Margaret Harrison’s cross-dressing super-heroes in the “Gender Performance” section.

Although the exhibition text described feminism’s radical ruptures in art practice, it did so in the unidentified, omnipotent voice of authority familiar from ethnographic writing. Moreover the text reported these changes in the past tense, unwittingly reinforcing the view that feminism’s reforms have long since crested and subsided. Less dry, authoritarian text would have better contextualized feminist advances that pioneered the use of textiles and “craft” media in the face of a hostile, male-dominated art world that reserved special scorn for anything personal, subjective, or domestic. It bears repeating that the art world of the 70’s was the domain of unflinching patriarchs such as Clement Greenberg for whom “significant” painting dealt only with formal issues on a grand scale, while required art history texts surveyed no women artists. From notions of mastery and the heroic individual (male artist), the courage of feminist artists literally overturned most existing ideas of what constituted art practice.

The exhibition’s museological treatment of some of the “artifacts” of feminism likewise conferred the feeling that the movement is a force consigned to the mausoleum of history. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of Carolee Schneemann’s accordian-folded script from Interior Scroll now enshrined in a Plexiglas vitrine, its tiny, handwritten type contributing to the mystification of the movement. This one piece illustrates the underlying problem with WACK! By representing an active social movement within a limited time frame many significant works have been excluded (pieces by Jana Sterbak, Lorna Simpson, Jeanine Antoni, Kara Walker, and Barbara Kruger come to mind), while the recognition that feminism is an ongoing project is diminished. Had Butler dispensed with historical categories she would have been free to make connections with contemporary practices under the conceptual categories she identified such as Social Intervention, Collective Impulse, Labor, and Social Sculpture, Knowledge as Power, Silence and Noise, Body Trauma, Body as Medium, to name a few.

For this veteran of the 70’s gender wars the raucous, irreverent, freewheeling spirit of feminism was better captured by some of the peripheral programming at alternative spaces around Vancouver, such as Montréal’s After-Party Collective. Through a series of collaborative actions like a massive cardboard send-up of Abakanowicz’s weaving to a series of blind contour drawings of participant’s own vaginas, the trio of Onya Hogan-Finlay, Hannah Jickling, and Paige Gratland playfully orchestrated nostalgic homages to works in the show. These performances stand in stark contrast to WACK!’s clinically detached treatment of Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book for example, described as “an educational guide as well as a celebration of a much misunderstood part of the human body.”

As a stimulant to initiating fresh mainstream dialogue on feminism the importance of this exhibition can’t be underestimated. Hopefully the show will also deliver a whack to the many galleries across Canada where men still greatly outnumber women as exhibiting artists.

Exhibition Catalogue

WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution. Lisa Gabrielle Mark, Ed. The Museum of
Contemporary Art: Los Angeles, 2007.