April 9, 2007

The Women in the Picture

Art Fag City: A pair of shows explore two generations of feminist video art

By Paddy Johnson

A.L. Steiner + robbinschilds, Sills from C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience), Part 1, 2007, Digital video. (Photo courtesy: Taxter and Spengemann)

Call it pathological, but I can't look at an exhibition of video and other wall-mounted works from the 1960s without thinking about the lineage of that genre and how it affects art making today. In the case of a movement like Pop Art, the results are fairly obvious as artists continue to make work inspired by mass culture iconography. But try pinning down feminism, and you'll have a much more difficult time. Part of this stems from the fact that most contemporary artists resist being identified with a particular movement, but this is especially true for feminism, a label that tends to be a bit of liability, even if the same can be said for its more politically maligned counterpart chauvinism.

Role Play: Feminist Art Revisited 1960-1980
at Gallery LeLong and A.L. Steiner + robbinschild's C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience) at Taxter and Spengemann inspired my most recent thinking on the subject; using these two exhibitions as a reference point, a viewer can find as many similarities as differences in feminist video art made yesterday and today. Comprising heavyweights Marina Abramovic, Lynda Benglis, Yoko Ono, Martha Rosler and Hannah Wilke, the film program at Gallery LeLong includes a major feminist work by each artist, with all but one video specifically addressing the body. Abramovic brushes her hair to the point of pain, repeating "art must be beautiful, artist must be beautiful"; a naked woman's body slowly becomes covered with flies in Ono's Fly; Benglis's 12-minute video Female Sensibility features a close up of two women French kissing; and Through The Large Glass, by Wilke, documents the artist disrobing behind Marcel Duchamp's sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, (also known as The Large Glass) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Barring Rosler's 1975 video The Semiotics of the Kitchen, the work pretty much defines what you'd expect to see from feminist art made during such a highly-politicized time. It questions the erotic representation of women in art history, often removing beauty and creating rather disturbing work. Rosler mostly leaves the body out of her film, instead running an A - Z list of kitchen utensils and what a woman should do with them. Her actions largely suggest losing your shit for having to spend so much time in a place you don't necessarily want to be: "ladel" inspires a spoon-and-toss motion and "fork" a forceful stabbing arm thrust towards the camera. Though it might sound grave, the piece does not take itself too seriously; by the time Rosler gets to U, she simply spells the rest of the letters in the alphabet out with her arms, shrugging at the end to personalize an act that otherwise might rub people the wrong way for its didacticism.

It's a small gesture ensuring that contemporary art audiences remain receptive to her work, though many active feminist artists of that time have not been so lucky. For all the recent exhibitions reflecting on feminism then and now, (Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art and the forthcoming The Feminine Mystique at the Jersey City Museum, to name just a few,) there remains a stigma within the art world to attach an overt social message to an artist's practice. Today, the word "radical" might as well be a synonym for "derivative" or "desperate plea for attention." Unfortunately, whether or not we like the limitations of social favor, there's not a hell of a lot we can do about it, so those in the field simply have to work to push these limits by whatever means they can afford.

Probably the most logical means of doing so remains part of current feminist practice: Like the women in Role Play, contemporary artists rarely define themselves solely as feminist art makers. Now in her mid-30s, A.L. Steiner has created a prolific body of work that includes photography and video, membership in the band Chicks on Speed and co-editing and curating in queer feminist collective Ridykeulous with painter Nicole Eisenman. Her latest work C.L.U.E., a collaboration with the dance partners robbinschild at Taxter and Spengemann, does not address feminism as overtly as some of her raunchier photographs at John Connelly gallery did in 2005, but it does maintain the current of that ideology. Emphasizing Steiner's compositional prowess in music, graphics and color combination, the piece basically sets two women dancing to a tune in various urban and rural landscapes in monochromatic colored outfits. On some level it's hard not to wonder why this should be anything more than a rock video starring two girls who shop at Beacon's Closet, but the absence of the male figure in all but one almost incidental moment in a parking lot -- and the abundance of labial mountainous forms -- creates a landscape too conspicuous to ignore. I can only speculate on meaning (Part II has not yet been released), but chances are the reading won't be a straightforward narrative, so like any art video, interpretations can be drawn from the sequence of visuals presented.

As for what this tells us about the lineage of feminist art from the '60s until today, on some level, not that much has changed. Gallery LeLong's aptly titled Role Play shows a resistance to assigned gender roles that remains a critical aspect of contemporary feminist art making. On the surface, C.L.U.E. does not specifically address this subject, but take a look at most music videos made in the last five years, and you'll see a difference; the women in this film are beautiful, but they are not glamorous. Taking cues from many of the artists in Role Play's film program, the Steiner/robbinschild collaboration suggests subversion can and has been achieved with simpler gestures than we typically associate with feminism. Depicting women as they are continues to be one of the most powerful acts an artist can perform today.

Paddy Johnson is the editor of the New York art blog Art Fag City

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