There’s an exhibition in town about feminist art called The House We Built. It’s at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. With a related show in another location, it is meant to chronicle the history of feminist art. This morning, I went to see the show on the University of Minnesota campus with an acquaintance. It was a good show, and I liked the pieces in it. Beside, it was nice to have someone to view the show with, someone who appreciated it and was quite intelligent, who had lived through the decade of the ‘70s and experienced the struggle. (She wasn’t reacting “Huh?” to the pieces, either.) As we noted, it might be hard for someone today to realize the earnestness and importance, let alone the significance, of women’s struggles. Attitudes in society have evolved rather quickly in the past forty or fifty years, after all. Remembering the issues, pervasiveness, and difficulties of the Civil Rights movement and the anti-Vietnam sentiment in the U.S., feminism now seems, perhaps, an after-thought to those struggles. Yet, it involves the right and recognition of contributions of roughly half the population. Women’s rights are civil rights, after all. There is still a lot of progress to be achieved, even if it sometimes seems most of the bedrock issues have been discussed, even if their resolution, especially upon close inspection, is incomplete, and often leaves much to be desired. Reproductive rights, equal pay, objectification of female forms, even certain “glass ceilings,” are still issues; but the discussion isn’t perhaps as strident or earnest (or simple) as it once was. Today, we take a lot of what the show was about for granted. Such as art by women, that women are museum directors and fill many other previously mostly male positions, that women’s contributions to society make a difference and can and should be acknowledged. No one would dare dispute the contribution of “women’s art” to the art scene. It’s important to remember that the rights women enjoy in North America and Europe are not available to women in many countries. Even things like an education are still being fought over. In developed countries it wasn’t so long ago that women got to vote; that women had careers beyond “womanly” professions such as teaching, nursing, and typing; and that women were no longer defined solely or primarily by the man they were married to.
The show had names like Judy Chicago, but omitted artists like Louis Nevelson and Annie Leibowitz. These latter artists were, one got the message, perhaps too mainstream and not “feminist enough.”
Also annoying were the typos on the labels, most of which were, imo, a bit long. A typo was even in the first line of the entrance summary to the exhibition. Leeway had to be afforded on account of the fact that this was an exhibition at a state educational institution. At one point, however, I felt that the typos, most of them very obvious, could have been avoided if someone had just proofed the verbiage, which could have benefited from editing as well, I thought. (However, the show’s organizers and/or stagers may not have had time to re-read everything, in which case, I hope, a lesson was learned to leave adequate time for an installation.) Wouldn’t one, even after the the show opened, want to re-do a label with a typo? (It’s not like the show opened yesterday, and it’s hard to believe the typos haven’t been noticed since the exhibition open.) Mostly, this seemed like blatant carelessness, plus the fact the labels were scotch-taped onto the walls was a cheap touch, imo, that detracted from the show and seemed also, unfortunately, to cheapen the installation. The art, however, was quite spectacular. There were a number of pieces I felt were stellar; all of them carried a message.
In some, the imagery conveyed the message, like the painting near the start of the show by Patricia Olson featuring a woman dressed in a man’s tuxedo holding a tampon. Now, this was an arresting image even if it was one that clearly referenced the maleness it was in reaction to, and a good way to start the show. In other pieces, it was the virtuosity, such as several drawings where the patient and usually realistic rendering of subject matter was noteworthy. In others, it seemed to be the medium, though there were surprisingly few pieces in “soft” media; nevertheless, there were the occasional pieces that drew on media traditionally thought of as more “crafty,” such as clay or a piece rendered in fabric sewn onto a cloth background. There were other pieces that exhibited allegiance to an ideology mainly through their titles.
There was only one piece by most of the artists, making it difficult to get a sense of what an artist’s body of work was like and the labels—beside seeming to refer to the fact that nearly all the artists were members, at one point or another, of WARM, a gallery in the warehouse district of Minneapolis—had to be trusted for information about the focus of each artist’s work. (Unfortunately, photography was not permitted. Even though I brought my camera to take pictures, some of which would have been used to illustrate this posting, my camera ended up being just another weight in my backpack.) Each artist seemed to view their art as part of an effort to change the world, though how much art can do this, marginalized as it often is, is arguable. With all these pieces, I reflected, the artists did emphasize a point and, perhaps, change the world at least a little. Today’s understanding of art, not to mention the role of women in the arts, is much different than when these efforts started.
What is important to realize is that the identity politics of this initiative have paid off and now even seem largely irrelevant and taken for granted. For instance, would anyone today refer to an artist as a “woman artist” to define her? Such a reference would be viewed as not only politically incorrect but dismissive. Artists can be of either gender; what is relevant is simply the question “Are they good, and what is the message they are trying to convey?”.
It wasn’t always this way. This show provided a glimpse of the progress made and the beauty generated to achieve it. You go girls!.