Sunday, 22 January 2017

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 70s:Art vs the patriarchy.

Some of the art on show in The Photographers' Gallery's current Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s exhibition may show its age a little but, in a week when a man who openly boasts of sexually abusing women has been inaugurated as the American president, it feels as relevant, if not more so, than ever.

The intention of the curators is to look at 'radical, poetic, ironic and often provocative investigations by women artists who challenge assumptions about gender and art'. The end of the 60s had seen the rise of the Civil Rights and peace movements. The 'second wave' feminism that followed in its wake at the start of the 70s aimed, much as many of the marchers across the world yesterday, to confront patriarchy and sexism. Both in the art world and in society at large.

Many of the artists used their own bodies as central motifs. It was their way of taking control back of their image and presenting themselves on their own terms, rather than through the male gaze. In that respect it's highly appropriate that this exhibition runs parallel with Simon Fujiwara's Joanne which offers similar solutions to similar problems still encountered now. Depressingly.

Suzy Lake's Imitation of Myself (1973) guides us through a series of photos in which Lake applies thick greasepaint to her skin, slowly disappearing in front of us. She then applies ludicrous amounts of rouge and lipstick. Subverting herself to satisfy the demands of a society that saw surface rather than substance.

VALIE EXPORT's eye catching, and eye catchingly titled, Action Pants;Genital Panic actually dates from 1969 but is a crucial addition to the show. This is photographic evidence of the time Austrian performance artist EXPORT entered an art cinema in Munich, wearing crotchless pants, and walked around the audience with her exposed genitalia at face level. The idea was to provoke and it's hard to imagine she failed with that.

Other artists sought to address stereotypes of the woman's place being in the home. Renate Eisenegger irons the floor on her hands and knees, no more than a domestic slave. Karin Mack distorts the image of a traditional homemaker and housewife by piercing her with needles. Brigit Jurgenssen's Nest makes a fairly overt, and easy for all to understand, point about the role of mothers.

Both the very essence of being a woman and the way a woman looks are taken to task in this piece. Many of Jurgenssen's contemporaries also challenged long held attitudes about female beauty. Martha Wilson's Breast Forms Permutated (1972) and Francesca Woodman's Face (1975-1976) explore both formal and psychological assessments of their own form and that form's potential to create either poetic or iconographic images. Hannah Wilke, in 1977, went so far as to even question the nature of other feminist art.

Not everything in this show works. There's quite a lot of repetition of ideas. The films you can watch are a bit overlong. There's one of a pregnant woman soaping herself up and talking in German that, unless you can speak that language, isn't worth investing much time in. But some of the salient points made by the movement are worth reiterating.

Simone de Beauvior wrote in 1949, in The Second Sex that "one is not born but rather becomes a woman". If true that meant identity was constructed through social conventions and in a male dominated society men would choose how women looked, acted, and were treated. Many of the female artists represented here sought a deconstruction of these systems of representation and to take control not just of their own image but of the means of creating and portraying that image.

Ana Mendieta, in her 1972 Untitled work below, presses her face up to the screen contorting and distorting it. It's possible the viewer, not least one hoping for some cheap titillation, will feel discomfited by this. Role play and masquerade, alongside a lot of nudity, were used by these artists to engage with, and question, gender identity. Below Ana Mendieta you can see Lynda Benglis, who with her series Self, created between 1970 and 1976, adopted various art world personas. From the Jackson Pollock style action painter to the model. From object to subject.

Perhaps the two most noted adopters of character roles were Judy Chicago and Cindy Sherman. Chicago was originally named Cohen but felt taking her father's surname was a sign of male social dominance and her subordination to it. She celebrated her new name Chicago by posing as a boxer and wearing a sweatshirt with her new last name on it. Art versus the patriarchy. Seconds away. Round one.

Sherman adapted many roles in a series of untitled photographs. She saw these as conceptual portraits and avoided titles so these works would retain their ambiguity. I saw an exhibition of her work in Los Angeles last year and her black and white photos of the 70s have slowly mutated into garish, sexually explicit, often grotesque caricatures. They probably work better in a solo show where you've more time, and more of her work, to consider the breadth of her oeuvre.

Kirsten Justesen's Sculpture #2 (1968) is, perhaps, the most obvious thing here. Maybe a bit too obvious. Although Judith Bernstein's One Panel Vertical, from '78 (below), doesn't need too much explaining either. I'd have, a few years ago, been tempted to criticise these works as one dimensional and too simplistic but the last few years have seen me on a steep learning curve. Just as much as they have seen sexism rise its very ugly head again. In both old and predictable, and new and concerning, ways.

Hannah Wilke's Super T-Art (above) and ORLAN's Kiss from the Artist (below), both 1974, were to the forefront of works concerned with sexual liberation. They weren't made to titillate the likes of me but to show that women could be feminists and still enjoy sex. It's bizarre that there's a small section of people who still believe those things to be mutually incompatible but it seems there are. I think what Wilke and ORLAN were trying to say is that women should play an active sexual role. Not just receptacles for male fantasies and fluids.

Towards the end of the exhibition we come face to face with the genuinely odd looking stuff. I couldn't resist a quick titter at Tee Corrine's Cunt Coloring Book from 1975 (which made an appearance at the Women's March in London yesterday) but I wasn't quite sure what to make of Renate Bertlmann's masked lady cradling a massive dick like a baby or Penny Slinger's Promised a Bed of Roses (from 1973) which obviously asks questions about all sorts of things. Not least the supposed obligations of married life. Possibly most powerful of all is Judy Chicago's Red Flag (1971). An image that said to me that no matter how right on I am about these things some things can still shock me. I've come a long way but I've still got a long way to go. More shows like this will no doubt help me on that journey.

Big thanks to both Sanda and Michelle who accompanied me on my two separate visits to this exhibition.

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