Saturday, May 26, 2007

WACK Feminist Art Show Disappoints

I just went to see the feminist art show WACK at the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles, and returned really disappointed.

I had already gone to the panel associated with the Los Angeles women art show at the Municipal Art Gallery, and heard Cherie Gaulke say that at the Women's Building in Los Angeles they should have had childcare. My friend Helen Million-Ruby, who had two kids and attended the first Feminist Studio Workshop in 1975 at the Women's Building at Los Angeles, had at the time fought along with others for childcare at the building and lost. So it was encouraging to heard Gaulke finally agree that, yes, there should have been childcare. Helen Million-Ruby, who is working class, was the first one I remember to articulate that working class women weren't being heard. Helen criticized an art performance by Barbara Smith where Smith had a poor woman from McArthur Park go sit in the gallery while Smith sat in the park. Helen said she felt torn up inside because she thought the art piece objectified the poor woman.

In the late 1970s then many other women criticized the Women's Building for not encouraging a diversity of racial, ethnic and working class voices--these were women refusing any modernist masternarrative and instead asking for postmodernist diversity of voices. In one review of WACK Judy Chicago had been quoted say, yes, women's art should include a diversity of racial, class, and ethnic voices. So I came to WACK with high hopes that art exhibit would have racial and class diversity implicit in postmodernism.

It didn't. Before I spell out my disappointments, I must say there were some good pieces in the show. After hearing for years of Ana Mendieta, I got to see some of her haunting pieces of a female body raped or a female body's impression on the ground. I also was introduced to Spiderwoman Theater, a Native American Woman's Theater group. The videotape about them was excellent, mixing in footage of their riveting performance along with interviews of group members. I also got to know Lorraine O'Grady as Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire doing her stunning performances about art world racism. I also learned from the juxtaposition of European as well as U.S. artists that many themes such as the body art and practices such as working collectively were international.

The show did have some of my old favorites from the 1970s: Womenhouse, the brilliant original installation that Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, and their art students did in a old house on themes of domesticity in 1972; and Faith Wilding's wonderfully powerful performance poem "Waiting" about female passivity.

But as I left I realize there wasn't one working class voice in the whole art exhibit. Not one. . There was a section called "Labor" which had the Berwick Street Film Collective's videotape "Night Cleaners," supposedly about organizing of women janitors in a union in 1970s London. "Night Cleaners" had shots of silent cleaning women working without any narration for long periods--the tape silenced her and objectified her. The film never explained how the unionization efforts were going. At that time there were almost no films on working class women's strikes, but "Night Cleaners" did not inform but was dreadful and dreadfully dull. The film reminded me of a film by the African filmmaker Osmane Sembane's Black Girl about a African woman working in France as a maid who never spoke a word in the film but only had French voices in the film speaking about her, but Semane was making a film critiquing the oppression of the African woman. The Berwick Street Film Collective, three men and one woman, seemed to be collaborating in oppressing their subject. There was another piece by Mierle Laderman Ukeles where she seems to be washing down steps in a performance piece where she played at work. The other pieces in "Labor" seemed to be second rate pieces about mothering including Mary Kelly's Post-partum Document which was a very obsessive, tedious rendering of her baby's fecal smears, vocal utterences, and drawings.

I've spent years writing about American working class literature. In 1996 I wrote an article about literature of the textile trades in the United States in which I traced a history of four generations of writings about garment workers starting with Sarah Savage's 1815 novel The Factory Girl. If American working class women since 1815 have produced over a 170 year history of writing about garment trades, surely WACK's curator could have found some working class women artists in the 1970s instead of imposing a modernist masternarrative that silenced working class voices.

The curator could start by looking at the work of Helen-Million Ruby, who along with other mothers/artists--Jan Cook, Christie Kruse, Gloria Hadjuk, Suzanne Siegal, and Laura Silagi-- formed a women's art collective called Mother Art who did a monthly long series of art performances titled By Mother at the Women's Building in Los Angeles about mothers and art in 1977. Then Mother Art got a grant to do performances in laundromats since Million-Ruby wanted to bring art to where every day women were. I saw them perform in the Silverlake laundromat. They timed their piece to last a wash-dry cycle, strung up a clothes line, and hung up their art pieces including a wonderful poem on material by Valene Campbell. Mother Art's Laudromat art performances were brilliant.

WACK did include "Where We Were At" Black Women Artists, detailing how they took their art into the community but I wanted to see black women artists art work which wasn't in the show. At the same time Latinas such as Linda Vallejo at Self-Help Graphics had an Artmobile in which they brought their art to schools in East Los Angeles. Including more black women and Chicana artists including the women artists of Self-Help Graphics would have improved this show. Other than two large murals by Judy Baca, in the four hours at the exhibit I saw no other art pieces by Chicanas. In 1977 Sybil Venegas wrote an essay in ChisemArte, the Chicano/a literary art magazine in L.A. about Chicana arts Barbara Carrasco from Los Angeles, Etta Delgado from San Jose, and Las Mujeres Muralistas from San Francisco. Patssi Valdez and Diane Gamboa are two astoundingly original Chicana artist who participated in ASCO, the avant-garde group's performances and other work, in the 1970s and early 1980s.

During the 1970s in California Chicanas were in their painting exploring new imagery based on indigenous forms; making large history paintings in public murals; creating performance rituals for Day of the Dead which spread across the country, and reinterpreting iconographic women like Virgin of Guadalupe in their painting; participating in avant-garde group ASCO's performances and photos. Barbara Carrasco, Las Mujeres Muralistas, Diane Gamboa and Patssi Valdez, as well as Helen Million Ruby all came all were working class and developed intensly brilliant innovative work--including them in WACK would have improved the show.

Instead of capturing a brilliant post-modernist diversity, the curator at WACK included a lot of the work that was second rate and repetitive. Nobody I knew in the 1970s was particularly interested in the body as a medium, but the show's modernist masternarrative put body as medium as an important theme and WACK had a lot of this work. While Mendietta's and Wilke's use of the body as medium was innovative, a lot of work on this theme in WACK wasn't.

For example, one large wall had Eleanor Antin obsessively photographing her nude body front, side, and back for over a month and recording her weight as she dieted. This piece wasn't a critique of obsession with weight but a very tedious presentation of the obsession itself. Another dull videotape had a silent woman woman brushing her hair--that's it. The message is that much feminist art is about young white women obsessed with their bodies, their individuality, and their narcissism. Yes, in the 1970s, feminists thought picking up a videocamera as empowering, but when women began exploring this medium, they come up against problems: a video camera can be used to objectify others; it can be used to produce narcissism; it can be produce tapes which are derivative or trite or repetitive.

And what about painting. Though there was good painting in WACK, the paintings usually made a feminist point in the curator's modernist masternarrative. At Womanspace, the large collective women's gallery before the Women's Building, many painters were exploring a diverse grouping of ideas in both figurative work and abstractions, yet almost none of these paintings were in WACK. Many second generation women abstract-expressionist painters were finally reaching national audience in the 1970s after two decades of painting but Joan Snyder was only one of these painters represented. I would have liked to see the wonderful paintings of Grace Hartigen, Helen Lundeberg or Helen Frankenthaler.

Two painters who should have been included in WACK are Ruth Weisberg and Tomie Arai. Weisberg in her painting was pushing her art into marvelous explorations of Jewish themes from the Bible to the Holocaust to the 1970s--yet another innovative voice. Many women of color in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles made murals with working class perspectives such as Tomie Arai's "Wall of Respect for Women" in New York's Lower Eastside that spoke of sweatshop work, strikes, and need for better housing. But again middle class art critics ruled out muralism as not "feminist" as they ignored this art form usually made often by working class artists and for working class communities.

Also, the thematic groupings of the show were confusing. Ana Mendietta's work like much other work in the show was exhibited in the "Goddess" section but it could have been also fit in the "Body as Medium" section.

Too bad this show missed postmodernism, missed its chance to really record the great diversity of feminist art in the 1970s, missed the crisscrossing of many diverging arguing voices. Many feminists disagreed with Judy Chicago's ideas that feminist art should have central imagery based on female sex organs. Feminists argued over the need for childcare. Some women of color artists argued that feminism was not relevant to them. An historical show would have been better, showing both the "mainstream" of 1970s feminist arts and then it's feminists critics. We're still have to wait for that show. That show would have hot, angry, diverging, arguing beautifully different viewpoints--that would be the postmodern show we need.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Los Angeles Women I Find Inspiring

I'm going back on Friday to the Studio for Southern California History to see their exhibit on
Los Angeles women's history and I want to add some names of women I find inspiring to their timeline of Los Angeles women's history:

1. Ina Coolbrith was a niece of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith who moved to Los Angeles
in 1850s where she published poetry in Los Angeles Star and California Home Journal establishing literary career before she was 20. She moved to San Francisco and became first important woman poet in California in late 19th century.

2 Mary Austin- During the late 19th century writer she trained herself as a naturalist of Southern California writing the first great book about the Southern California deserts Land of Little Rain in 1903 and was a New Woman of the turn of the century.

3. Rose Pesotta-She was an organizer for International Ladies Garment Worker's Union who organized the first large-scale strike of Mexican-American and Jewish garment workers in 1933 to kick off the decade of unionizing in Los Angeles in a city which was notoriously anti-union.

3. Alice McGrath - She was a young Jewish-American woman who during World War II was
dedicated activist in the fight to free the Chicanos falsely imprisoned in Sleepy Lagoon; she
inspired the role of the young Jewish woman activist in the play and movie Zoot Suit

4. Ann Stanford was a poet and long-time English professor at California State University at Northridge. During the 1960s and 1970s she published numerous books of her own poetry as well published first anthology of women's poetry in English from medieval times to the 1970s.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Los Angeles Woman Have a History

The Studio for Southern California History is the first space in Los Angeles devoted to the city’s history, and opened an exhibition titled “Los Angeles Women: A Record of Experience,” also the first historical exhibit about L.A. women.

I went to the opening celebration of the exhibition on January 13. Victorian Bernal in the Studio’s newsletter Proofs says that “this budding organization devoted to Southern California history that is neither museum, archive nor library. … If we ‘read’ history at the library, ‘see’ history in museums, and ‘learn’ history in school, it makes sense to ‘make’ history in a studio.” So this particular Studio has an exhibition full of interactive exhibits so we the visitors could help in the making of history.

Across the left wall was a 45’ mural of Women’s History Timeline divided into Global, National and Local dates, and below was where the visitors could add names to the timeline. The first name was new to me: La Brea Woman, a 9,000 year old skeleton found in the La Brea tar pits. The only human found in the tar pits, La Brea woman had a skull with features similar to present day Chumash Indians and was found near a grinding stone and a domesticated dog. The traditional women’s task for Chumash and other Southern California Natives was grinding acorns into mush for their staple food.

The timeline’s second two names I was familiar with: Toypurina, a Tongva shaman who in 1785 led a rebellion of Tongva people against the San Gabriel Mission; and Biddie Mason, who in the 1850s walked with her Mormon slave master to Los Angeles, sued for her freedom which she won, and became a leading mid-wife and property owner. Toypurina and Biddie Mason are two amzing women! As I walked slowly looking at names on the timeline I mostly learned new names but also saw some names I knew as well as saw themes emerging in this herstory.

Southern California women had a long history in fighting racism as I saw in two more names: Modesta Avila had in 1889 fought the railroad who wanted to take her land; Carlotta Bass had used her newspaper The California Eagle to fight for rights for African-Americans from 1912-1952. Women here also were feminists for over a century. I learned that Caroline Severance had in 1866 founded with Susan B. Anthony the Equal Rights Association, moved to Los Angeles in 1873, and worked for women’s suffrage for decades. Writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman while living in Pasadena in the late 19th century wrote some great feminist short stories such as "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is considered one of the greatest circa 1900 fictions by an American woman.

Women here have been leading environmentalists for a long time: wealthy Pasadenan Minerva Hoyt had persuaded Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936 to establish Joshua Tree National Monument while Aurora Castillo had in the 1980s founded Mothers of East Los Angeles that fought for environmental justice for East L.A defeating the building of a prison. Also women here had long struggled for labor rights, including Dorothy Healey in who 1933 organized Mexican and Japanese berry pickers in El Monte into a union and a strike. In the 1940s courageous organizer Luisa Morena organized Mexican and Jewish cannery women into a union.

But besides reading and learning from the timeline, I contributed by adding the name Mary Foy in the late 19th century. For a few years I have been having my students research Los Angeles history and literature; Rita Ramos from East Los Angeles College had turned in a terrific paper about Mary Foy, Los Angeles’s first woman librarian and one of its first high school teachers in the 19th century. Foy was also a feminist who fought for women’s suffrage. Ramos had found out that librarians didn’t know who Mary Foy was, and found that terrible. She taught me about Mary Foy, and I added her name, one of many Los Angeles women who broke into previously male profession as teachers, professors, businesswomen, politicians etc.

Other visitors had added names—we were all making history in this wonderful exhibit which taught me so much.

Also the exhibit includes an art piece that was an homage to the 1972 Womanhouse art installation that galvanized a generation of young artists and writers including me. Feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro had gotten their women art students to make installations in the rooms of a to-be-demolished North Hollywood house. Though I didn’t see Womanhouse, I did hear Chicago and Shapiro give a talk and show slides of Womanhouse—it was astounding. Sandra Sider in Art Spaces Archive Project describes the bright pink kitchen created by Vicki Hodgetts, Susan Frazier and Robin Weltsch:

the insides of the drawers featured collages of exotic locales that represented the fantasy travel that might have been in the minds of women trapped at home in their kitchens. There were also several portraits of notable women, such as Angela Davis, with definite political overtones.* Visitors especially noticed the spongy sunny-side eggs fastened to the ceiling that morphed to breasts as they went down the wall and then became eggs once again as they approached the stove. The breasts were soft and could be squeezed by visitors

Later on I met Vicki Hodgetts who did the sunny-side egg/breasts on the ceiling. After that I got involved with the city’s first women’s art gallery called Womanspace. That really was the building of my career as a writer and feminist.

At the exhibit in 2007 Kesa Kiva had gotten middle school girls to create a “Girl House Project,” a small dollhouse associated with a large art installation of a girl’s bedroom the middle school students had made about a girl being sexually harassed. The 2007 dollhouse was being exhibited in part as homage to the 1972 Womanhouse..

The exhibit will run through the end of May 2007. The Studio is located at 525 Alpine, Suite #103, Hours:
Tuesday - Saturday, 12 - 6 p.m. and by appointment.

They have a website

Friday, May 18, 2007

Making Ugly LA Look Beautiful: photographer John Humble

Wednesday afternoon I went to the Getty Center to see John Humble's amazing photographs of the Los Angeles River. I like the Getty because the whole museum on the hill has these white stone buildings along with elegant sculptured gardens carefully placed on a hilltop site with the stunning view of Westside and then the Pacific Ocean--almost a stereotypic view of "beautiful" in L.A.

Humble got a grant from the NEA in 1979 to photograph the city for its bicentennial. He was given a mandate "not to document Los Angeles stereotypes and cliches bot to show the city few had care to photograph." One gallery of the Getty are full of Humble's street scenes, usually show the flat lands non-beautiful non-cliched stucco buildings such as his photo "1553 8th Street, Los Angeles," that juxtaposes a three-story white stucco building with a Yuban coffee billboard, a liquor store sign, cars, and a man standing on the street corner. Just your average ugly L.A. street scene.

But the gallery that held the photos of the Los Angeles River were different. Here Humble took what most people think as the epitome of ugly--a concrete river--and made dazzling photos. He does capture the natural beauty of birds, boulders, trees down by the riverside of the river in the Valley and also near Los Feliz where it has soft bottoms. He has awesome shots using bridges and concrete as sculpture surrounding the river near downtown.

But the most amazing photos were of the river in Vernon, which I always thought was the ultimate industrial wasteland armpit of Southern California made up largely of factories. Vernon is know for its slaughterhouses, particularly Farmer John's slaughterhouse, and a particularly awful smell that wafts north to East Los Angeles.

Here south of downtown Humble's great photos shows the river has broadened out in a really big flow. One lovely photo of Vernon is like an Impressionist painting where everything is bathed in white: the river is white water, the banks and buildings are white, the sky is white. Another photo of the river in Vernon has a sculpted sky full of brooding dark clouds overlooked the orange of the setting sun shining its last lights on the river. Humble as turned this concrete river through factory land into photos of astounding beauty. The show lasts until July 8.

Some of Humble's river photos are online at

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

On Phillip Roth's American Pastoral

I just finished Phillip Roth's Pulitzer prize winning novel American Pastoral, and didn't particularly care for it at all. Actually, I wondered how this novel could ever win the Pulitzer Prize at all. The novel is about Swede Lubov, a Jewish star high school athlete in the 1940s during World War II. To his Jewish classmates the Swede, blond and blue eyed, is their bright shining hope during the dark years of the year. I liked the first 20 or two pages talking about Swede's high school years as the characters reminded me of some of my family members who wanted to assimilate into mainstream America.

Then Swede goes into the Marines, marries Miss New Jersey of 1949, takes over his dad's glover factory, buys 100 acres and an old stone house he loves in rural wealthy WASP New Jersey, and has a perfect 1950s suburban life until his teenage daughter Merry during the 1960s becomes a radical and drops a bomb at the local post office killing a doctor. The bomb also blows apart Swede's perfect life. The problem is Merry and her radical friend are the worst sort of caricatures--crazy, arrogant, spiteful, obscene. Roth neither has knowledge of nor sympathy about the 1960s. The nutty daughter is a flat stereotype and hardly a foil for Swede as the personification of the middle class American life. A 1960s nut could exist, but each generation has its nuts. In a fiction you need characters that come alive, and the daughter really doesn’t. So for hundreds of pages Swede muses what he did wrong as his life unravels. At one point after not seeing his daughter for 5 years Swede hears that she is in Newark again so takes 50 pages of thinking to decided if he wants to see her. The fifty pages should have been cut to about 10 pp.

The novel is good in patches: it's good about the characters growing up in the 1940s and it's good when the same characters get together in the 1975 for a dinner party at Swede's suburban house where they rant against Nixon and debate Linda Lovelace's porn movie Deep Throat. The grandfather can’t stand the porn movie but some of the middle aged generation—Swede’s generation of successful middle class middle aged—defend the movie. What’s amusing is that Swede Lubov and his friends are influenced by the younger generation’s greater honesty about sex but they never acknowledge the influence. One can argue that Phillip Roth as well as John Updike were influenced by the 1960s generation to be more open and honest about sex in their novels but this influence hasn’t been acknowledged.

Roth’s novel really skips over the 1960s except for one crazy bombing by Swede's daughter. As Swede's father asks about what has happened to our Jewish kids in the 1960s, neither Swede, nor any character, nor the novelist has the slightest answer.

One reason why the Pulitzer Committee gave the award to this novel was suggested on good novelists who have been overlooked get the prize even for their lousy work. Oh well.

George Herms at FarmLab: Artists Reclaim Polluted Site

Yesterday, Friday, I went to the noon salon at Farmlab, an art-research gallery near the Cornfields in downtown Los Angeles to hear George Herms, one of Los Angeles leading sculptors, talk. I got of the Goldline train at Chinatown, and walked up a mile to Farmlab, turn into gallery where the food is being set up in long metal containers. I get in line to get my lunch. As usual the food is excellent: a fine green salad, white rice, a fish stew, and a bean dish. After chatting a while to the man on the left at the label, artist Lauren Bon introduced George Herms as the speaker in today's salon. She also said that as part of Farmlab she wants people to get to know each other by eating together--that is an excellent idea!

George Herms stood up to speak. He held up a tattered paper with the word "salon" on it, and then said he looked it up in his grandfather's dictionary, seeing various meanings including "saloon." He told us that he was a fan of Not a Cornfield, the art piece planting of acres of corn on the railroad junkyard called the Cornfields in order to redeem the sight. Lauren Bon and her Not as a Cornfield collaborators then transformed themselves into Farmlab, a six-month art- research project in a warehouse across the street which investigates art projects to redeem other trashed out sites in Los Angeles. Herms said he was asked to join so he went from being Fan-in-Residence to Artist-in-Residence.

Herms is quite wonderful and inspiring, from his combination of humility and brilliance. He said his work takes industrial junk and finds a second life for it as art in his sculptures called assemblage. He has been doing his assemblages for over 30 years in Los Angeles, transforming junk into whimsical, amusing, charming sculptures. He had done a number of assemblage sculptures in public spaces in Los Angeles. He said he is going to be Pied Piper leading the 40 or so salon members next door to the Garden of Brokenness exhibit next door. Herms put on a thin wooden piece shaped like a guitar around his neck, had chimes dangling from him, and blew into a metal horn as he started leading us all out the door. He was indeed a moving sculpture we all followed--a sculptural Pied Piper leading us into the gallery next door.

In the middle of the gallery the artists had erected a large wooden circle which many people could stand on which the artists called a carousel. Many of us walked on it. I sat down on a couch. There was furniture scattered randomly on the carousel: chairs, a couch, and tables. Hanging above the furniture was Herms junk sculptures. While Herms made the junk sculptures, Lauren Bon said she choose the furniture. In the middle was a circle of water along with camera obscura images of the Los Angeles River and music arose from the carousel. Alongside the carousel were junk cars outfitted by blooming plants. The Garden of Brokenness starts with a broken place, transforming some of the junk there into art of the garden. The Garden is a collaborative piece created by Herms, Lauren Bon, gardener Jaime Lopez Wolters, and composer Jeremy Mage as a proposal for the Confluence River Park for a new park on a site which is now a concrete river underneath a concrete bridge covered by graffiti.

The carousel seemed to say to be that when we redeem junked out sites like the Confluence Park, we shouldn't impose some ideal image of landscape or "tidy municipal geometry." Instead we should turn some of the junk at the site into art. Herms calls himself an environmentalist, transforming industrial trash into sculptures. That to me is an imaginative way to transform many sites in Los Angeles.

What was wonderful about the carousel is that sitting on the couch I was encouraged to talk to my seatmate, a young man named Steve. I was sitting in a sculpture that encouraged conversation. Bon said that Farmlab had proposed the naked carousel (just the bottom) for many other park-potential sites so the community could come and furnish the carousel the way they wished. To me that mean a democratic way for building parks in Los Angeles by asking communities to come to discuss how to turn their local trashed out site into a park. Art, democracy, and a carousel all flourish by the river as Herms, Bon, Wolters and Mage have constructed an amazing exhibit that led us come near the river to eat, talk, listen to others, see art, and discuss.

Also, since neighborhoods differ, the creators of the Garden of Brokenness wanted to set up empty carousels in a brownfields site, ask the neighbors to come and discuss around the carousel how they want the park to develop. So the Carousel is supposed to be a site for discussion of how the neighbors want the park to develop. The Garden of Brokenness is people coming together in broken urban spaces to begin to talk how to heal such spaces. So that's a magnificent way to begin to heal the broken city of Los Angeles, brownfields by brownfields, small trashed out space by trashed out space. Instead of turning over the spaces to city or state bureaucrats, instead asking the neighbors to come down to talk around the carousel. Farmlab is one of the most important art spaces now in Los Angeles.