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.