Self-professed feminist artists have steadily faded from the scene since the heady days when Judy Chicago crafted dinner plates shaped like labia and Carolee Schneeman pulled a long paper scroll from her vagina onstage. This dissipation is in part a testimony to the success of the movement: They made overwrought political art so that future generations wouldn't have to. Perhaps more accurately, the disappearance of identifiably feminist art is indicative of a larger backlash against the strident politics of feminists who were active in the 1970s and '80s. “Feminism” seems to have become a dirty word — as posited by the cleverly titled “F-Word Project,” a recent Bay Area-wide festival that celebrated contemporary cultural production by women. Nonetheless, many of the goals of feminism have yet to be achieved. These contradictions pose the question: What now?
An exhibition of the work of Ghada Amer at the San Francisco Art Institute, mounted in conjunction with the “F-Word Project,” resolutely fails to answer. It does, however, reassure us that artists are exploring the complex web of conditions that makes it so difficult to assess the status of women (and of feminism) in society.
From a distance, Amer's canvases look like unspectacular formal abstractions. Their bland streaks and drips are those of a second-rate abstract expressionist. But layered over the paint are brightly colored strands of thread, their loose ends affixed to the canvas in graceful waves. As you approach, images begin to emerge, rendered in carefully embroidered stitches. There's a moment of disconnect, then you realize that you're looking at splayed legs, tossed heads, lips parted in ecstasy. These are unmistakably pornographic pictures of women, lifted directly from the pages of Penthouse and traced in a simple running stitch. A single, graphic image repeats endlessly over the surface of each canvas, wallpaper-style, until your eyes swim with the vision of her truncated body.
Amer isn't the first artist to wield a needle in the battle against patriarchy. Miriam Schapiro's “femmage” pieces of the early 1970s introduced embroidery, quilting, and cross-stitching into the high art realm that had previously disdained such craft. Amer courts our knowledge of that tradition: Her work is plainly addressed to a viewer versed in the art historical alphabet. Her deft layering of styles acts as a visual shorthand that evokes not only specific artistic movements, but also the critical reception of those movements — a quick and dirty “he said/she said” of modern art history. Her deadpan appropriation of the most recognizable tropes of the abstract expressionists (scorned by feminist theorists for their alpha male iconography of ejaculatory splatters and streaks) and the minimalists (who've also been slapped on the wrist for the domineering masculinity of their work) serves as a foil to the thoroughly feminine history of needlework. Unfortunately, Amer doesn't quite pull it off; this incoherent jumble of styles looks merely sloppy, particularly to those fortunate viewers who've avoided the battlefields of contemporary art theory.
By rendering pornography — a genre long villainized for its objectification of women — in a medium so decidedly female, Amer plays with our expectations in a manner that comes off as simultaneously slick and facile. One wonders if she's deliberately invoking this facility, perhaps mimicking (and mocking) the overly simplistic polarity usually drawn between feminism and pornography. It's difficult to construe her true intentions, however. Both visually and intellectually, Amer confuses every sign until we're lost in a maze of possible meanings. She mires the viewer in a maddening field of posts (post-feminist, post-postmodern) in which her every move, and our every response, is overdetermined.
In this sense, her work mirrors the state of feminist discourse, which has become so diffuse and pluralistic that it's nearly impossible to untangle the contradictory positions. Is she condemning porn or celebrating it? The women she portrays seem to be enjoying themselves, engaging in acts of autoeroticism that could be read as liberating. Yet the hollow outline of these figures might also be a pointed commentary on the reduction of such subjects to empty objects of desire. Amer's coy refusal to reveal her intentions or define her work's interpretation is both exasperating and meaningful. In the end, she's nothing but a tease.