YBCA women's show revives the F word

Quick, wake Pat Robertson from his afternoon nap: Feminism is about to become hip. Last year, two surveys of art from the bra-burning generation — “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and “Global Feminisms” at the Brooklyn Museum — stirred the establishment by pulling artists such as Judy Chicago and Lynda Benglis out of the academic file cabinet. Critics, perhaps sick of writing stories about the “death of feminism,” responded rapturously. Suddenly, feminist art of the 1970s was “the most important artistic movement since World War II,” Blake Gopnik wrote in the Washington Post. In fact, “Much of what we call postmodern art has feminist art at its source,” Holland Cotter declared in The New York Times. Without it, Cotter argued, identity art, crafts-derived art, performance art, appropriation, scatter art, process art, endurance art, relational aesthetics, and institutional critique wouldn't exist — at least not in their current forms.

Berin Golonu, curator of the current female-centric show at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is not willing to go quite that far. “It's really hard to draw these types of lineages and attribute the contemporary work being produced today to a certain moment in the past,” she says. “In the '50s, '60s, and '70s there was this social awakening that pervaded all aspects of consciousness, and I think that feminism was just kind of one batch of all of these other movements, these awakenings.”

Golonu assembled “The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art and Politics” as a response to “what was left out” of the L.A. and Brooklyn shows last year. Its genealogy is clear. (The show's title comes from the lyrics of the Le Tigre song “Hot Topic,” itself a celebration of feminist continuation.) Among the first visible artworks in the gallery are Tammy Rae Carland's photographic tributes to the lesbian back-to-the-land communes of the '60s and '70s. In her large C-prints, treehouses, rainbow-marked trails, and scattered lawn chairs sprawl in dappled sunlight, floating toward a utopian daydream — albeit one without people.

As one feminist saying has it, behind the revolution there is always the laundry. Instead of washing clothes, artist Shinique Smith bundles them up and lashes them with twine, creating disturbingly biomorphic forms. The Toxic Titties collaborative documents its infiltration of a 2002 installation by “blue-chip” artist Vanessa Beecroft that required women to pose in a gallery naked but for designer heels, applying Gloria Steinem's tactics (Steinem famously took a job as a Playboy bunny and wrote about her experience) to the current art world.

Vaginal Davis attempts to remedy the imbalance of male versus female nudity in museums by papering her installation work, “Present Penicative,” with hundreds of images of male pornography. Hand-written instructions on two pink dressers tempt viewers to riffle through the drawers, which contain more pornography along with notes and photos. The feeling of voyeurism is titillating, but it's hard to know what to make of the objects without any sort of context.

Other pieces need no context to make their point. “Gloria Hole,” Eve Fowler and Math Bass' photographic series, appropriates the glory hole for a pair of lesbian lovers. Stephanie Syjuco's “Counterfeit Crochet Project” provides open-source patterns so that craftsters can create their own designer handbags — DIY knockoffs of Chanel, Gucci, and Prada. And wheatpaste artist Swoon collaborates with journalist Tennessee Jane Watson on an installation that draws attention to the unsolved murders of more than 400 women in Juárez, Mexico.

Perhaps the most famous name in the mix is filmmaker Miranda July, whose circa-1996 project, Big Miss Moviola, established an alternate distribution system for female short-film directors. The history of the venture, now called Joanie 4 Jackie, is displayed through posters and video documentaries. While she's not as involved in it anymore, July says, the project “was a great comfort. I was imagining a place for myself.”

That describes the motivation behind much of the art in “The Way That We Rhyme.” Like July, who calls Hollywood irrelevant in a video installation at the show, these artists work against the institution. They use their practice to spread information, educate, break stereotypes, and make connections. “A lot of the women in the show create their own networks, their own distribution channels for information, for news, for discussion topics,” Golonu says. The fact that they've succeeded, and that the revival of feminist art has stimulated more institutional inquiry, is enough to give hope to even the most outrage-weary. If, as the critics say, feminist strategy is the new pedagogy, can it help but spread, as art does, to mainstream fashion and politics and even to Hollywood? Here's to the F word becoming fresh again.

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