Turning Stereotypes Into Artistic Strengths
“More, please” has been the critical response to “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” the survey of pioneering feminist art currently installed at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. The Bronx Museum of the Arts anticipated the demand with “Making It Together: Women’s Collaborative Art and Community,” which focuses on the groups and collectives that linked feminist art to a larger social context.
Organized by the critic Carey Lovelace, “Making It Together” occupies part of the lobby and a small adjacent gallery. Conventional art objects are few and far between: pink-painted walls display archival photographs, manifestoes and other ephemera. The show is much smaller than “WACK!” but includes a wealth of historical material, much of which would be better served by a book or documentary film.
The theme is timely, at least; the current Whitney Biennial is rife with collaborative projects. For female artists of the ’70s and ’80s, collective practice had several advantages. In keeping with the anti-authoritarian spirit of the times, it played down the roles of the individual artist and the marketable artwork. It also turned the stereotype of women as inherently conciliatory and cooperative into a source of strength.
The consciousness-raising session generated ideas for artworks like the “Womanhouse” (1972), an installation created in a rundown Hollywood mansion by students of Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro at California Institute of the Arts. Documentation of the “Womanhouse” in “Making It Together” includes a photograph of Faith Wilding’s wall of crocheted spider webs (a recreated version can be seen in “WACK!”).
Art, especially performance art, was inseparable from activism. Leslie Labowitz and Suzanne Lacy’s “Three Weeks in May” (1977), a series of events including self-defense workshops and a performance on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall, raised awareness of sexual violence. “Making It Together” includes an installation documenting Ms. Labowitz and Ms. Lacy’s project, in which the word “RAPE,” stenciled in bold red letters, figures prominently.
Later groups used humor and satire to get the message across. The Waitresses and Mother Art staged performances in diners and Laundromats. The gorilla-masked Guerrilla Girls, represented by the poster “Guerrilla Girls Review the Whitney” (1987), continue to take museums to task for underrepresenting women in their collections. (The group’s Web site, guerrillagirls.com, currently features a letter to the California developer and art collector Eli Broad about the representation of women and artists of color in his collection.)
“Making It Together” includes in its definition of feminist art several community mural projects. A model of the “Great Wall of Los Angeles,” a collaboration between the artist Judy Baca and young Angelenos referred to her by the criminal justice system, is on display along with photographs of similar projects by Cityarts in New York.
The museum has even commissioned its own collaborative mural, “Activism Is Never Over,” by the graffiti artists Lady Pink, Doña, Muck and Toofly. Overlooking the lobby, it injects some much-needed color into the exhibition. The painting spells out the names of notable women from Betty Friedan to Nina Simone in a riot of different fonts, and quotes liberally from writers, activists and artists (including Jenny Holzer, who collaborated with Lady Pink in the ’80s).
All of this is more interesting as social history than as art history. “Making It Together” is an instructive supplement to “WACK!,” however, and a reminder that feminists could raise hell as well as consciousness.
“Making It Together: Women’s Collaborative Art and Community” is on view through Aug. 4 at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1040 Grand Concourse, at 165th Street, Morrisania; (718) 681-6000, bronxmuseum.org.
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