A Review of Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970's at The Photographer's Gallery, London
In the first room of the new exhibition at The Photographer’s Gallery, Georgia O’Keeffe sits centre stage. A photographic likeness of her face is planted over where Jesus Christ’s should be, in Mary Beth Edelson’s Da Vinci-inspired photocollage Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper (1972). She stares out into a room of works made by her own disciples - personalities of the so-called second-wave feminist art movement. Challenging the position of authority and power placed with men in the pervasive institutions of Organised Religion and Art represented by the original painting, Edelson’s image of O’Keeffe epitomises the shared mission of the assembled artists to question the social conventions and mechanisms keeping women underrepresented, and which still to this day have them fighting for a place at the proverbial table.
Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s brings together works by no less than 48 artists from the collection of Austrian renewable-energy giants Verbund - exhibited in Britain for the first time. It features film, performance, collage and photographic works arranged thematically across two floors of the expansive West-End space. Taking its title from the curator-coined term, the show offers what is then an extensive look at the work of these groundbreaking artists, highlighting the radical nature of their diverse practice and its continued relevance to today’s audiences.
For example, a great game is to grab a female friend, stand in front of Martha Wilson’s A Portfolio of Models (1974/2009) and choose what category of woman you are from the six described with a portrait and caption - supposedly a comprehensive chart accounting for all species of womankind. And indeed, groups of female friends and women with their partners do engage with the work, picking fun at how aptly one of them fits a certain category, - a retro ‘I’m totally a Charlotte/Samantha/Carrie/Miranda’ (delete as appropriate), and no better proof that Wilson’s observations remain startlingly apposite. Hanging in the opening section dedicated to the theme ‘Domestic Agenda’, this ironic work expresses the artist’s desire to break out of the limiting roles assigned to women, a sentiment which chimes with Wedding Invitation (Art is Just a Piece of Cake) (1975) by Penny Slinger - a self-portrait of the artist in wedding garb, sitting inside a cut wedding cake with spread legs symbolic of the ultimate wedding-night ritual.
Moving through, the viewer is treated to four 1970's TV sets on which to watch film pieces representative of the explosion of feminist video-art to emerge in the era. Arguably the stand-out work of the exhibition, Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975) is hilarious in its depiction of a deranged Julia Child-like character, the artist filmed standing behind a kitchen workbench and presenting an A-Z of kitchenalia to the audience with increasing levels of violence. A witty piece which unearths latent frustrations and brings to life the arbitrary nature of assigned gender roles, it is staged as if to teach a strong feminist lesson, and one which certainly can still make a grown man squirm.
The long list of international artists in the exhibition guide speaks volumes for just how comprehensive a collection the Verbund’s is, and how The Photographers’ Gallery has managed to bring more than just a representative sample to bear for the exhibition. Just as in the suggestive open-plan spaces of the gallery itself, this is a banding together of a large sisterhood, and the sum total is an outspoken riot of work. At times this visual cacophony can overshadow the gentler works: softly lit, black-and-white photographs of the artist’s own body desperately feeling for a rightful place in the spaces of the images, Francesca Woodman’s devastating series Untitled (1977-78/2006) lose some of their quiet power when facing off against the outward aggression of domineering pieces such as Judith Bernstein’s monumental drawing One Panel Vertical (1978) - a strong, dark work made with obvious aggression and force depicting a phallus barely disguised as a nail.
The final punch comes by way of Judy Chicago and a bright red lithograph-tampon. The graphic work (in the second sense of the word) is taken from her cringe-making Menstruation Bathroom, from the infamous Womanhouse (1972), a West-Hollywood house given over to a large installation organised between Chicago and fellow artist and co-founder of the California Institute of the Arts’ (‘CalArts’) Feminist Art Programme, Miriam Schapiro. Representing an important moment in the history of feminist art, the work sits boldly and proudly among works made largely in the latter part of the decade, building on the advances made by those who came before. ‘Alter Ego: Masquerade, Parody, and Self-Representation’ groups together works which deconstruct stereotypical presentations of the self, playing with images taken from popular media, including Lynda Bengalis’ Self - in which she recreates a famous studio photograph of Jackson Pollock flinging paint, confidently and defiantly casting herself in the role of ‘the greatest artist alive?’
Despite the palpable wit which the works exude and the playful way in which they are displayed, the overall effect is still one of shock - shock that 35 years down the line, these straight-talking and clear-sighted second-wave feminists still have all the radical power and subversiveness of when they were first conceived. Responding to their own misogynistic and retrograde reality, the women represented in the show still appear radical, speaking loudly and pertinently on behalf of women today, exploding onto the London art scene from across the intervening decades as if Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s were a contemporary show - albeit with a prevalence of bell-bottoms.
Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s: Works from the SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection is at The Photographers’ Gallery, SoHo, for an extended period until 29 January 2017.