Girls Will be Girls, or Will They?

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Ana Mendieta, "Silueta Works in Mexico," 1973–77, Details, Color photographs. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.

In 2002, feminist matriarch Judy Chicago co-curated an all-women art exhibition in China, in a place called Lugu Lake, historically a matriarchal society. At the last minute, just before the show’s opening, another curator, a man, arrived with a piece his wife had made. “You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think that was by a man,” Chicago said to a friend. As it turned out, it was. “The guy used his wife’s name and thought he’d put one over on me,” recalled Chicago, who has looked at countless artworks by men and women and become an expert at distinguishing the sometimes slight differences in perspective. After all, telling the girls from the guys is a necessary ability when your aim is getting more girl artists onto the playing field. Though, in the past six decades, the girls have often made announcing their gender key to their projects.

Two shows up in Los Angeles right now feel like smart reunions of member of an all-girl gang, one that banded together in the 1960s then began to thrive ‘70s and continued into the early ‘80s. Not all the key members actually knew each other. But they probably knew of each other, given that they shared a goal: to show how much women mattered and how criminal it was they’d been excluded from art, which stood in for life at large.

The Personal is Political, a headily titled exhibition of work culled from the collection of MOCA Los Angeles, includes some goose-bump worthy gems. Ana Mendieta’s gently insidious Siluetas, showing of the outline of the artist’s petite body in blood, sand, dirt and greenery; pages of handwriting by Adrian Piper, chronicling the artist-philosopher’s youthful, overtly optimistic dive into Kantian metaphysics; Alice Neel’s figure painting, defiant yet wholly comfortable in its own skin. Most of the women in this compact exhibition seem bent on proving the mind to be as potent and powerful as the body, a project particularly feminine since the minds of women had been downplayed for eons.

Mary Beth Edelson, "The Last Supper," 1972.

Only a few miles away, at Subliminal Projects in Echo Park, a similar sort of corroboration plays out in an exhibition called Eve. Artists Mary Beth Edelson, Judy Chicago, Lisa Steele and Hannah Wilke—women who also belonged to the groundbreaking girl gang—again assert themselves as bodies with minds that deserve a place in history. There’s an urgent energy to their work, most of which aims to reform the art world itself. Edelson superimposes the heads of female artists on figures in da Vinci’s The Last Supper—Georgia O’Keefe appears as Christ—and Hannah Wilke poses topless in a print that posits feminists as fascists, warning the art world to watch out.

It’s a lot of fun to immerse yourself in history through these artists, especially since art has that singular ability to not just record what happened but to be what happened. Edelson’s Bringing Home the Evolution (1979), which puts maternal mastermind, sculptor Louise Bourgeois in revolutionary garb at the helm of a peace walk, not only reflects a sentiment of the time. It actually is the means Edelson used put that sentiment into the world.

But here’s the problem with Eve at Subliminal Projects, and other shows like it: in attempt to trace a trajectory, it includes work by younger female artists, who, perhaps with the exception of politically pointed Ayanah Moor, clearly do not belong to the same gang. This makes the younger artists seem more diffuse and undirected than they otherwise would.

Born in 1969 and after, they’re barely old to have witnessed third wave feminists and, as much their work grapples with experiences of women, it doesn’t aggressively assert this experience, or carve a place for itself in spheres of culture. Kim McCarty’s flowing figures are ghostlike and lost in themselves. Alex Prager’s well-dressed ladies are lost in thought as well, and the photos live in a psychological space that sometimes becomes Lynchian, while Stella Vine’s dripping, big-eyed paintings of Princess Di or Lisa Lopes humanize celebrity.

Alex Prager, "Christine," 2007.

There are other women artists who would probably fit better into the legacy of 1970s feminism than those presented here. But the point is that time has changed enough that women working today feel comfortable in a space of ambiguity. Not only has this resulted from their far less dire circumstances—women now have retrospectives at MoMA and MOCA, they get gallery shows, etc.—but out of a changing cultural landscape.

When she reviewed the feminist blockbuster exhibition WACK!, critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp commented that the catalog cover, a sea of sexy naked bodies culled from pop culture by Martha Rosler was originally a “critique of representation.” But, “Today, it looks like an advertisement for The L Word.”  Explicitness doesn’t have the same sway as it did forty and fifty years ago, but, at least in Eve, putting ambiguous artists next to the explicit, driven women of first and second wave feminism, makes the former appear weak-willed. It’s not fair, and it’s not informative. There’s something to be said for letting history stay in the past.