Women: Before and After

Lynn Hershman Leeson is historic.  Some of the most exciting moments of her recent documentary on feminist art, !W.A.R., or !Women Art Revolution, 2010, were shot on her own living room couch.  She and her alter-ego, Roberta Breitmore, are synonymous with an era of women’s art to which all artists (especially—but not exclusively—women) owe a great debt.

But we are no longer in the seventies.  What are women artists doing now? Seeing Hershman’s new work, shown at Gallery Paule Anglim alongside her earlier pieces, is an interesting exercise in seeing where we came from, who we are (even if the answer is multiple identities), and where we might be going.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, "Home Front," 1993-2011. 2-channel synchronized installation inside a dollhouse. Image courtesy of the Gallery Paule Anglim.

Hershman’s newer work is just that: new. Techie-new. Considering the intrusion of technology into the body and body politics, this techno-feminism makes some sense. However, like much interactive and innovative media, her work sometimes trips on itself.

Is Home Front, 1993–2011, a dollhouse containing a small TV screen on which a couple engages in a marital argument, supposed to be physically difficult to watch?  True, the struggle to peer through the too-low windows does make one all the more aware of one’s own voyeurism (and the desire to see the argument escalate to violence), but it is nonetheless a potentially insurmountable obstacle to engaging with the work.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, "Anti Surveillance Suit Project, Sketch Part II," 2010. Digital pigment print. Image courtesy of the Gallery Paule Anglim.

Alchemist Rod For The 21st Century, 2010, a broom that detects traces of alcohol in the air, is certainly cool, but does its value as an art object transcend the “cool?” The installation of RAW/WAR, 2011, featuring user-submitted videos, screens in a wooden miniature theater navigable through sensor-equipped flashlights. This is actually an elaborate and clumsy way of showing a simple website that is far more interesting and engaging when viewed from one’s home computer.

The most successful pieces that incorporate interactive response are the creepy wigged masks that giggle or breathe when a sensor is triggered.  Ironically, these pieces are less recent, but are still potent in their commentary on the malleability of identity and the absence of a woman’s voice.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, "Giggling Machine 1," 1966, reconfigured in 2011. Image courtesy of the Gallery Paule Anglim.

These works share gallery space with Hershman’s drawings, which whimsically outline her ideas with a humor not present in the pieces that make it to their aesthetically austere execution. Anti-Surveillance Suit, 2010, a sketch originally drawn decades ago, is updated, and is more pertinent than ever.

Perhaps her sketches are so enticing because they imagine the seemingly impossible, as opposed to that which is limited by the technology that is available. And if Hershman’s work is about technology, it is ironic that materials so humble as pen and paper better articulate the confines of the body and the ability of the imagination to free it from politics, the gaze, and social and biological boundaries.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, "Kicking Time On Your Own," 2009. Pen, ink, and watercolor. Image courtesy of the Gallery Paule Anglim.

Lynn Hershman Leeson’s work will be on display at Gallery Paule Anglim through August 20, 2011, along with work by Benji Whalen.  Hershman’s film !Women Art Revolution will play in at the Lumiere and Shattuck Theaters in the Bay Area from August 26 through September 1st, 2011.  Check the !W.A.R. website for details.