Women’s Work: Considering Feminist Art Through Three Recent Shows
Dispatch from Los Angeles
Guerrilla Girls: Art in Action at Pomona College Museum of Art
January 20 to May 17, 2015
333 N College Way
Claremont, CA, 909 621 8283
Alien She at the Orange County Museum of Art
February 15 to May 24, 2015
850 San Clemente Dr
Newport Beach, CA, 949 759 1122
traveling to the Pacific Northwest College of Art and Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland
SOGTFO at François Ghebaly
February 28 to April 4, 2015
2245 E Washington Blvd
Los Angeles, CA, 323 282 5187
What is the value of a woman’s work?
I find myself contemplating this question after spending a total of four unpaid hours learning to edit Wikipedia in the service of helping resolve its gender imbalance.
Only 13% of Wikipedia editors are women, according to a 2011 census, a statistic that prompted the Art+Feminism group to spearhead and sponsor worldwide “edit-a-thons” to encourage the creation and expansion of Wikipedia content related to women and feminism in the arts. I took part in a local chapter at Whittier College where I and a handful of students and faculty members learned best practices, notability guidelines, and how to create, edit, and cite on the world’s most-used reference website.
In four hours I managed to add one little paragraph of text to Hannah Höch’s Wikipedia page. Accounting for the learning curve and the chatter in the room, this isn’t really as inefficient as it sounds, but it did prompt me to question the value of my time and work — as a woman, and as a writer.
Not that I would have been doing anything different. Were it not for the edit-a-thon I would have devoted that time to writing this article for artcritical, an article that I’d promised my editor would survey a number of exhibitions featuring women artists in the greater Los Angeles area. There’s an exhibition of Guerrilla Girls ephemera at the Pomona College Museum of Art, a survey of the influence of the Riot Grrl movement on visual arts at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) in Newport Beach, as well as a recent exhibition of female sculptors at François Ghebaly Gallery in Downtown L.A. What unites these exhibitions is not only the gender of their participants, but the insistence on gender as a uniting principle.
A month ago, in Pomona, two black-clad, gorilla-masked activists greeted an auditorium with armfuls of bananas, tossing them out to the crowd before mounting the stage and presenting a lecture/performance/artist talk on the Guerrilla Girls’ objectives and activities. One of them, using the pseudonym Käthe Kollwitz, a founding member, has devoted a career to anonymously fighting for equal representation of art by women and people of color. The anonymity here serves to “keep the focus on the issues” rather than on the personalities of those who bring the issues to the table. But, I wonder, who is it behind the mask, who has toiled for 30 years with no credit, no personal recognition for such incremental concessions to the overall state of the arts? What is the value of this work, this lifetime of work? Certainly there are speaker’s fees, which are how the Guerrilla Girls fund their activism, but meager remuneration isn’t what gives value to this work, it is simply what enables it. The value of her work, rather, could be seen in the faces of the hundreds of young women in the audience — young artists and curators, ready to embark on their careers in an environment that is steadily getting better, more inclusive, but not perfect yet. The value is in the transmission of the message, in the hopes that more people will help carry the torch, keep the tallies, and expose disparity.
The message can be transmitted in other ways, in the case of Riot Grrl through music and mail order. The walls are lined with zines at the beginning of the fascinating and engrossing “Alien She” exhibition at OCMA: cheaply photocopied-and-stapled rants, poems, and comics, on topics from punk rock, to coming out, to resisting rape. Like pre-Internet proto-Tumblrs, zines were distributed through independent channels just like underground music, via independent record labels, in small bookstores, record stores, by direct mail, and at punk shows. Miranda July’s Big Miss Moviola project (1995-2003, later known as Joanie 4 Jackie) connected female filmmakers through a “video chainletter” distributing each work, each artist to one another. Born out of the frustration July experienced trying to get her work into male-dominated film festivals, Moviola cost only $5 to participate, was advertised in teen magazines like Sassy and Seventeen, and completely circumvented all the usual channels of distribution, production, and display, sidestepping “mainstream” audiences, and building instead a small community comprised only of likeminded female filmmakers. The value of this work is in the network, and in the recognition that you can create it yourself. Who cares what the boys think?
The exhibition “SOGTFO” (“Sculpture Or Get The Fuck Out”) at François Ghebaly, a grouping of five early- to mid-career female sculptors — Amanda Ross-Ho, Andrea Zittel, Kelly Akashi, Kathleen Ryan, and Nevine Mahmoud — paradoxically makes a bid to “undo the gendered vernacular” while using gender as a lens through which to observe sculpture and culture in practice. (The title is a play on the phrase, commonly found on male-dominated web forums, “TOGTFO”: [show photos of your] Tits Or Get The Fuck Out [of the discussion].) The young artists Akashi, Ryan, and Mahmoud are absolute revelations in this show: their forms, both light and heavy at the same time, slump, drip, curl, perch, and sway in the space. The show opens ideas and concerns beyond gender. Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer’s essay in the accompanying single-sheet catalogue, “Sculpture…,” perfectly encapsulates the condition of constant questioning that comes with the desire to see beyond gender while recognizing the effects of the gender gap: “Being sick of crude binaries, false oppositions, extrinsic responsibilities and coerced competition,” she writes, “She wants a break from options phrased as this ‘or’ that.” Most pointedly she writes, “…or bypass phallogocentrism altogether! I’m so over it. SCUM says, ‘What will liberate women, therefore, from male control is the total elimination of the money-work system, not the attainment of economic equality with men within it.’” Amen.
The sculptures, on their part, seem unbounded by such questions, despite the sad fact that, in all likelihood, given the art market’s enduring skew, these works will ultimately hold less value at auction than works by male sculptors (not to mention less attention in the press, in galleries, in museums, and in all the other parts of the arts apparatus). What is their value then? What is value, in monetary terms at least, if it’s so arbitrarily granted to some works and not to others? Certainly it’s not inherent in the work itself, so how do you measure it, and, more importantly, who gets to do so?
Like women’s work and artists’ work, art writing involves the transmission of a message, is likely to be viewed only by a small network of devotees, and is of questionable value. Composing tweets for a corporation or public figure pays better than writing art reviews, but writing for bigger audiences often pays nothing at all.
In the end, I suppose I should find a way to tell you that no matter the value, it’s somehow all worth it. I’m not sure exactly why or how, but I can confirm that by adding one paragraph to Wikipedia about Hannah Höch’s relationship with the insidiously abusive Raoul Hausmann, I was offered some slight feeling of catharsis (and a rather startling and grand experience writing for the mass audience of Wikipedia). Perhaps it’s a similar feeling to what Höch must have felt when she published, in 1920, shortly before leaving Hausmann, a biting short story parodying her lover and his hypocritical stance on “women’s emancipation.” Publishing it probably didn’t pay all that much, but no doubt she received tenfold dividends in satisfaction alone.