About a year and a half ago I named Judy Chicago as an artist sure to discredit anyone with the bad judgment to cite her as an influence. She’s still the only person I can definitively place on that list. On some level, the reasons to dislike her are obvious: her paintings borrow too much from Georgia O’Keeffe but are less skilled, her installations are typically simple in concept and boring in person, and worst of all, her work drips of hippy free-spirited goodness, a quality sure to turn off most of today’s proudly cynical artists.
With that said, even if there is no less fashionable combination than feminism and the dirty hippy — and certainly most of her work in the 80s and 90s matches this criteria — it’s hard to understand why this particular artist’s projects have come to be so universally disliked. And one of the reasons the traveling exhibition WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution has seen so much positive press is that curator Connie Butler has included work likely to inspire such questions. The exhibition, now at P.S.1, includes Judy Chicago’s Through the Flower, a reasonably well executed painting of a blossom, which certainly provides a more positive entry point to her art than anything she made after 1980.
Mind you, the later work was never likely to make it into the show anyway; the exhibition focuses on art made by 120 artists between 1965 and 1980. Organized thematically, WACK! includes categories such as “Knowledge as Power”, “Body as Medium”, “Auto-photography” and more. As a whole, the exhibition means to show the diversity of practice within the community of artists during that time who identified as feminists. The work of Joan Semmel, for example, speaks to this range, an artist retroactively included in the feminist canon for her photograph-based paintings. Picturing only what she could see of her and her lover’s body, the artist’s outspoken feminist politics provide a clearer picture for her inclusion than her Intimacy/Autonomy. There is an eerie silence to the indisputably strong piece, but it isn’t among the bolder statements women made during that era.
While a range of Joan Semmels to Judy Chicagos is important, my own interests lay more on the side of those who were making very vocal feminist statements in their art. As unfashionable as it may be today to invest in art makers whose ideology can be easily identified, (which, contrary to popular belief, does not necessitate a lack of nuance), those who expressed themselves with the greatest conviction, eloquence and clarity are naturally still the most relevant feminist art makers. For this reason, artists like Alexis Smith, Pauline Oliveros and Martha Rosler continue to stand out in exhibitions. Demonstrating her ability with narrative, Smith’s photo collage with text tells a compelling story of a woman who gives up her career as dancer for love, while on the same floor, Pauline Oliveros’s article “And Don’t Call Them Lady Composers” succinctly explains the perils of the term “Lady.” Arguably the most well known of the three, Rosler’s series of collages Body Beautiful or Body Knows No Pain, speaks plainly to the representation of women in advertising. These pieces are full of unexpected, often plainly ridiculous juxtapositions; Nature Girls flings women into the air over a vast landscape, soldiers are placed just outside a new home in Red Stripe Kitchen, while another image has a giant eyeball peering into a spotless house.
Though such works may not have the ambiguity contemporary artists more easily identify with, Butler has wisely chosen a wide enough range of art to satisfy virtually everyone’s taste. What’s more, she whets our appetite for the decades to come — may WACK Part II be just around the corner.