Beyond Heroine-ism: “The House We Built: Feminist Art Then and Now” and the Cindy Sherman Retrospective

Written By: Christina Schmid Constellation 23 3.1.13

By Christina Schmid

Arguably, “The House We Built: Feminist Art Then and Now” is an important show. It brings together the work of 70 artists who happen to be women and whose work was touched, moved, and propelled by the feminist movement. The oldest pieces in the show date back to the early seventies, the most recent work just to last year. Some of the artists’ names resonate nationally and internationally. Seeing their work in the Nash Gallery, contextualized amidst art by many lesser known but no less committed artists, is a rare tribute—a femme-age, if you want—a reflection and celebration of a collaborative creative struggle whose ripple effects are still expanding through much of contemporary art.[i] But, with too much emphasis on “then” and too little attention to “now,” the show risks relegating feminist art to the dustbin of history.

“The House We Built” succeeds on two counts. Unlike other group exhibitions dedicated to the intersection of the women’s movement and art, “The House We Built” does not skirt the issue at the heart of the exhibition: feminism. In the age of feminist blockbuster exhibitions (remember WACK!?), museum  directors and curators often are at pains to neutralize any possibly offensive political edge. Amelia Jones, in her analysis of “elles@centrepompidou,” an exhibition of work by women artists from the Centre Pompidou’s collection in Paris, recently traced the changes in the show’s title. From “Femmes, Femininité, Feminisme,” the title changed, at the director’s insistence, to something sounding as if a prominent women’s magazine, not particularly known for its feminist leanings, had taken up residence at Pompidou.[ii]

Aside from such titular shenanigans, the show’s curator, Camille Morineau, basically had to build the collection in the five years leading up to “elles” to include enough contemporary art by women to stage a show of some significance. Jones, speaking at the College Art Association’s 2013 conference, applauded Morineau’s “feminist infiltration” of the Pompidou’s collection, while, at the same time, questioned the effort, mandated by the institution, to make the show less threatening. Apparently, the effort was a success of sorts, if media coverage is any indication:

“In true feminist fashion, Elles is not an argument, it’s an invitation: A survey of women artists of the 20th century that suggests there’s nothing so definitive, so limiting, as women’s art. Instead there is conversation, there is sharing, there is everything.” (City Arts)

Who needs feminism when there already is “everything?” Fortunately, “The House We Built” does not indulge such platitudes and polite erasures. Rich with context, the exhibition presents a selection of feminist art intimately connected to WARM, the Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota, renamed as Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota in 2010.

The show’s second notable achievement lies in resisting the tendency towards the monographic, singling out individual voices for representative purposes. Too often, exhibitions fail to capture the collective nature of the art that happened when the feminist movement met institutional critique, gender activism, and performance art with its unapologetic focus on the body.[iii] “The House We Built” revels in remembering collective and collaborative art and actions. Individual pieces may stand out–Harmony Hammond’s grommet-studded monotype from Rim Series, Monica Rudquist’s elaborate ceramic vessels, Harriet Bart’s fierce, red anti-war painting, Vesna Kittelson’s abstracted torsos—but overall, the curators, Joyce Lyon and Howard Oranksy, are dedicated to showing the work in concert.

“The House We Built” partly coincided with the Walker Art Center’s beautiful Cindy Sherman retrospective. Focused on a single artist, the show was clearly conceived as a conventional monograph with blockbuster potential. The untitled film stills have aged well and still titillate with the uncanny familiarity of Hollywood’s visual grammar. The centerfolds’ implied wide-screen narratives capture moments in expertly nuanced degrees of anticipation—or the throes of untold aftermaths. The carefully calibrated abject, monstrous, and mutilated bodies provide a dark mirror to the acceptable, even expected, manipulations displayed in her fashion and glamour shots, where pathos-ridden failures mingle with unapologetic refusals to abide. Masterpieces of old never looked so quaint and queer as in the fragmented and prosthetic bodies of Sherman’s art history series. Her clowns do anything but provide comedic relief: they point to the sinister edge of gender conformity. Enthralled by convention, her characters age, caught in the spidery web of gender performance and performativity.

The most compelling piece in the show: printed on the wall, three larger-than-life Cindies meet us. To the right stands a figure with a sword. Far from threatening, blade lowered, she is dressed in a bizarre, pink flesh-colored body suit. Her passive stance suggests a quiet resignation: regardless of what I do, I’ll always be stuck in this suit. On the left, hips cocked, a juggler meets our gaze, pins at the ready: the circus performer, cheerleader, ready to amuse and entertain at a moment’s notice. Are these the only options Sherman sees for her characters and, by extension, for us? No, wait. In between the two colorful figures, two round, black-and-white forest scenes cover the wall. Mirroring each other, they are split internally, kaleidoscope-like, endlessly reproducible images. At their central suture, where you may catch me looking at you looking at me looking at myself through your eyes which are looking at me, a third figure emerges. Meet the photographer, capturer, conjurer, commentator, subject and object of our gaze. Her head, wigless this time, is thrown back as if enraptured, her housedress and sneakers at odds with the deliberate fashion sense so cannily displayed elsewhere. In her hand, the remote camera release waits for just the right moment, just the right expression. Our heroine du jour.

How easy it is to give in to the seduction of images, to the seamless coherence promised by the monographic exhibition. Everything makes sense. Sherman’s work unfolds in a tidy sequence. The retrospective, complete with didactics eager to explain the monumental impact of the artist’s work—elegantly analyzed by Lightsey Darst—does its best to eschew feminist undercurrents altogether. Why spoil the fun with an ugly word like feminism? Especially when the artist has always been careful to avoid it? Harmony Hammond, one of the artists included in “The House We Built,” suggests in conversation, that “as long as the word ‘feminist’ still packs a negative punch, we should continue to use it.” No such daring is to be found at the Walker Art Center, where Sherman’s work is safely couched in the language of gender theory, sans feminism. Refreshingly, “The House We Built” embraces the language of feminism and successfully avoids the individualized accolades the monograph offers. But it suffers from a related affliction: like Sherman’s retrospective, the show presents feminism as an issue for women of a certain age.

Following the opening celebration and Harmony Hammond’s artist talk, a panel discussion, misleadingly titled “The House We Are Building,” cast the problem into sharp relief. While the featured speakers had much to share about the Women’s Art Institute and the Women’s Studio Program—feminist art then—feminist art now was conspicuously absent. This is no small omission. To honor the lasting impact of feminist artists in the Midwest and elsewhere requires showing how their groundbreaking work continues to inspire younger artists today. But, aside from the remarks by Bethany Whitehead, WARM’s current president, who addressed the challenges the organization faces today, the art of now was missing. Elizabeth Erickson listed the names and projects of students who attended the Women’s Art Institute, one name for each year of the program’s existence. But names alone cannot convey the story.

As an exhibition, “The House We Built: Feminist Art Then and Now” has the considerable courage to call feminism by its name. But, amidst reverential tributes and fond memories, the impulse to honor and historicize takes on a life of its own—and comes with a considerable price. Were feminism truly a thing of the past, we should worry. It is not. How do I know? As a teacher, I have the privilege of working with young people of all genders who very much engage with the politics of feminism. As Joyce Lyon, astutely asked (and I paraphrase loosely), as long as the ideas are alive, who cares if we label them feminist? The ideas, then, are alive and well. But you would not know that from looking at “The House We Built” or, for that matter, the Cindy Sherman retrospective. So, could we please have some shows in town of young feminist, queer, political art, minus reverence and with some added sense of urgency, defiance, and unruliness?  I, for one, would very much like to see that.

[i] See for instance, Helen Molesworth, “House Work and Art Work,” October Volume 92, Spring 2000. [ii] Amelia Jones, “A history about which there is nothing feminine at all”: elles@centrepompidou as a Nonfeminine Exhibition of Art by Women (2009-2011).” College Art Association Conference, New York, February 15, 2013. [iii] Griselda Pollock, “The Exhibition That Did Not Happen: Feminism and British Art Politics.” College Art Association, New York, February 15, 2013.

Image List

1. Val Frank, The Assault Suite: Lamentation. Mixed media on wood. 2010.

2. Harmony Hammond, Rim Series #3, 2011. Monotype (on Twinrocker paper with grommets)

3. Georgina Kettler, Spirit House, 1981

4. Diane McLeod, The Angry Little Girl, 1978

Article Gallery

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  1. Dear Christina,

    Thank you for your thoughtful review of the exhibition The House We Built: Feminist Art Then and Now. We would like to respond to some of your observations and add a few of our own.

    Our comments represent the thinking of the curators of the exhibition in the Nash Gallery (Joyce Lyon and Howard Oransky). We do not necessarily speak for the curators of the exhibition in the T.R. Anderson gallery (Deborah Boudewyns and Christina Michelon).

    You end the review by asking, “Could we please have some shows in town of young feminist, queer, political art, minus reverence and with some added sense of urgency, defiance, and unruliness?” Speaking as director of the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, the answer is “most definitely, yes.” I am inviting you to curate an exhibition of young, feminist, queer political art with some added sense of urgency, defiance, and unruliness for the Nash Gallery. If you would like some help with this, I would be happy to curate the exhibition with you. Please let me know if you would like to organize such an exhibition and I will put it on the exhibition schedule and start working with you.

    You noted that we did not skirt the issue at the heart of the exhibition: feminism, and I appreciate that. In my opinion, just titling the exhibition The House We Built: Feminist Art Then and Now was a clear statement of urgency, defiance and unruliness. We inhabit a time of widespread national and international political backlash and retrenchment in which the basic rights of women and the basic aspirations of feminism and the feminist movements are under attack. For example, the basic right of a woman to control her own body by deciding if she will or will not become pregnant; will or will not have an abortion; or be safe from physical assault or sexual assault or murder by men at home or on a bus or on the street — are just as urgent now as in the 1970s and even saying the word “feminist” is an urgent and unruly reminder of this reality.

    The downside to using terms like “feminist art” or “then and now” in the exhibition title is that is conveys a sense of a full historical sweep to the exhibition that was not intended nor possible, and sets up an unachievable expectation. Our basic premise for the exhibition — as we explained in the press release and in the curatorial statement that was displayed in the gallery – was to tell a story of the alternative, in many cases radical art structures built by women artists (galleries, publications, studios, educational programs, etc.) in the 1970s. We started with a list of 200 artists who had helped establish these structures all over the country (for example, WARM in Minneapolis, as you noted); included as many of them as we could, and whenever possible we tried to include an artwork they made then and one made more recently.

    Harmony Hammond is a good example of this intent and I’m sorry that you missed it in your experience of the exhibition. Harmony is widely regarded as one of the most influential lesbian, queer and feminist artists of the last 40 years. Originally from Chicago, she came to Minneapolis in the 1960s and studied studio art the University of Minnesota. She moved to New York in 1969 just after the Stonewall Rebellion and was a founding member of A.I. R. Gallery (the first gallery for women artists in New York) and was a founding member of the radical publication Heresies: A Feminist Publication of Art and Politics (we had examples in the T.R. Anderson Gallery). Harmony curated the first exhibition of lesbian art in New York and her book Lesbian Art in America was the first published survey and remains one of the most influential books on lesbian and queer art.

    You noted that we showed Harmony’s monotype from 2011 but didn’t mention that we also showed her Fan Lady from 1980. Fan Lady was on the opposite wall, just as you entered the gallery. It was part of a group of 4 artworks that also included Red Flag, in which we witness Judy Chicago pulling a bloody tampon out of her vagina; Self-Portrait at 60, in which Pat Olson portrayed herself in drag subverting the famous image by Max Beckmann and “smoking” a tampon instead of a cigar; and the Flaming Woman by Quimetta Perle in which her life-size embroidered image of a woman is burning, but not destroyed by the flames. By bringing together Harmony’s work spanning a 30-year arc we could see her treatment of queer themes over time. Joyce pointed out to me that the grommets that pierce the monotype actually were first used as “eyes” on the Fan Lady and this observation deepened my appreciation for Harmony’s work.

    You mentioned the public program The House We Are Building as an example of the problem in which “then” received more attention than “now”. We need to point out that the Women’s Art Institute, its concept seeded in the early years of WARM, was founded in 1999 and continues its work with a four-week intensive program in June at St. Catherine University. You did not mention the public program Researching Feminist Art: Then and Now. We were fortunate to have three students at the University of Minnesota – Madison Sternig, Candace Thooft and Austin Voigt – who received the CLA Freshman Research and Creative Award. These students conducted curatorial research for the exhibitions under the guidance of Christina Michelon, an M.A. student in Art History and curator of the exhibition in the T.R. Anderson Gallery. All four of these students presented their research in the public program. They talked about how they were surprised to learn about the feminist art movements of the 1970s and the artists who made this happen, because these widely influential artists and art forms are not part of their education, either in the art history or studio art curriculum. I’m sorry you missed this program, because if you had attended it you would have known that these students – like the ones you teach and are mentioned in your review – are also very much engaged with feminism. Their research on locating the artists helped make this exhibition possible and formed the basis of the historical timeline displayed in the gallery. It was a pleasure and an inspiration working with these students.

    We gladly take responsibility for the “reverential tributes and fond memories” you question in this project. For example, I admit that it was an honor for me to present the AIDS box with artwork by Nancy Spero – an artist I greatly admired whose practice and presence changed my life and who is missed dearly by not only me but by many other artists. I think a little more appreciation and scholarly acknowledgement of the revolutionary contributions made by her and other feminist artists like her is a sorely needed addition to art history and art education. We are constantly amazed at how the accomplishments of women and feminist artists are erased – or subsumed – by the dominant culture. The (re)introduction of content and narrative, of multiple perspectives, of the belief that art is an appropriate and potent vehicle for cultural critique is a direct, often unacknowledged legacy of the feminist art movement. When students speak reverentially and fondly of Sigmar Polke or Mike Kelly I share their enthusiasm but usually get a blank stare in return when I speak reverentially and fondly of Ana Mendieta or Nancy Spero. When history is not claimed –and reclaimed— its lessons and power are lost.

    This is a shame because feminist art has so much to offer young people. For example, I led a gallery tour of The House We Built for a group of high school students and when we got to Linda Rother’s Family Destruction Wagon their response was immediate and palpable. This installation consists of an antique wagon “pulled” by broken toy horses, filled with cracked windows, family photos, and other detritus and surrounded on the gallery floor by about 200 empty booze bottles and stacks of weathered newspapers. I explained to these teenagers that the choice of newspapers by the artist was an important clue to unraveling the narrative of the Wagon. The newspaper articles were on domestic violence; the physical and sexual assault of women and children by their husbands and fathers; the secrets and lies that preserve and protect the power of men within the family unit. These young gallery visitors engaged with the work, speaking with passion and grace, witnessing the power of art to bring meaning and form together in dialogue.

    We agree that The House We Built: Feminist Art Then and Now emphasized the roots and development of feminist art in America. We could not do that substantially and at the same time/in the same exhibition focus on a survey of contemporary young feminist artists. We believe/hope we have opened an opportunity for future exhibitions that present more facets of the story. Feminist art, queer art, political art, unruly art will have a home at the Nash Gallery as long as the doors stay open and the lights stay on. The gallery depends on the financial support from individual donors who value this work and we welcome all contributions of any amount.

    Howard Oransky
    Director, Nash Gallery

    Joyce Lyon
    Associate Professor of Art

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