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