Friday, January 18, 2008


Small Things End, Great Things Endure, is a medium, well-done show of contemporary feminist artists at New Langton Arts, San Francisco. There's always some question whether art made by women is defacto feminist art by virtue of the maker and the inherent inequality she must overcome to have her artwork seen. If three percent of a group show are women artists, it is something to write home about. But to be sure, this show was a show of feminist art.

In an updated introduction to her essay, The Personal is Political Carol Hanisch reiterates why that phrase was a valid slogan to rally behind in 1970, and why it still works today. Political "was used here in the broard sense of the word as having to do with power relationships, not the narrow sense of electorial politics," she explains. And personal was the subect of the essay because there was a rift in the movement over how to advance the cause. Some of her co-radicals, she says, "belittled us no end for trying to bring our so-called 'personal problems' into the public arena - especially 'all those body issues' like sex, appearance, and abortion."

The artists in the New Langton show are doing work that is historically and socially engaged (political) and more often than not it addresses individual perspectives on the body and presentation (personal). I was struck by the continued growth of the vine that is feminism, and the conversation these artists are having with artists before them.

Curiously, the piece which stood out for me the most, the show's title piece, Small Things End, Great Things Endure, while historically reflective and extending a conversation with older women artists, is not so much a feminist piece as much as political. Projected on the wall, this repetitive video shows the Dutch artist, Mathilde ter Heijne burning—flames engulfing her hair and clothing. She is not so much a "modern day Joan of Arc," as the curators, María del Carmon Carrión and Jill Dawsey suggest, for Joan was burned at the stake for presuming to know the will of god and his will was for her to lead troops into battle. Ter Heijne, dressed in 60s attire, is evoking other martyrs: the burning Buddhist monks who died protesting the Vietnam War. This is a personal response to the political.

Ter Heijne is following on a sequence in Jahrestage the film by Margarethe von Trotta which is an adaptation of the novel by Uwe Johnson. Gesine, the main character of Jahrestage, is haunted by the suicide of her German mother who, anguished by her role as witness to Nazi war crimes, set fire to herself. Gesine, living in New York City in 1968, is herself agonizing over the American war in Vietnam. This video made in 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks and the American war in Afganistan, reworks this response to war. Conflating mother and daughter, ter Heijne wears 60s attire and sets herself on fire. She is linking arms with a woman filmmaker, a woman novelist, and two women characters to burn with the passion of protest against war. Fire being fire, it was a riveting piece.

It being a group show, there was a lot to see and somehow the curators managed to include many of the strands of feminist art. Ali Naschke-Messing's work was literally strands of thread writing out a phrase—there were two examples, Ode to Kristeva: A Treatise On We and Dirty Love Poem, 3, both of which were mostly illegible, which I suppose remarks on the fragility and impermanence of language—or perhaps is an ironic feminine unraveling of text. Not being able to read the phrase made it impossible for me to know. It's taken me a long time to appreciate Cy Twombly. (To be honest, I'm not sure I do.) He came to mind.

Okay so that was feminist language and feminine-craft art. Also feminine-craft art with a feminist-history nod was Anna Maltz's Gorilla, a monkey (no, gorilla) suit knitted in black mohair. The Gorilla Girls were thus evoked. Cindy Sherman was evoked in Zoe Crosher's Cindy Shermanesque (but She's the Real Thing), a selection of photos from a larger work comprising the archive of self-portraits of Michelle du Bois, travelling escort. This work deals with the issue of "feminine guise." Eve Fowler's photo of artist K8 Hardy wearing a pair of crotch-less jeans is about gendered gaze. The portrait mimics Valie Export's publicity photo for her performance Action Pants: Genital Panic (way back in 1969!) but unlike Export, Hardy holds no machine gun and hardly promoting panic, she gazes out calmly, kinda butch, but decidedly female, even if you have to cut the crotch out to know for sure, which is of course just what comes up if you look at another with a gendered gaze: What are you? A boy or a girl? Hardy's gaze is calm because the issue is in the viewer, not the presenter.

Equally as powerful a portrait is Jen Smith's Citizen which reworks Catharine Opie's self-portrait, hooded, pierced with needles, and "Pervert" carved into her chest. Like Opie, she's hooded and pierced, but the word this time is "Citizen." If Opie was re-claiming the perjorative "pervert," is Smith making the personal political?

What else? I liked Maja Bajevic's video-recorded performances. Women at Work—Under Construction showed five women refugees from Srebrenica stitching patterns into the net covering the scaffolding of a building damaged in war. Again, women respond to war. Women at Work—Washing Up shows a group of Bosnian women washing pieces of fabric stitched with quotes by Tito ("We aim for peace, but we prepare for war.") Again, women respond to war.

Women respond to marriage (Andrea Bowers), to their bodies (Wynne Greenwood), to women's work (Akosua Adoma Owusu), to identification/alienation (Emily Roysdon), and Jonathan Solo responds to gender offering cut up & reassembled drawings like Done Apologizing bravely mixing it all up and opening up the field that is feminist art.