Big, ambitious exhibitions are not all the same. Many seek to dazzle with displays of beautiful images or objects designed to transmit pleasure and a mild degree of edification, soothing and inspiring viewers to stop in the gift shop on their way out.
New Time: Art & Feminisms in the 21st Century is not that kind of show. Visually and intellectually challenging, it presents a complicated overview of the current state of feminist art. The exhibition looks backwards into the 19th century and forward into the future but focuses primarily on the past two decades, presenting more than 150 works by 76 artists. Its inclusive and diverse selections, made by former chief curator Apsara DiQuinzio and assistant curator Claire Frost, are accompanied by long, informative labels and wall texts that address each of the show’s eight thematic sections.
Created for a university art museum, this is, in the most positive sense, an academic show, and deeply so. It rigorously examines the values, strategies and ways of life reflected in recent feminist art, investigating a subject that is multi-faceted and sometimes unwieldy. In doing so, New Timesets what will likely be a new standard for feminist art scholarship: one that will become a reference for future generations of art historians. The beautifully designed catalog includes a thoughtful essay by DiQuinzio, conversations between feminist scholars, an excerpt from New Time, the poem by Bay Area writer Leslie Scalapino, from which the show takes its name, and complete entries on all of the works presented.
This show is part of the Feminist Art Collective, a nationwide initiative. Founded by DiQuinzio in early 2017 following the debacle of the previous year’s election, the collective was inspired in part by the Women’s March. With colleagues in the field, she conceptualized a public commitment to social justice and structural change through the medium of exhibitions. Though the pandemic delayed many of these projects, more than 100 shows have already been mounted, with more on the way throughout the country, at public and private institutions, large and small.
The FAC’s initiative is inspiring and admirable, particularly in how it expands feminist art to include nonbinary and transgender artists. For that reason and many others, New Time is important and worth a visit. Still, it requires some heavy lifting on the part of the viewer. As Lucy Lippard once said, feminist art is “neither a style nor a movement,” but “a value system, a revolutionary strategy, a way of life.” This is not always an easy idea to convey. Like many museumgoers, I like to initially experience an exhibition by actually looking at it, reading wall texts and labels only when I need to know more. As a reviewer, I then take a second look after absorbing catalog essays and other written materials.
In this case, I was so baffled by my first visit that I read more of the catalog than I might have otherwise, focusing on DiQuinzio’s essay and the entries for each work. Armed with this knowledge, I found the return trip both uplifting (in a stern, educational kind of way) and deeply satisfying. I now understood the rationale behind the inclusion of each work in the eight poetically titled sections: “The Arch of Hysteria,” “Returning the Gaze,” “Time as Fabric,” “The Body in Pieces,” “Gender Alchemy,” “Womxn “Workers of the World Unite!,” “Too Nice for Too Long” and “The Future is Feminist.” The first section explores the negative stereotype of the ‘hysterical’ woman, invented by pseudoscientist Jean-Martin Charcot in the late 19th century. Highlights include photographs and drawings of patients and a marvelous lmage/text piece by Sophie Calle that features her analyst’s couch. In “Returning the Gaze,” the complexities and power dynamics of the “male gaze,” a dominant subject in feminist scholarship of the 1970s, are reflected through works by Jordan Casteel, Mickalene Thomas, Ruby Neri and others. Thomas’ reclining figure, however, asserts the importance of the lesbian gaze — an idea not accounted for in the earlier gaze-oriented literature of the 20th century. “Time as Fabric” is a catch-all for work that addresses historical issues, including a thematically complicated and deeply compelling cut-paper panorama by Kara Walker and haunting works by Andrea Geyer and Catherine Wagner.
“The Body in Pieces,” its title derived from an essay by feminist art historian Linda Nochlin, features fragmented (many of them headless) female figures, such as Amy Cutler’s delicate gouaches and Janine Antoni’s sculpture, eerie Umbilical (2020), a cast silver sculpture showing the interior of an artist’s mouth and a mother’s hand. The title of the fifth section, “Gender Alchemy,” was inspired by Nicki Green’s vessel-shaped ceramic trilogy, Three States of Gender Alchemy. This and other works in this section explore the resistance to gender binaries.
Works in the sixth section, “Womxn “Workers of the World Unite!,” reflect on activism, domesticity and labor. Outstanding pieces here include examples from Lava Thomas’ series of drawings based on mug shots of Black women arrested for participating in the Montgomery bus boycott, as well as Ella Kruglyanskaya’s ominous-looking painting of maids. “Too Nice Too Long” offers a variety of angry women, including those seen in a Pussy Riot video. And in the final section, “The Future is Feminist,” utopian and dystopian works describe what such a future might look like.
As previously noted, artists in the show are diverse in every way: race, class, politics and age. There are pieces by long-time avatars of feminist art — in the first section alone, you encounter sculptures by Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith. There are also impressive contributions by mid-career painters Inka Essenhigh and Amy Sillman, as well as extraordinary objects and images by younger artists, including Casteel’s mesmerizing painting of three figures in a Harlem bar and Kenyatta AC Hinkle’s enigmatic drawing of a woman vomiting a fragment of a map of Africa. Many names are familiar; others are not. Surprises abound. Who knew, for instance, that Liz Larner and Amy Sillman both flirted with representation and did so with such haunting effectiveness? The first time through the show, I didn’t even notice Larner’s tiny female figure, titled You might have to live like a refugee (2019), as it seemingly flees into a wall. The two Guston-esque fists in Sillman’s painting, U.S. of Alice the Goon (2008), also hide in plain sight.
The placement of one of Jenny Holzer’s benches in the section devoted to labor initially puzzles but then makes perfect sense when you read the text: “The abuse of power comes as no surprise.” Still, if Simone Leigh’s exquisite bust of a woman appears in “A Body in Pieces,” why aren’t Catherine Wagner’s photographs of marble busts categorized similarly? Adding to the confusion: a few pieces don’t appear in their designated sections, probably for lack of space.
Maybe achieving a full understanding of the exhibition’s intentions isn’t necessary. Seeing something in a new context can lead to a deeply memorable encounter. Examples include Tammy Rae Carland’s quartet of self-portraits, in which she alternately inhabits the personae of her mother and her father; Candice Lin’s alarming drawing, Failed Matriarchy (2009), of a violent, all female aboriginal society; and Chitra Ganesh’s suite of linocuts picturing a mysterious future in which gender roles are reversed.
Taken individually, almost everything in New Time is worthwhile and compelling. Maybe your experience of the exhibition will be different from mine. If you allow yourself enough time to read as well as to look, the rewards are considerable.
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“New Time: Art & Feminisms in the 21st Century” @ BAMPFA January 30, 2022.
About the author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. Since the late ‘80s, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many now-defunct sites or magazines. The author of more than 100 exhibition catalog essays, she is a professor at California College of the Arts.