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The Way That We Rhyme
The Legacy of Feminism
by Nirmala Nataraj on May 09, 2008
The question of what it means to be a woman might summon a few immediately stereotypical ideas (bras, lipstick, painful visits to the waxing salon), but at least in this generation, it’s becoming increasingly rare to find femaleness aligned with stalwart pronouncements of power or that dreaded “f” word: feminism.
Sure, activism is de rigeur in the Bay, but with the new generation of tweens raised on pop culture and a swathe of erudite writers arguing for women’s collective return to hearth and home, the erosion of feminist thought (and the offensive, overly simplified portrayal of its exponents as ugly man-haters) is enough to make you think we’ve regressed to Victorian times. Given that young girls are more likely to hail Paris Hilton as a role model than, say, Gloria Steinem, the blatantly activist slant of “The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics", at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is like a much-needed drink of water in the currently arid climate of gender talk.
Given the dozens of artists who comprise “The Way That We Rhyme", many of the more contemporary academic issues surrounding gender -- e.g., the male gaze, the performance of sexuality and gender, and identity ownership -- make more than a passing cameo in the show. But this is an exhibit that unapologetically harks back to the times of bra-burning and railing against the establishment with more than fighting words. In its depiction of the many collective struggles that hampered women for much of the 20th century, the exhibit’s reliance on history and archival records gestures back to a time in which progressive thinking was aided and abetted by the fight for solid policymaking.
Andrea Bowers’ video shrine to three women who ensured the legalization of safe abortion gives a poignant face to women who have largely gone unrecognized (particularly by those who have most benefited from their struggles) -- and it exudes a rightful sense of urgency, given the current precarious state of women’s reproductive rights. Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz similarly use archival materials to interrogate feminism’s legacy in their installation, “Restricted Access". Motley boxes stashed with documents from the heyday of the Equal Rights movement (pictures, poems, legal papers, and other ephemera) are propped betwixt video monitors that feature younger women engaged in conversation about the contents of the boxes and how they may still be relevant.
While the historical context of the exhibit is certainly commendable, the show is also steeped in works that are not quite so overtly focused on the legacy of feminism. The work of Shinique Smith, for instance, uses odds and ends like old clothes and furniture to create sculptural installations hinting at body parts and desire for soft surfaces, but sometimes the associations come across as more startling than predictable. Piles of rags hanging from the ceiling (“Swaying Beauty”) look strangely nefarious, suggesting strait-jackets and lynching.
Stephanie Syjuco similarly upends the fetishized relationship between women and clothes with her Counterfeit Crochet Project, a particular highlight of the show that is alternately subversive and just plain eye-catching. Syjuco and friends have created a plethora of attractive crocheted knockoffs of exorbitant designer handbags like Fendi, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. One of the larger ideas of the project is to create a parallel framework that explores capitalist production and distribution channels while taking an obvious creative and philosophical detour. Indeed, many of the bags don’t even bear the slightest resemblance to their prototypes, pointing to the possibility of freedom within constraints and the ineluctable process of translation and transposition that takes place in the imitative process. Syjuco’s project also draws attention to the reemerging arts & crafts movement that has so often been relegated to “women’s work” by the traditional arts establishment, so the association between “women’s work", capitalism, and the breaking of artistic convention is depicted rather ingeniously.
Other treats include an experimental video chain letter from Miranda July entitled "Joanie4Jackie", which is composed of short films by various young women. The DIY strain of “The Way That We Rhyme” is particularly heavy among the younger female artists represented here, as in a zine archive detailing the anarchic raison d’etre of the Riot Grrl movement of the 90s.
Of course, any show purporting to be about women’s art would be a little lacking if it didn’t tackle the thorny concept of gender performance. Vaginal Davis offers her own provocative drag installation, “Present Penicative", which delves into the intimate interior space of the bedroom and cross-examines anxiety around gender and sexuality through the cautionary idea of the “vagina dentate", or “toothed vagina".
While the new strains of activism inherent in some of the more personal, rather than merely civic, aspects of feminism and gender are interesting, there isn’t really a consistent or identifiable link between older and younger feminist art. In fact, when younger women seem to reference the golden days of feminism, there is more a sense of paying homage than engaging in dialogue. Perhaps this is part of the problem of feminism and its fractured activist forms.
In a time in which women of color, queer/transgendered women, and women living in poverty are still severely marginalized (even by the establishment that claims to support them), it’s notable to look around the gallery and notice who has not been represented in the show. One might argue that it’s close to impossible to present the sheer spectrum of current feminist thought, but there must be a more effective way of removing various exponents from their niche significance and uniting them beneath the same umbrella. While “The Way That We Rhyme” doesn’t entirely succeed in doing so, it at least raises the possibility of intergenerational understanding within women’s art -- something you’re not likely to find in many other traditional venues.
“The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art & Politics"
at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
runs through June 29th
by Nirmala Nataraj on May 09, 2008
Aleksandra Mir, First Woman on the Moon, Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts