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Out of Line

The many faces of feminism

Feminism is a dirty word these days. Not wanting to be mistaken for the stereotyped feminist (the jack boot-wearing, man-hating lesbian with a chip on her shoulder), today's women instead embrace "girl power," a cuter, friendlier movement of well-manicured chicks who can kick ass and still look hot in stilettos. The new girl power is everywhere, from TV (think Powerpuff Girls) to movies (Charlie's Angels, anyone?) to video games (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). You need only venture as far as your neighborhood Wal-Mart to fill today's girl power wardrobe, where everything comes emblazoned with suggestive phrases like "Goddess," "Bitch," and "99% Angel" (even in the kids' department).

Girl power may be the only socially acceptable form of feminism on the market today, but in reality contemporary feminist thought goes far beyond male bashing and the na´ve-but-sexualized girl power so pervasive in pop culture. Today's feminists approach gender issues from more angles than the dressing room mirrors at Macy's, as evidenced by the incisively smart and wickedly funny work of the five female artists featured here.

Katy Krantz' paintings, easily the show's most esoteric and abstract, are dripping swaths of color and fur that form stylized vaginas and other cavities, revealing a desire to depict the female body in a frank, graphic way-leaky orifices and all. Constance Maher's colorful construction-paper images recall the crude, low-tech animation of South Park, making her work more accessible than Krantz's despite the fact that, as curator and participating artist Nancy Mizuno Elliot notes, "She's sacrificing a lot of penises." Indeed, Maher's work, which stars a sour little girl committing violent acts on disembodied phalluses, leans toward the anti-male end of the feminist spectrum. If Maher's work underscores the abyss separating the sexes, Mizuno Elliot's drawings, by contrast, celebrate gender fluidity. "Gender Outlaws," drawn with a Sharpie right on the gallery wall, exalts the beauty of androgynous youth before sexuality begins defining roles and taboos.

Katherine Aoki takes issue with the girl power myth and the lost innocence that comes from mass marketing sexuality to young girls. Her construction-site series recasts bubbly, "empowered" women in traditionally male roles as construction workers and foremen who build enormous monuments to ridiculous girl power icons like lip gloss and platform shoes. Far from celebrating girl power, Aoki sees it as a thinly veiled reincarnation of an old male model. Just as Aoki's construction workers appear to break down the gender barrier only to erect frivolous monuments, girl power idols like the stars of Charlie's Angels appear to be empowered yet still glorify sex and violence, hallmarks of the age-old male system. Maybe Cameron Diaz is nothing more than Sylvester Stallone with honey-blond highlights and Jimmy Choo heels.

Conversely, cartoonist Isis Rodriguez recalls "do-me feminism" by using sexuality to catch your attention. "Spanglish Pans," an installation of a dozen painted baking pans resembling Mexican retablos, depicts humanized, sexualized animals-in one scene, two longhorn bulls catcall a nearby cow that reveals her enormous udders. On another note, Rodriguez's (aka Little Miss Attitude) collaboration with graffiti-artist-cum-craftswoman Nicole Repack (aka Jocelyn Superstar) is the remarkable product of their joint residency at San Francisco's Norcal Sanitary Fill.

It's time to retire the myth of feminism as a monolithic man-hating worldview. True feminism is constantly in flux; a dynamic conversation between myriad schools of thought whose only commonality is often a basic respect for women's rights. All it takes is one look at the multifaceted work of these five fine females to recognize that.

Don't miss a chance to see all five artists at an Artists Talk at the Oakland Art Gallery (Thursday, August 21 from 6:30 - 8 PM). Admission is free.

Oakland Art Gallery
199 Kahn's Alley
Oakland, CA 94612
Phone: 510.637.0395
Exhibition runs through August 23
Gallery Hours: Tuesday - Friday 11 AM - 6 PM; Saturday 11 AM - 5 PM
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