Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Girl Power

What is feminist art? Who is a feminist artist? Must the artist knowingly make feminist art? Must the artist be a woman?

These are just a few of the questions raised in the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition, Girls 
and Company: Feminist Works from MMoCA’s Permanent Collection.

The show, which opened in May and runs through July 20, explores the legacy of feminism in art through a collection of roughly twenty paintings, photographs and prints from the 1960s through ’90s.

Artists represented in Girls and Company include Diane Arbus, Joan Brown, Ilona Granet, Jenny Holzer, Mary Laird, Jin Lee, Marisol, Lev T. Mills, Nancy Mladenoff, Frances Myers, Christina Ramberg, Miriam Schapiro and Hollis Sigler.

Photography in the exhibition is particularly striking, from Cindy Sherman’s untitled image of a woman—herself posing as an abused wife—with a bruised face and a look of shock to Anne Noggle’s scenes of an elderly woman in her small Santa Fe kitchen and two nude women sitting at desks in a small office smoking cigarettes.

Nicholas Nixon—one of two men in the show—also presents a thought-provoking photograph in St. Petersburg, Florida, in which a group of teen girls directly confront his camera as well as those who encounter the image. It’s a good example of much of the art in this show—in that it raises questions for viewers but doesn’t offer up easy answers.

Noteworthy, too, are prints by the Guerrilla Girls, a collaborative activist group that formed in the 1980s and raised awareness about discrimination in the art world and other realms. In one poster-style screenprint from 1989, the group comments that with the $17.7 million one could spend on a single Jasper Johns painting, he or she could instead purchase at least one work from each of the over sixty-five women artists and artists of color that they list. It’s a powerful statement made in a powerful work.

Jane Simon, curator of exhibitions at MMoCA, recently offered some insight into how the exhibition came together, what feminist art means today and what she hopes viewers take way from the show.

How did Girls and Company come about? Why did you decide to hold this exhibition? 

Exhibitions are sometimes planned years in advance. This one was planned about a year ago. And I think it happened because I was thinking about the changing role of feminism and because I knew we owned these works by the Guerrilla Girls. I’ve wanted to show them since I started working here four years ago. I’ve been intrigued by practices that involve performance and masquerade, two approaches that often revolve around feminism.

What were the challenges for you in putting the show together?

I think I associate with a second or third generation of feminism, and I think that is not always in line with some of the older generations of feminism.

Why does the museum have a large collection of “feminist” art?

How do you define feminist art? I think it all depends on how it is defined. Certainly, when you start looking you can find new ideas.

How has the definition of feminist art changed over the years? What is it today?

I am not even sure feminism occurred to artists like Marisol, but for artists like Joan Brown and Cindy Sherman, it was a constant reminder and a label that came up time and time again. I think they were probably delighted with the label, but their art addressed many issues and concerns.

What piece in the show resonates most with you?

I am very fond of the GG [Guerrilla Girls] pieces as well as the painting by Joan Brown. I’m also very fond of the photographs by Anne Noggle. The museum owns several of her pieces.

What has the reaction to Girls and Company been so far?

Very positive, especially with women viewers.

What is your goal for the exhibition?

To raise awareness and spark discussion.

Images, courtesy of MMoCA, are Untitled Head (#12) by Jin Lee, The Martyrdom by Frances Myers and St. Petersburg, Florida by Nicholas Nixon.

COMING UP: A few events and performances to check out this week.

University Theatre opens its summer production, The Musicals of Musicals: The Musical, on Friday. Also that day, Artisan Gallery in Paoli unveils two shows: ceramics by Rick Hintze and the group show Contemporary Animal Imagery.

The Spring Green Arts Fair, featuring the work of over two hundred artists, runs Saturday and Sunday in downtown Spring Green, while the Madison Early Music Festival offers a Preview Concert Sunday afternoon.

And Tuesday sees the start of Butterfly Encounters, featuring photographs of local butterflies by Ann Thering at the UW–Madison Arboretum Steinhauer Trust Gallery.

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