If you think reworking an entire floor of Seattle Art Museum to show art just by women is a feminist statement, then imagine reworking that entire floor at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
Yet the goal of “Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris” – which just opened at SAM (the only U.S. venue), along with the museum’s own “Elles” show of female artists from its collection – isn’t feminism, say organizers. It’s to highlight the female artist’s struggle for success, and ultimately to show how gender in art doesn’t matter any more.
The struggle part is quite clear – many of the artists’ names are unfamiliar. But in the second goal, the show fails. Instead, it declares through 100 works by 75 artists during a century just how different art history – and art itself – is when you see it through female eyes.
Though it doesn’t set out to be chronological, “Elles” does a great job of setting these artists in their social and historical context. It begins with the avant-garde pioneers of the early 19th century, a time when women had to fight just to study art. Despite working outside the male fraternity, though, these are voices contributing thoughtfully to developments such as Abstraction, Cubism, Modernism and the like.
Alexandra Exter’s 1926 “Don Juan et la Mort” is a modernist vision of industry paired with a kind of magical fatalism, as lines of mannequins climb inexorably upward into the clean blades of a windmill. In 1911, Natalia Goncharova was experimenting with Cubism, her tall city building dwarfing the sharply fashionable inhabitants; by 1913, her two oil portraits of women in elaborate costumes have all the formal complexity of later Picasso and infinitely more grace and textural detail. Sonia Delaunay’s 1907 “Philomne” uses Gaugin’s Primitivist bluntness of black outline but an entirely different sensibility in the greens, pinks and blues shadowing the woman who stares with Kahlo-esque focus out of the frame. By 1960, Delaunay is in full abstract swing with the circular spiral of greens, reds and blacks in “Rythme Profondeur.”
It doesn’t take “Elles” long, though, to move into gender confrontation. In the second gallery, Romaine Brooks’ 1914 painting is a typical Romantic portrait in front of a storm-tossed sea, with windswept cloak and hair – only it’s a woman, in men’s clothes. Next to it, Eleanor Antin gazes calmly out of her 1972 video where she is dressing up as a king, with elaborately pasted beard. Three years later, Martha Rosler works grimly through her anti-domestic video “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” parodying both cooking shows and female stereotypes with vicious humor.
In a Parisian corner, the doyennes of the 1920s lesbian intellectual scene gaze imperturbably: Simone de Beauvoir, Berenice Abbott. There are women busting out of their corsets (the plump, laid-back odalisque by Suzanne Valadon), out of their underwear (the sexily clad “Young Girl in Green” by Tamara de Lempicka) and their silence (the tirade by the Guerrilla Girls on “The Advantages of Being a Women Artist”).
There’s a more subtle gallery mixing Bauhaus and Surrealism, where a flowery Frida Kahlo mixes with Dora Maar’s coldly-chiseled photographs and Dorothea Tanning’s not-so-subtle vision of a family where sex and size are proportional. There’s the minimalism of Judit Reigl and Agnes Martin, the blackly beautiful carving of Louise Nevelson.
But mostly, this scaled-down version of the Pompidou’s 2009 all-women rehang is heavily weighted to the provocative, both physical and political. Louise Bourgeois is there with “Cumul I,” those softly sheathed white marble mounds looking equally like barnacles or penises. Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s video “Mes Poupées” has the artist innocently manipulating seed-filled socks in her lap, but the implications are extraordinary. Past the advisory warning sign is Valie Export with her gun-slinging, crotch-exposing “Genital Panic,” Hannah Wilke with the still-shocking “Adult Game of Mastication,” played photographically with audience-chewed gum wads stuck like extra nipples on her half-naked body. There’s Orlan as an anti-sensual naked vending machine, and the disturbing “Crucifixion” by Niki de Saint Phalle, whose giant victim has plastic soldiers, guns and faces spilling violently out of her breasts.
There’s political provocation from the Guerrilla Girls (including the iconic gorilla-headed odalisque getting naked to get into the museum) and sheer physical voyeurism from Mona Hatoum, whose “Foreign Body” is projected onto the floor in a cave-like cylinder, forcing viewers to look directly into its viscerally writhing orifices.
Ironically, though, it’s the most taboo-breaking art that’s the least confrontational in “Elles.” Behind another advisory is a Nan Goldin slideshow of various friends making love. It’s graphic, intimate – and yet, to the ethereal sounds of Bjrk singing John Taverner, these shots are anything but pornographic, as the couples laugh, gaze and truly connect with each other.
Further along, Marlene Dumas inks in a woman cheerfully hiking up her dress to pee; Zoe Leonard takes disturbing, dignifying portraits of a decapitated bearded lady; Cindy Sherman transforms into an ugly pirate. Finally, we get some art that shows women getting beyond gender into identity.
Asked about why the Pompidou temporarily rehung its fourth floor with all-female art in the first place, Alain Seban, president of Pompidou Centre in Paris, explained that it was about the struggle women artists have had to succeed, about their creativity, about how this reflected society – in short, a political statement. And yet senior curator Camille Morineau insists that the goal of “Elles” is to show that “representation of women versus men is, ultimately, no longer important.”
In fact, “Elles” shows the opposite – that even in this post-feminist 21st-century exhibit, women artists are highlighted as provocative, exploratory, stubborn, different.
This, after all, is not a bad thing. When you peer into Annette Messager’s delicately upsetting installations of dead sparrows in sweaters, when you read Sophie Calle’s diary of a break-up writ large on the wall, when you realize that the gentle swish you heard in the first gallery is actually the waves breaking behind a video of a woman hula hooping naked with a ring of barbed wire, you are forced to ask yourself: Would a guy have made this art?
The answer is no. Which is why reworking the entire floor of a museum to display that other view of life isn’t really feminist. It’s a long-overdue statement of humanity.
Women Take Over SAM
If you’re visiting the Pompidou’s “Elles” show, make sure you allow another hour to cruise the third floor of Seattle Art Museum, where women from SAM’s collection have taken over the galleries.
The installation runs the gamut from Yayoi Kusama’s bizarre, hallucinatory realities of hot-pink-daubed paintings all the way through the clever geometrics of Victoria Haven to Sherrie Levine’s hilarious golden Buddha urinal. The rehang gives the third floor a much more expansive, cohesive feel.
“Elles: SAM – Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists” covers 30 artists in smart, thematic groupings. As with the Pompidou “Elles,” it’s worth taking the audio tour (also available as free podcast and smartphone app) to get the most out of this intelligent, unconventionally laid out show.
Art by Northwest women artists also is on view at SAM’s Gallery Art Sales and Rental across the street, and work by women artists from India is at Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park. AT SAM
What: “Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris” and “Elles: SAM – Singular Works by Seminal Women Artists”
Where: Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays through Jan. 13. (“Elles: SAM” runs through Feb. 17.)
Cost: $12-$23, and free for those 12 and younger. Get $3 off from 5-9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and first Thursdays of the month.
Information: 206-654-3100, seattleartmuseum.orgRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/arts