How the Grinch Stole Feminism
It's Christmastime, and amid the manses on Beverly Drive, their great oaks encased in tens of thousands of tiny lights, and amid the gaudy reindeer and the lawn sleighs and the thousand-dollar light bills, there's a house that perfectly expresses my mood as I crawl through Dallas galleries. It's quiet, adorned with just a pretty little Christmas tree and a single mass of white lights below a second-story window, so it's easy to overlook. But if you drive slowly and look carefully, diverting your gaze from the neighboring spectacles, you can see that the white bulbs form letters. The message takes a few seconds to process, since the eyes keep trying to make out "Merry Christmas" or "Peace on Earth" or some other run-of-the-season sentiment. Instead, when the letters finally register, they read: "Bah Humbug."
As a feminist critic who finds herself without much patience for what sisters are hanging in spaces about town, I'm feeling a bit like Ebenezer myself this year. To ward off hate mail, let me state my feminist bona fides. I recognize that art history has until recently been exactly that--history, not hers--and that female artists have for centuries been the victims (yes, victims) of an appalling cultural apartheid. During the past three decades, thanks in large part to the just criticism, if not the impenetrable prose, of feminist art historians and academics, this regrettable state of affairs has begun--but only begun--to change. I believe in Betty Friedan, in the Guerrilla Girls, in some of Cindy Sherman's work, and generally in things multi-culti. I deplore the evil that has produced the art critic Hilton Kramer, Dallas Morning News columnist William Murchison, and Sen. Jesse Helms, not to mention unfair assumptions that the work of women artists is weak, derivative, or silly.
That said, every now and then a woman artist produces weak, derivative, or even silly art. And in a series of shows about town, a handful of sisters collectively manage to hit this trifecta of bad feminist art.
Let's begin with the biggest, most critically venerated target: Linda Ridgway, now the subject of a show at Dunn and Brown Contemporary. Though she also draws and makes prints, the 53-year-old Ridgway is best known as a sculptor. She works primarily in bronze but also in materials as diverse as silk flowers and netting. The results are often stunningly lifelike.
In her show, Ridgway presents a hodgepodge of cast bronze objects traditionally made by and for women, from hats to embroidery to floral arrangements, especially daisies. Along with the sculptures, the artist displays a series of prints. Four of these are enlarged photographs of people planting seeds, taken from gardening primers and hand-colored in shades of pink and green. Others are prints made from pressing leaves and flowers onto paper. In some, the artist uses only the "natural juices" left by the leaves during the printing process; in others, she aids what nature gave her with a bit of graphite makeup.
Most pieces in the show, obviously, play on the notion of "women's work," presenting metaphors for women's lives and experiences, asserting that women's lives and work are art. Collectively, they show the process or results of people, mostly women, planting, tending, embroidering, dressing, or even hanging tatting on the gallery wall--in short, imposing order on nature. Thus Ridgway's work, on the one hand, contains elemental metaphors for the human struggle, and on the other, shows tasks the anthropologist would tell us have been on women's to-do lists for thousands of years.
The problem with much of the work is not in the execution, which is technically flawless; Ridgway is an artist so skilled that the finished products are almost too perfect, even slick. The problem lies in the conception: There is less here than meets the eye. What you see is what you see, and the artist doesn't have much to say about it. The art is behind your eyes, not before them; it's all in what you read into it. In this sense, Ridgway's work is very polite, even ladylike. Neat, tidy, and restrained, Ridgway doesn't get angry or shout, doesn't assault you with images or opinions. She's a cool customer, and her subtle questioning of boundaries is pretty much limited to issues of art. Her work probes the traditional, and false, art dichotomies: high vs. low, kitsch vs. fine art. She attempts to bridge the not-so-wide gaps between folk-art and craft traditions--pressed flowers in diaries, antique malls, fancy needlework--and the so-called fine arts such as photography, printmaking, and sculpture.
Beyond piercing these tired, old, already well-punctured art conceits, however, Ridgway doesn't seem to be much interested in making revolution. She's more journalist than editorialist, content to describe people and relationships, more accepting than questioning. In pieces like "Paris Nights" and "Resting Flowers of Yesterday's Delight," the works--which can be viewed as metaphors for women--are used up, faded, or tattered. Two other works, casts of '50s-style hats that hang side by side, are in their prime. On the left is a spiffy black model titled "Sunday," and on the right, its proletarian woven straw equivalent, labeled "Monday." On the surface, they are moderately clever references to women's roles and puttin' on the dog. Yet in the end, they seem mostly decorative and banal on more than one level. Like the cast-bronze tatting Ridgway hangs over and over on the wall, the work is a quarter-inch deep and infinitely long, merely rearranged every so often into pleasing shapes.
Sometimes art appears banal on the surface, yet upon inspection opens up new worlds of meaning, or perhaps new ways of seeing, taking you into a funhouse of contemplation. Ridgway's work is the inverse: mildly interesting on the surface, yielding little underneath. It's all there, obvious and up front, and it holds your attention for the 30 seconds it takes to run the Rorschach free-association drill in your head: Tatting. Sewing. Women's work. Old-fashioned. Sexism. Emotional baggage. Grandma. Family. Bronze. Hard. Strength. Hidden. Women Many Things--hard, soft, wives, mothers, breadwinners, rich, poor, sometimes thieves, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs. Even Artists. Next piece.
To be fair, this puts Ridgway smack in the mainstream of multi-culti, which is to say the mainstream of work making it into museums and collections in the past 20 years. The studios of Chelsea are full of art that plays the race or gender or sexual orientation card and that in the end adds little to the discussion. (Austin's Michael Ray Charles comes to mind.) In the end, much of it ends up looking cynical and shallow, like art that invokes a critically protected status primarily to justify its existence; I am woman, see me sculpt. I think it's time for even the faithful to ask, So what?
Part of the problem with feminist art lies in its narrow range of awareness. The personal, it turns out, is not only political but utterly predictable, a self-absorbed band of the spectrum that ranges from slightly left of soccer mom to approximately Katha Pollitt. You don't need an army of consultants and focus groups to divine the ideology: Nature benevolent. Women's work good. Creating noble. Male-female relations fraught with peril, but children and family good. Business (men's) world wicked. Environment needs protection. Big corporations evil--unless, of course, they collect.
Like Ridgway, a number of the emerging women artists hanging in the front gallery at Mulcahy Modern focus on nature as a metaphor. Page Kempner is a 39-year-old sculptor who lives and works in Houston, casting beautiful, spare replicas of twigs and branches in bronze. Five of her pieces hang on the wall at Mulcahy Modern, casting strangely abstract shadows on the bare gallery walls. The pieces read immediately as natural forms but at the same time as abstract, minimalist modern art.
This isn't anything new here, of course. There's a very Zen, Noguchi-like quality to the work, as old as Japanese painting and yet ultramodern, stark, stripped of leaves and all ornamentation. Formally, the work is quite interesting. Ideologically, it's harebrained and half-baked. In 1993, Kempner told an interviewer that her sculptures of trees, fruit, and leaves are intended as a "metaphor for the relationship between a man and a woman." And not just any old male-female entanglement; her sculptures, she said, represent the Garden of Eden, and the relationship she is exploring is that of Adam and Eve. "I wanted to have [Eve] be an actor, not a dupe," Kempner explained. "She is a strong woman who made a decision to take the fruit. She is not a victim." The good news is that Kempner here lets the work do the talking. In the past, she hasn't been so wise, inscribing apparently nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness sayings and mysterious, jarring geometric shapes among the bronze flora. ("Escape hatches" for Eve, she once explained.) Perhaps she's learned a lesson from that famous self-described feminist, William Jefferson Clinton: Sometimes it's best to keep it zipped.
On the wall opposite Kempner's Eden is Christine Bisetto's insect suite. Bisetto's work consists of nine pen-and-ink drawings of winged insects on paper painted in pastel shades normally associated with spring: pale blues and greens and creams and grays and one pale orange sheet. The insects themselves are rendered quickly and sparely with pen. Some drawings consist of single insects, magnified many times; others are drawn in groups. From across the gallery, they look harmless; up close, they are magnified and slightly menacing, like insects grown in hell's hothouse, or in Nacogdoches, which some might argue are one and the same place.
Bisetto, a 30-year-old Dallas artist and director of the University of Dallas' Haggerty Gallery, looks inward for much of her subject matter. When she does raise her gaze, she doesn't go much farther afield than her own garden. For her, birds and bees and horses and cats are excuses for dealing with issues of line and form. Like Ridgway, she prefers to question traditional boundaries of art rather than those of gender; in a recent show, for example, Bisetto exhibited a series of painted plaster blocks on the floor, a tired ruse showing the artificiality of picture planes and genre distinctions. Unfortunately, whether engaged in the formal modernist mode or drawing insects, Bisetto is derivative and slight; this is an artist who has yet to find her voice.
The final femme in Mulcahy's group show is Celia Eberle, a 40-year-old artist who lives and works in Longview. Like the others, Eberle has a sensibility that is unabashedly feminist; unlike her sisters, however, Eberle possesses a wicked sense of humor and an imagination that can only be described as a few degrees off plumb. Best of all, she doesn't tend to navel-gaze, instead preferring to look about the world and comment incisively on what she sees. Primarily a sculptor, Eberle works with toys--the most familiar, innocuous, and kitschy of materials--which she combines and rearranges to create biting social criticism. The results are often surprising and almost always hilarious: sweet, fuzzy teddy bears with erections, Barbie Doll sirens inflated so unrealistically that they resemble strippers.
Eberle has two pieces in the current show, both beauties. "Like the Night" is a herd of toy horses flocked in black, apparently galloping across the wall. But it is Eberle's other piece, on the opposite side of a gallery wall from "Like the Night," that is the highlight of Mulcahy's show. At first, it looks like a toy moose head, with a fuzzy white face and orange antlers mounted trophy-style on the gallery wall. As you move closer, studying the piece from all angles, recognition suddenly strikes: You are looking at the upside-down butt of a decapitated, stuffed toy duck.
Named after a mythical Native American bogeyman, "The Windigo" is a sly commentary on the nature of our fears when confronted with the unfamiliar. Like all of Eberle's work, it manages to be at once edgy and comforting, smart and a little silly, serious and witty. Indeed, it is the last element that predominates, and thank God, for wit is a commodity all too lacking not only in feminist art, but in contemporary art generally. For this reason alone, Eberle is the one gal worth watching.
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