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.

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Christine Biederman