Time and opportunities have created a new breed of so-called "feminist" artists. Jessica Machado talks to a few de facto practitioners ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Over the course of a week in May, seven women in matching yellow dresses and
pumps shuffled back and forth atop a storey-high cube in Manhattan's Bryant Park. They had been instructed by Kate Gilmore, an artist, to walk, stomp or march across the lemon-coloured platform without being "acty" or interacting with each other. Five days and many blisters later, each woman continued to wander the surface of the cube in her own pattern or non-pattern—some traced the perimeter, others pivoted from corner to corner. But the glaze across their faces was uniform. Each bore the look of a life drained by routine.
"People came every day to see if they'd be wearing something new, to check the emotional status of the women, to just see the piece over and over," says Gilmore about her public-art performance, "Walk the Walk". Some could also stand beneath the cubicle-like structure and listen to the reverb of the ladies' stomping. "People were genuinely interested in the evolution of the piece and the women—if they would 'make it' and how they were coping. It was fascinating how it really integrated with the landscape of Bryant Park and the surroundings."
Gilmore creates work about the female experience, but it hardly feels constrained by it. The workaday drudgery of her pretty yellow drones evoked something familiar in its many spectators. Unlike the in-your-face identity studies of female artists of the 1970s, Gilmore and many of her contemporaries are making work that is more accessible and more appealing to a wider audience. Time and opportunities have created a new breed of so-called "feminist" artists, many of whom now view the contradictions of the modern female experience through a lens of humour.
Gilmore, a 34-year-old artist based in New York , is quick to smile and often makes fun of herself. This shines through in her video work, which includes "Cake Walk" (2005), in which she tries to climb a ramp in roller skates, and "Between A Hard Place" (2008), which sees her in a smart dress breaking through several walls of sheetrock to get into the depths of a gallery. In "Star Bright, Star Might"(2007), she determinedly shoves her head through a star-shaped hole in a piece of plywood, only to continue to head-butt her "star" to make it even bigger.
Like many of her contemporaries, Gilmore came of age after debates over gender equality had cooled. Strong woman are now more inclined to speak with snark than a bullhorn. The result is work that is often less adamant and more self-aware.
Mika Rottenberg, an Argentine video artist and fellow Whitney Biennialist in her 30s, also creates work that considers the evolving shape of femininity. Rottenberg finds the female subjects of her films in online classified listings, where they have advertised their bodies or related services. The result is an interesting exploration of the business of womanhood.
For "Dough" (2006), for example, she found an obese woman, Raqui, a professional wrestler-model-poet-activist-web designer for hire, who also charges a fee to sit on people. In this film she plays an immobile factory worker whose tears are an ingredient used to make dough. For "Cheese" (2008), Rottenberg discovered "Lady Grace", an online personality who caught Rottenberg's attention with her astounding ankle-length locks. Through Grace, the artist was then introduced to a club of fellow long-haired women. She then developed a narrative in which the women acted as farmers, extracting nutrients from their hair to use as fertiliser, "pumping" their newly enriched earth for resources (ie, milk) and manufacturing their crop into cheese.
With these exaggerated images of womanhood (fat-rippling flesh; floor-sweeping hair), Rottenberg is carefully lightening the mood before asking viewers to explore the larger absurd idea of femininity as a product.
Rottenberg says she is inspired by the way her subjects claim ownership of their
bodies by essentially renting them out. "People ask if I'm exploiting them or
being disrespectful," she says, "but it's disrespectful to think that they don't
understand what they're doing."
Edward Winkleman, a Chelsea gallery owner who represents a handful of video
artists (and who has a fine blog), says he sees a great deal of narrative and humour in contemporary video work. "Humour is a way to disarm the viewer," he observes. "Once disarmed, the viewer is ready to be surprised and can accept whatever issue is much more prevalent."
One of the artists Winkleman represents, Cathy Begien, creates work that is
filled with personal information and comic self-deprecation. Begien, who is 35, Asian and gay, jokes that the type of art she likes to make is the kind that's easy. But this is clearly not the case. "Everything I do comes from the heart. I try to break it down to this universal, carnal feeling," she says. "It's when I turn around and look at it afterwards that I realise that maybe these carnal feelings haven't been delivered from many women or women of colour before."
In Begien's videos, her character's vulnerability often unfolds in a slow, uncontrived progression. The "Straight Girl Series" (2005-2006), for example,
includes three short films that explore her "real life" unrequited crush on a
straight girl. "Blackout" (2004) features Begien blindfolded and narrating the
story of a drunken night out, while friends buzz in and out of frame plying her
with booze and cigarettes and whispering nonsense in her ear (pictured). "Blackout" is unnerving for Begien's evident defencelessness, but also very accessible.
"Contemporary artists want to resonate with general public," says Winkleman. "The circle of people who care about fine art seems to be shrinking. This generation of artists is very aware to reach people."
Work in video—the bastard child of fine arts—lends itself to such outreach. With the rise of YouTube, videos have become a natural way to share and observe.
Few galleries deal in the medium, as buyers tend to be sceptical of a work's authenticity and the value of ownership. (Winkleman says each video piece in his gallery is sold in an edition of five and the buyer gets an exhibition copy, an
archived copy, a certificate of authenticity and information about where the master is located for restoration purposes.) Begien and Rottenberg are represented by galleries and have received fair acclaim. Gilmore, however, is not represented by an American gallery, despite having more than a dozen solo shows in the last two years. Instead she posts clips of her videos on her website—a no-no among artists who have earned some level of success, as it undermines the commercial value of the work. She explains that she is committed to having her work out there in the world, and wants all people—not just collectors—to have access to what she does.
Even artists who have representation are taking the DIY approach to greater
viewership. Shannon Plumb, a New York-based artist, has lengthy clips of her work on her site, much of which features her playing silent, Buster Keaton-type characters. She says she isn't trying to isolate herself as an artist, nor is she interested in pleasing fine art academics. "I like that my work's universal. It's silent. I don't get art that makes people feel stupid," she says.
Last summer Plumb had her first large-scale public audience when she made "The Park" (2009), a loop of seasonal scenes projected on four screens in Madison Square Park. The piece saw her acting out a typical cast of characters found in Manhattan 's urban outdoors, such as the fussy self-conscious sunbather and the frustrated tourist with an incompetent umbrella. "Humour creates a dialogue between strangers," says Plumb, who explains that her hapless characters are often enacting "the little things that happen when you're a woman, whether it's becoming a mom or trying to be sexy."
Plumb, like many of her female cohorts, still gets lumped into the category of "feminist artists", despite the absence of an ideological agenda in her work. She, Gilmore and Begien were all featured in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum earlier this year called "Reflections of the Electric Mirror: New Feminist Video", a sign that larger institutions are still looking for an easy way to group work made by women. Gallerists, on the other hand, see labels of "feminism" and "identity" as restrictive and off-putting to buyers. "'Identity' has been explored as much as it could be," says Winkleman. "It seems pretty cliché at this point."
The artists themselves—Plumb, Gilmore, Begien and Rottenberg—say they aren't against the word "feminism". All four artists are careful to give credit to their female predecessors for "fighting the fight" and framing their work in some fashion. But none seem too eager to wave their feminist flag either.
"It's not like we're fighting for these rights in a political way any more," observes Begien. "Now, it's about the modern-day niche of feminism." Begien says that by exploring the role of an androgynous girl—"How does she fit into the world? What does that person do for fun?"—she hopes to show that "that person" is not so different from anyone else. "She's human," she says.
(Jessica Machado is a writer and editor based in New York.)
Picture credit: Adi Shniderman; Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery; Winkleman Gallery; Shannon Plumb