Friday, June 24, 2011

Lynn Hershman

Can you name three women artists? Surprisingly, most people on the street can’t. And this is the vox populi style in which our story begins. This past weekend, I saw a very interesting & important film at the IFC in NYC I wanted to share with you and encourage everyone to view (if you can uncover it).
Through intimate interviews, art, and rarely seen archival film and video footage, !Women Art Revolution reveals how the Feminist Art Movement fused free speech and politics into an art that radically transformed the art and culture of our times.

For over forty years, Director Lynn Hershman Leeson has collected hundreds of hours of interviews with visionary artists, historians, curators and critics who shaped the beliefs and values of the Feminist Art Movement and reveal previously undocumented strategies used to politicize female artists and integrate women into art structures. !Women Art Revolution elaborates the relationship of the Feminist Art Movement to the 1960s anti-war and civil rights movements and explains how historical events, such as the all-male protest exhibition against the invasion of Cambodia, sparked the first of many feminist actions against major cultural institutions.

The film details major developments in women’s art of the 1970s, including the first feminist art education programs, political organizations and protests, alternative art spaces such as the A.I.R. Gallery and Franklin Furnace in New York and the Los Angeles Women’s Building, publications such as Chrysalis and Heresies, and landmark exhibitions, performances, and installations of public art that changed the entire direction of art. To my delight she included Yoko Ono’s astonishing 'Cut Piece'.

Shown are how new ways of thinking about the complexities of gender, race, class, and sexuality evolved. Some of the highlights of the screening are her interviews with Judy Chicago discussing the controversy over 'The Dinner Party' (Congressman called it obscene!) and her investigation into the shady disappearance of Cuba's Ana Mendiata. In the late 80s, The Guerrilla Girls emerged as the conscience of the art world and held academic institutions, galleries, and museums accountable for discrimination practices. Over time, the tenacity and courage of these pioneering women artists resulted in what many historians now feel is the most significant art movement of the late 20th century. The disturbing question the filmmaker leaves us with is whether the force of women’s art truly transformed the production, circulation, and reception of art or just shook it up for a time?

The documentary’s creator Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. in 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio) is an award-winning American artist, sculptor and filmmaker. She was Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and an A.D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. She is Chair of the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute, and has received wide recognition for a body of work combining art with social commentary, particularly regarding the relationship between humans and technology. Leeson's own work has as its themes: identity in a time of consumerism, privacy in an era of surveillance, interfacing of humans and machines, and the relationship between real and virtual worlds. Her work grew out of an installation art and performance tradition. She explored interactivity with her video work. The image accompanying this bio shows one of my favorite examples.

Leeson reluctantly documents her own achievements in her latest film. One of the most unusual projects she highlights shows that In the 1970s, specifically from 1973 to 1978, Roberta Breitmore was her major creation. Roberta Breitmore is a persona Hershman adopted over several years, enacting the transformation with wigs, make-up and clothing. With the addition of a little bureaucratic validation (driver's license, credit cards, address and bank account, psychological profile, etc.), the fictional character became practically real, spilling over from fiction into reality. Today nothing remains to indicate her existence apart from a few artifacts: diary, letters, photographs and diverse documents. The work itself consisted essentially of Roberta's experiences. One of these was her very real encounter in a park with a man answering a classified ad she had placed in order to find a roommate. Roberta found herself surrounded by three men who were linked with a prostitution ring; she escaped their clutches by fleeing into a public toilet and removing her disguise. Roberta Breitmore let Hershman highlight several feminist problematics, such as the way the social and cultural environment constructs women's identities, and how women are victims of the structures and conditioning imposed on them.

In recent years, feminist artists have gained much more visibility. There’s a Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, The Feminist Art Project at Rutgers University, and a recent exhibition and permanent collection of feminist artists at SUNY’s Neuberger Museum; all are within a 100 miles of my home. So thankfully, we no longer have to ask the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” as Linda Nochlin did in 1971. And yet, so many still do. Do you think there is still sexism in the art world?

For more archival materials see:

AWU post and comments at