by Lee Conell
“Where should I start?” I wondered when I wandered into “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution,” the show currently on display at PS 1.
“WACK!” is international in its scope, and with over 400 works from all over the world, I don’t know if anyone could have given me a compass and pointed me in the right direction. But I’m glad I started in the room I did: The first group of work I saw were Louise Fishman’s “Angry Women” paintings, a series in which the names of female activists and artists are energetically scrawled on individual pieces of paper next to the word “angry.” There’s Angry Gertrude, Angry Jane, Angry Yvonne, and, simmering along with the rest, Angry Louise. My grandmother’s name was Louise, so immediately “WACK!” took on that feeling of personal history, of looking through the most intimate and honest photo album: No fake smiles here.
Fishman’s “Angry Women” series was an important gateway into the show for me, not just because the names softened me to the work, but also because it was so wonderfully startling to see genuine rage at the world. I’m used to demands for equality couched in pleasant language, swaddled in sweetness; after all, being called an “angry feminist” today seems to immediately invalidate any and all of your arguments. “WACK!” shows work that refuses to back away from that rage, and that’s what made the show so refreshing for me (a “third-waver”).
Alongside that rage, “WACK!” demonstrates the exhilaration of speaking to the past and changing history through works like Mary Beth Edelson’s “Some living American women artists” which depicts a black and white xerox of “The Last Supper” in which the apostles’ faces have been replaced by women artists – Georgia O’Keefe is Jesus. Many of the artists in Edelson’s work are also in “WACK!” making “Some living American women artists” an interesting complement to the exhibition itself.
Edelson’s collages, which wink at the past, are very different from Martha Rosler’s “Body Beautiful” or “Body Knows No Pain” series, which is among other things a brutal examination of the media’s portrayal of women. One of the works from the series “Hot House, or Harem” was used as the cover for the exhibition catalog; in it, images of naked women, who look like they could be pulled out of a number of magazines today, crowd the page. Like “Hot House, or Harem” Much of the art in “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” remains relevant: Senga Nengudi’s twisted pantyhose filled with sand reflect a weight from maintaining the feminine image that is still prevalent, and Margaret Harrison’s twisted superheroes (including “Banana Woman” — enough said) are still perfectly ironic.
The show’s wall text are bare and brief, offering the artist’s name, the work’s title and and little else. Because of this, I never felt lectured at during “WACK!” and it was easy to relate to the work and to place the work in a contemporary context. While some historical background throughout the show would not necessarily take away from this effect the close-lipped wall text makes sense: When the viewer approaches each artwork without a curator whispering its accepted meaning in her ear, the work continues to have space to grow and to generate new meaning. Maybe you’ll see your grandmother, a housewife with six children, staring out at you in “WACK!,” or maybe you’ll see yourself.