Female Artists are a Force to be Reckoned With
By Lori Zimmer
February 19, 2014
The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium by Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott, is the new quintessential volume that illustrates the importance of female artists in visual culture. The book focuses on the work of 24 hand-picked female artists, born after 1960, that have pushed beyond the stereotype of 1970s “feminist art” and have asserted themselves as influencers in the modern art world. With approachably written chapters on each of the women, the authors define these artists’ important roles in the shaping of contemporary culture and art.
The Reckoning is the powerful follow-up book to the authors’ seminal After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art, which gives an introduction and overview to 12 female artists from Louise Bourgeois to Dana Schutz, who helped to push and shape the role and perceptions of female artists in the art world. The Reckoning takes a step further, examining a younger generation of women artists specifically who live in cultures affected by the globalization of the contemporary art world. Each of the women was chosen organically by the authors as discussions ensued about artists’ as well as common themes and their various methods of creating work. Rather than defining each section by the artists’ nationality, medium or age, the resulting list was split into four highly unorthodox categories; Bad Girls, History Lessons, Spellbound and Domestic Disturbances.
Although the artists often intersect one or more of the categories, they were loosely assigned to each to help illustrate how sexual identity, politics, internal experience and pleasures and pressures of domestic life are explored through their work. The Bad Girls chapter, penned by Eleanor Heartney, delves into the hot button issue of sex and sexuality, posing the eternal question of whether pornography and sexually explicit imagery is empowering or a form of male violence against women. The artists chosen for the chapter embrace the former, using the female body and sex as a method to attack the traditions of male gaze and take ownership back so to speak. Possibly the most famous Bad Girl of them all, YBA artist Tracey Emin is of course featured, as well as Ghada Amer, Cecily Brown, Mika Rottenberg and Wangechi Mutu, who use sex and the body to assert power in their imagery. Polish critical artist Katarzyna Kozyra plays on the idea of gender in many of her videos, using the fringes of society like drag queens, midgets (specifically using the politically incorrect term), amputees, body builders and naked men and women to illustrate her theories of the malleability of masculinity and femininity, gender and violence. Pushing between male and female roles, her piece Cheerleader from the In Art Dreams Come True series features Kozyra as the head cheerleader cavorting in the male locker room, only to strip at the end to reveal herself as a naked boy (with the help of prosthetics).
The chapter Spellbound, by Nancy Princenthal, refers to the stereotype that women are wistful, dreamy and undirected, with a stable of artists who manipulate the symbolism and trance-like imagery to create powerful work that criticizes oppression from male society. With roots in Surrealism, artist such as Janine Antoni, Pipilotti Rist, Lisa Yuskavage, Jane & Louise Wilson andCao Fei use dream-like imagery, flowing cloth material, cartoon influences and the like to pick up where the great Louise Bourgeois left off, creating fantastical imagery with an underlying current of gender. For example, Swedish born Nathalie Djurberg uses materials that could be called child-like – crude Plasticine and clay – to make stop animation videos that border on the humorous. Because of the nature of her materials, Djurberg’s characters, both animals and humans, suffer almost comical violence, as arms, legs and penises are cut off, flesh stripped away and eyes gouged out in a frenzy bringing together eroticism, cynicism and dangerous behavior, as if seen through the eyes of an uncomprehending child.
Sue Scott’s chapter, Domestic Disturbances, delves into how the issues of home and family weigh upon female artists. A duality of resisting and embracing domestic life is a theme that runs throughout the work of many contemporary female artists’ as roles, work life and culture have changed over the past 50 years. Leaving the extremism of women’s liberation and adjusting to a more modern and semi-balanced present, these artists explore the allure and propulsion of domesticity, thinking of the feeling of “home” as both welcoming and confining. The work of artistKate Gilmore opens the chapter, a video artist who often casts herself as the female protagonist thematically working against something, and involving physical exertion. Placing herself at the center of her art, her most iconic piece was debuted at the Whitney Biennial of 2010. In Standing Here, Gilmore literally fights her way up a constructed chute, emulating an “upright birth canal” that she claws her way to the top of, symbolically becoming a woman born into the art world.
The Reckoning’s final chapter, History Lessons by Helaine Posner features artists who pay homage, or reference the great feminist artists of the 1970s in their work. Yael Bartana, Tania Bruguera, Sharon Hayes, Teresa Margolles, Julie Mehretu and Kara Walker each poignantly cull from women’s struggles throughout history to inspire their works. Pulling from the 1960s protest movements, Sharon Hayes bases her performances and videos on this idealism of speech, using their methods of marching and demonstrations to communicate private expressions of longing and desire. Together, she fuses history with self-expression seamlessly.
Through the narrative of each category, the authors bring a voice to individual artists along with easy to read graphs and data that compare and contrast the number of female artists to males in MFA programs, museums and galleries. Interestingly, the authors found that these numbers were closely relatable to trends in society, like the comparable percentage of female to male solo shows as there are men to women in the United States Senate. The fascinating volume gives a modern voice to women artists beyond the days of 1970s feminism, bringing us into the twenty-first century when women have become an integral part of the art market. With the ink just dry on The Reckoning, the quartet is already thinking about how to expand to a third book in the series.