Book Review: The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium

By Sally Deskins

January 24, 2014

Twenty-five unshackling international female artists born post-1960 are presented in a visual whirlwind in The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (2013, Prestel) by the four authors of After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (2007): Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal and Sue Scott.

The 2007 edition examined the careers of twelve female artists since the 1960s feminist movement and the transformations of their influence, commercial appeal and level of institutional support.  In this edition, the four authors embark upon four themes asking; “After the revolution comes the reckoning… Exactly what has been accomplished, what changed?” (Linda Nochlin in the introduction to the 2007 book).

Sections “Bad Girls;” “Spellbound;” “Domestic Disturbance;” and “History Lessons” provide a stellar illustration of the range and breadth of genius and novelty of the half of the population that society is still awakening to.

“Bad Girls” begins with feminism’s notorious sub-genre, sexuality. Author Eleanor Heartney examines the history of feminist thought on provocation and the male gaze, asking: “Are women who play with sexually suggestive images liberating themselves or succumbing to patriarchal prejudices?” Looking at contemporary exhibitions, popular culture and artists in the visual essay, Heartney then explores the often-mixed message via six who “engage with the body not as a fixed site of meaning but as a fluid component of ever-shifting identity” (23).

Ghada Amer’s colorful and enigmatic paintings, mixed media and installation using women “and the assertion of female agency through the unorthodox tool of pornography” (29) begin the conversation with clear intent.

Perhaps less expected is Cecily Brown, whose nude work is a bit more abstracted and gestural. As the author concludes, it is by her process she defies: “The point that Brown’s trajectory demonstrates, both as a painter and an artist, is that regardless of content or posturing, she succeeds in taking on the machismo of gestural painting on the canvas itself” (39).

The third pegged “Bad Girl,” the infamous Tracey Emin, overtly presents, via installations, mixed media and neon lights frequently using text, “her tales of sexual promiscuity, rape, and abortion, with Emin’s experiences and the emotions they lay bare, especially for women” (41).

More playful, but nonetheless subversive, is the work of Katarzyna Kozyra, a leading representative of Polish Critical Art, challenging political issues and sexual expression. With intense, theatrical video art, Kozyra presents “a place where gender is literally a costume, where male mentors teach women how to be female… Kozyra’s post-gender world suggests that identity is something we perform, not something we are” (53).

More incredible insights are made with Wangechi Mutu, who “takes a cross-cultural look at the exoticized, eroticized, and demonized female body, particularly the black female body, as the repository of society’s fascination and fears.” (55) Mutu’s mixed media figures, adorned with African designs, flowers, and “wild” animal prints “literally erupt with life… She represents nature in our culture — a symbol of beauty, wonder, and power that the patriarchy both desires and fears” (57).

The last “Bad Girl” is Mika Rottenberg, known for her video installations that feature physically exceptional women employed in activities that are, the author fascinatingly reveals, both rational and bizarre, as she is concerned with “the way women’s labor has been marginalized and almost invisible throughout history” (61).

The “Spellbound” section examines six artists who exhibit the often-considered feminine trait of dreaminess, adding to it “a trusty tactic of subversion… finding this inclination a source of expressive strength” (69).

This particular trait in women’s art is generally overlooked for its very quality as Nancy Princenthal elucidates rather intensely and astutely, giving us the many discrepancies and assumptions, and comparing with a parallel well-known art movement, surrealism. Denoting artists such as Louise Bourgeois,  Dorothea Tanning, Claude Cahun and Lesley Dill, the author states: “…the evidence strongly suggests that venerable, culturally imposed associations between femininity and introspection, as between femininity and departures from rationality, have been long since taken over by women artists themselves and fashioned into sources of active, affirmative inquiry” (77).

The authors reflect on these issues in essays examining similarities and, mostly, outlying differences, via performance/installation artist Janine Antoni, multi-media/performance artist Cao Fei, video installation artist Pipilotti Rist, photography duo Jane and Louise Wilson, and oil painter Lisa Yuskavage.

Author Sue Scott introduces “Domestic Disturbances,” the section devoted to the issues of home and family that women artists “have probed for years with varying degrees of acceptance and resistance” (119).

Reviewing artists Kate Gilmore (performance), Justine Kurland (photography), Klara Liden (video/installation), Liza Lou (installation/performance), Catherine Opy (photography) and Andrea Zittel (installation), authors reveal how contemporary artists attitudes have shifted somewhat, but still; “The domestic quandaries explored by Womanhouse and Semiotics of the Kitchen may have morphed but they have not been solved” (127).

Of particular interest is Liza Lou, who glues together glass beads to create sculptures, installations, tapestries and works that express “a complex vision drawn from art history, politics, religion and her own autobiography.”  Though Lou is an internationally renowned artist and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, author Eleanor Heartney points out, somewhat poignantly, that, because of her chosen conventionally feminine medium, “Lou remains ‘the bead lady’ a term that continues to exude a scent of disapproval” (149). In creating these elaborate rooms like the kitchen, a backyard, a security fence and even a prison cell, Heartney finds that Lou alludes to the politics of beauty; quoting the artist: “’Making something beautiful becomes a political act. Insist on beauty in spite of everything. We toi toi, we march for beauty’” (155).

The last section, “History Lessons,” brings readers to artists who investigate women’s power and vulnerability, the construction of identity in a social field, and the intersection of political fact and imagined future. The authors discuss how Yael Bartow (video), Tania Bruguera (performance), Sharon Hayes (multimedia), Teresa Margolles (installation), Julie Mehretu (mixed media) and Kara Walker (mixed media) tackle a wide range of national and global concerns as the world becomes increasingly mobile and interconnected. The featured artists each have “a deep, personal investment in the social and political issues… including immigration, asylum, poverty, violence, racism, and sexism… reflect interests of a group of artists who are mindful of the past while being fully engaged with the present” (181).

Particularly interesting, throughout the book, is the overwhelming majority of installation and video/performance work. Is this an indication of the modern technological times, of trying to get away from traditional artistic practices? Or, is this a characteristic within feminism, exemplifying their ironical tradition of always pushing the boundaries, whatever the circumstance?

An imperative contribution to the discussion of contemporary art and in promoting the magnitude of these eminent artists, the book makes a strong statement for women’s roles and feminism. As is evidenced by the data presented in the book, male representation in gallery and museum exhibitions still heavily outweighs female representation, though women remain the majority of MFA graduates worldwide (232-235).

With art texts as well, artists of the gender that represents half of the human population are still too often overlooked, ignored and misunderstood.  The book is one to be read not only by fellow female artists for camaraderie and inspiration, but, also, by scholars of either gender in art and media history to aid in deepening the understanding of women and their contributions through these living artists’ perspectives and expressions. As often said, life imitates art as art imitates life.  We may, thus, observe life from the perspectives of these women leaders and innovators and their unique, breakthrough art – all of which is presented so ardently in this book.

And, the authors emphasize an optimistic tone to the end: “Our reckoning… that feminist art is among the most innovative and influential work being made today… There is reason to hope that the market will eventually catch up with the critical and institutional success women artists have enjoyed…. the rich vitality of work by young women, sampled by artists in this book, constitutes the best argument for the increased share of attention they deserve” (13).