The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium
Reviewed by Jan Garden Castro
Woman's Art Journal
This collection featuring essays on twenty-five post-1960s artists is a follow-up to After the Revolution: Women Who Transformed Contemporary Art (2007). It focuses on boundary- expanding artists in its four sections— “Bad Girls,” “Spellbound,” “Domestic Disturbances,” and “History Lessons.” Eleanor Heartney, Helaine Posner, Nancy Princenthal, and Sue Scott, all seasoned curators and art writers, each introduce one section and divide the artists among themselves. The book’s point of departure is a 2007 quote from New York Times art critic Holland Cotter:
One thing is certain: Feminist art, which emerged in the 1960s with the women’s movement, is the formative art of the last four decades. Scan the most innovative work, by both men and women, done during that time, and you’ll find crafts-derived art, perform- ance art and much political art would not exist in the form it does, if it existed at all. Much of what we call postmodern art has feminist art at its source (7).1
Introduced by Heartney, the first section, “Bad Girls,” features short essays on women artists who break the boundaries of correctness: Ghada Amer, Cecily Brown, Tracey Emin, Katarzyna Kozyra, Wangechi Mutu, and Mika Rottenberg. Amer’s use of pornographic female images is discussed in the context of the artist’s education in Nice, where she was excluded from painting classes reserved for male students, which led to her development of a layered technique that “critiqued Western painting as a male domain by feminizing the aggressive, ejaculatory drips associated with Abstract Expressionism” (26). Amer’s mix of European and Arab sources includes her embroidered art after a twelfth century Encyclopedia of Pleasure. Her twenty-year career combines feminist subversive erotic art with a strong aesthetic.
Cecily Brown’s large scale, gestural art has connections to the art of Francis Bacon, complicated by the fact that Bacon’s leading art critic, the family friend David Sylvester, turned out to be Brown’s father. Tracey Emin’s bad girl reputation is epitomized by her 1998 exhibition of her slept-in bed; by 1999 she was short-listed for the Turner Prize. Emin is known for her keen sense of humor and her way with words. Katarzyna Kozyra is “one of the leading representatives of Polish Critical Art,” according to Heartney. Mika Rottenberg, born in Argentina, was raised in Tel Aviv, now lives in New York, and is known for her videos featuring physically exceptional women doing something absurd. Wangechi Mutu, born in Kenya and with art degrees from The Cooper Union and Yale University, creates hybrid creatures and combines drawing and collage to undermine pornography and sleek advertising images and to critique Western stereotypic views of “the noble savage.” Covering these exemplary “bad girls” in just over fifty pages containing both text and provocative color plates, gives just a taste of each artist’s body of work.
Nancy Princenthal’s “Spellbound” section takes its title from a Louise Bourgeois quote that distinguishes between Surrealist dream images and spells: “The dream blinds you, the spell does not.” Bourgeois’s latex and mixed media 1974 work The Destruction of the Father is strange even today. Princenthal discusses gender issues in the work of Surrealist artists and discusses the gendered uses of symbolism by Bourgeois, Dorothea Tanning, and later artists. Helaine Posner’s essay on Janine Antoni, Heartney’s on Cao Fei and Lisa Yuskavage, Princenthal’s on Nathalie Djurberg, and Sue Scott’s on Pipilotti Rist and Jane and Louise Wilson discuss the origins of each artist’s provocative spells and symbolism. Scott examines, for example, Rist’s 1997 video in which a young woman in a gauzy blue dress smashes a series of car windows with a big flower:
The benign flower has magically been imbued with a strength which the heroine uses to destroy the machine, here not only a symbol of capitalism but of masculine power...(100).
The Rist image (Fig. 1) is the cover photo for The Reckoning.
The “Domestic Disturbances” section features an opening essay by Sue Scott and individual essays on artists Kate Gilmore, Justine Kurland, Klara Liden, Liza Lou, Catherine Opie, and Andrea Zittel. “History Lessons,” introduced by Helaine Posner, covers Yael Bartana, Tania Bruguera, Sharon Hayes, Teresa Margolles, Julie Mehretu, and Kara Walker. Many artists in The Reckoning have received solo museum exhibitions and art awards including the MacArthur.
This book covers artists as different as Julie Mehretu, whose gestural yet empirical mappings of topographic sites have graced the Guggenheim Museum and Asia Society, and Lisa Yuskavage, whose super-bosomy fantasy women startle moralists and appear in numerous art books and solo exhibitions. These two artists are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of subject matter; Mehretu’s meticulous architectonic forms seem far from Yuksavage’s near-or-clear pornography, and neither artist conforms to traditional notions of feminism. A series of Appendices at the end shows that men far outnumber women in terms of number of solo gallery and museum exhibitions.
The Reckoning will add to art history courses and diverse libraries. As this book shows, women are pioneering art that urges viewers to become more involved in their own and in regional and world histories. Clearly, this list is somewhat arbitrary and features mostly artists who show in New York. The women artists in this book, those in After the Revolution and those missing from that previous book (The Guerilla Girls, Ursula von Rydingsvard, Yayoi Kusama, Bettye Saar, Faith Ringgold, Maren Hassinger) and this new book (Mariko Mori, Alison Saar, Arlene Shechet) all have their own books, for those who care to read/learn more. The Reckoning advances critical discussions of gender issues, feminism, art, marketing, geopolitics, perception, and reception as it opens the door for more women artists and further notions of what constitutes feminist art.
At the same time, feminism is missing entirely from some discussions, such as those on Julie Mehretu and Teresa Margolles. The introduction covers this by saying that feminism is “increasingly plural” and that some artists “choose not to speak of it at all” (9). The distinction between art by women and feminist art needs to be clearer in the next book. I’m not convinced that Rist’s 1997 video of a female smashing car windows with a big fake flower and Teresa Margolles’s Lengua (2000)—the pierced tongue of a heroin-addicted teen killed in a street fight—are feminist. Andy Warhol famously used fake flowers as sexual metaphors, and Blaine de St. Croix and Ian Hughes have used tongues symbolically in art, for example. How is an addict’s tongue related to women or feminist art? In the context of this book, the deadpan humor, bodily signs, self- awareness, and sheer audacity in Tracey Emin’s “soiled and unmade” My Bed (1998), with its “empty liquor bottles, used condoms, dirty underwear,” etc., rises in my estimation. Like Louise Bourgeois’s art, it zeroes in on physical and psychological signs of self and gender in relation to others. •
Jan Garden Castro lectures and writes on interactive, multicultural, interdisci- plinary arts. Her books include The Art & Life of Georgia O’Keeffe (1985, 1995) and Sonia Delaunay: La Moderne (2002). See www.jancastro.com and “In the Studio” blog at www.sculpture.org.
1. Holland Cotter, “The Art of Feminism as it First Took Shape,” New York Times, March 9, 2007.
2. As quoted from Louise Bourgeois, Destruction of the Father, Reconstruction of the Father; Writings and Interviews 1923-1997, eds. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Marie-Laure Bernadac (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; London: Violette Editions, 1998) 160.