A contemporary feminist artist walks into Vienna and runs smack-dab into a billboard advertising a feminist art exhibition of female artists at Mumok, the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien. Naturally, she ditches her parents at the local Matisse exhibition and hustles to the museum…
WOMAN: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s exhibits three hundred works from the Sammlung Verbund Collection across several floors of the Viennese museum. This decade was a pivotal and socio-politically charged period. The Civil Rights Movement had come to an end, but inequality persisted, the feminist movement was gaining momentum, and the Vietnam War raged on, amongst other events. In a male-dominated world, women artists claimed this heated moment as their opportunity to redefine themselves in the art world. The feminist artists represented in this exhibition became active participants, protestors, aggravators, and objectors through their art, abandoning traditional roles as passive subjects and muses. The introduction to the exhibition professes that the artists in the show all share “the rejection of normative concepts based on traditional models.” These women shared the belief that women could serve a multitude of roles in society, not just those that were traditionally prescribed. Forty-seven artists are shown in the exhibition, including Eleanor Antin, Lynda Benglis, Renate Bertlmann, Judy Chicago, Kirsten Justesen, Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, Penny Slinger, Hannah Wilke, and many more.
The first work in the exhibition is Some Living American Women Artists (1972) by Mary Beth Edelson, which humorously introduces several artists in the show and drives home the fact that this exhibition is all about women and that they weren’t afraid to step on anyone’s toes to make their voices heard. This piece takes a famous biblical image and replaces the figures, men in particular, with avant-garde feminist artists that are challenging a major, male-dominated field. Edelson’s piece utterly sets the stage for the exhibition, which features an overwhelming number of works in which the artist inserts herself into the art.
Penny Slinger is another artist whose work in this exhibition utilizes self-portrait and collage as modes of production. Slinger’s self-portrait collage series places her seductively in a wedding cake built onto her body as a bride. The bottom tier of the cake has been “sliced” and opened to reveal a new cavity, which Slinger avails with different “fillings.” One work reveals her vagina, but the others have been collaged to obscure and replace it. In one work from the series, ICU, Eye Sea You, I See You (1973) Slinger has filled the cake’s cavity with a picture of waves that host an eye in the center where her vagina would be. She is posed covering her eyes, therefore she is looking through the “eye” at her vagina in this work. The eye becomes the focal point of the piece, drawing the viewer’s eyes to Slinger’s vaginal region. She is energizing and empowering this “third” eye that speaks to feminist consciousness and examination.
Renate Bertlmann’s work in the show diverges from the self-portrait pattern that is predominantly observed. Bertlmann, an Austrian artist, is intrigued by the sexualized image of woman and male fetishes. Her sculptural piece, Washing Day (1976/2004) presents “clothes” on a clothesline that resemble plastic synthetics of phallic imagery such as puckered objects and small structures resembling nipples. The works are not pornographic, because they are too abstracted from reality, but there is a remotely voyeuristic sensation in observing the provocative piece.
The selection of artists and works in this exhibition is remarkable and delivers a firm reminder to the contemporary art period of what these feminist artists accomplished and paved the way for during the 1970’s.
- Ivy Guild
WOMAN: Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s is on view until September 3, 2017.
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