Category: Feminist art

Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful

Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, opens March 4th, 2007 at the Geffen Contemporary of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and runs until July 16th, 2007. Organized by MOCA curator Connie Butler, the show features artworks created from 1965 to 1980, by 100 women focused on the status and liberation of women. In one attempt to capture the militant spirit of late 60’s feminist groups, Butler named her show, Wack!, which is not itself an acronym, but alludes to the popularity of acronyms used by radical groups of the period, my favorite example being the tongue in cheek, W.I.T.C.H., or - Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

Wack! is being promoted as “the first comprehensive, historical exhibition of feminist art”, and you could add “international” to the billing as around half of the artists are from outside the U.S. - including artists from England, Poland, Scandinavia, Germany, Algeria, India, Canada, Italy, Chile, and Brazil. Many talents - well known and unknown - are in the show, and an illustrated catalog published by MOCA covers all the bases, however, in this article I’d like to focus on just one participating artist - Martha Rosler.

During the early 1970’s I discovered Rosler’s photomontage series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, a brilliant, multi-faceted, intrinsically feminist critique of American involvement in Vietnam. The title of Rosler’s collection was a melding of a popular 60’s antiwar slogan in the U.S. (”Bring the War Home!”), to the vapid women’s magazine of the period that promoted homemaking as the proper area of interest for women. Rosler’s compelling and influential photomontage works seem more powerful than ever - especially since we are mired in a new Vietnam. I was delighted to learn that Rosler’s works were recently included in Media Burn, an exhibition at London’s Tate Modern, and even more excited to discover that she’s rekindled the Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful series - this latest edition being focused on Iraq.

Photomontage by Martha Rosler

[ Red Stripe Kitchen - Martha Rosler. Photomontage. 24 x 20 inches. From the series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful. 1962–72.]

Red Stripe Kitchen was a photomontage from the original 1962 - 72 series. In it, Rosler combined two photos to startling effect. The first, a circa 1970 interior shot of an affluent household’s modern home kitchen, decorated in the fashionable modernist style; gleaming white from floor to ceiling, with a breakfast bar seating arrangement surrounding the stove. Adjacent doors lead to a pantry. The dazzling white is interrupted by red highlights found in dishes, appliances - and a decorative stripe painted mid-level on the pantry wall. The second photo spliced into this tranquil scene explodes the myth of domestic bliss. Two combat ready Marines are snooping around in the pantry, engaged in the same type of search performed by U.S. soldiers a million times over in Vietnamese villages suspected of aiding Viet Cong guerillas. Aside from exposing the kitchen as a battlefield, Rosler’s photomontage directly linked women’s oppression to militarism and overseas imperial adventures - but it also posed a thousand questions. Who is the enemy? Who is innocent? Who shall be absolved of guilt and responsibility in times of war?

Photomontage by Martha Rosler

[ Gladiators - Martha Rosler. Photomontage. 2004. From the new series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful. For a larger view of this image, click here. ]

In Gladiators, one of Rosler’s current works from the Iraq series, the bourgeois home has not only turned out to be invaded, its interior has become inseparable from the mayhem outside its walls. In the living room of the spacious home depicted, a framed artwork hangs; a photo of bloodied Iraqi civilians heaped in a pile, a crystal-clear indication that we are living with the war in our daily lives without really seeing it. The quiet of the affluent residence has been shattered by a police officer, who is apparently arresting a member of the household while heavily armed U.S. soldiers conduct a search and destroy mission through the dwelling. That one of the soldiers is raising his automatic weapon towards the viewer is a disquieting reminder that the war has indeed - come home.

Viewers of Gladiators may be confused by the chaotic panorama glimpsed through the abode’s huge bay windows. In part it is obviously a distressing Iraqi street scene where smoke from a detonated car bomb wafts by palm trees, but who are the odd looking men rushing the house as they brandish clubs? The photograph depicting them is not a readily identifiable image, even though it’s an Associated Press photo that was widely circulated on the internet. The image documents U.S. Marines of the 1st Division in Iraq, dressed as gladiators and - like a scene from Charlton Heston’s, Ben Hur - holding chariot races with filched Iraqi horses. The bizarre incident occurred at a Marine military base outside of the doomed city of Fallujah on November 6th, 2004, the very eve of the Marine attack that would destroy the “insurgent stronghold” of 300,000 civilians. If you find this all too hard to believe, you can read the Agence France-Presse’s account of the Marine’s evangelical pre-Fallujah pep rally.

The Geffen Contemporary of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, is located in downtown Los Angeles near Little Tokyo, at 152 North Central Avenue. LA, CA. 90013. Visit them on the web, at: www.moca.org. MOCA has also constructed a special website for the exhibition, a “collaborative environment for consciousness-raising and discussion.” At MOCA’s WACK! site, “the general public, artists, and authors can participate in the discourse by posting responses to artworks.”

Guerrilla Girls vs. King Kong

There’s a new King Kong billboard overlooking the world famous Sunset Strip, but it wasn’t approved by director Peter Jackson. The Guerrilla Girls have been battling sexism in the art world for years, but their latest project brings them to Hollywood for a go at sexism and racism in the film industry. On the eve of the Oscars the anonymous group of neo-feminist artists have put up a legal billboard that proclaims: “The 800-pound gorilla in Hollywood isn’t King Kong - it’s discrimination against women directors!” While I agree with the critique, I feel it doesn’t go far enough when it comes to the question of race - and it certainly doesn’t address the issue of mindless escapism, which has reached near psychotic proportions in the U.S.

The original 1933 King Kong movie was produced at a time when membership in the Ku Klux Klan numbered in the millions - a fact that shouldn’t be forgotten when considering the portrayal of the savage black “natives” who kidnapped the beautiful white woman, Ann (Fay Ray.) Kong himself embodied white America’s racist view of black males as animalistic brutes obsessed with white women - which of course is why the giant ape had to be killed. Kong was the ultimate distraction for an America trying to ignore Depression-era woes and the rising tide of Fascism that was consuming Europe. Is it so bizarre then that Kong is back while America occupies Iraq and spirals ever deeper into denial? The world is in flames and Americans are transfixed by a digital ape. I find this even more disturbing than the facts found in The Guerrilla Girls’ Press Release which follows:

Guerrilla Girls’ billboard on Sunset Blvd.

[ Guerrilla Girls’ billboard on Sunset Blvd. ]

“The Guerrilla Girls and Movies by Women unveil a new billboard at Sunset and Cahuenga in Hollywood, California, February 1st through March 5th, 2006. We took Kong, gave him a sex change and a designer gown, and set her up in Hollywood, just a few blocks from where the Oscars will be awarded March 5, 2006. Why? To reveal the sordid but True Hollywood Story about the lack of women and people of color behind the scenes in the film industry:

Only 7% of 2005’s 200 top-grossing films were directed by women. Only 3 women have ever been nominated for an Oscar for Direction (Lina Wertmuller (1976), Jane Campion (1982,) and Sofia Coppola (2003). None has won.

More embarrassing Hollywood statistics: Of 2004″s top-grossing films: 5% had female directors - 12% had female writers - 3% had female cinematographers - 16% had female editors - Only 8 people of color have ever been nominated for an Oscar for Direction - Hollywood guilds are 80 to 90 % white - Only 3% of the Oscars for acting have been won by people of color.

In the 21st century, low, low, low numbers like this HAVE to be the result of discrimination, unconscious, conscious or both. Hollywood likes to think of itself as cool, edgy and ahead of its time, but it actually lags way behind the rest of society in employing women and people of color in top positions. There may be women heading studios these days, but what are they doing for women and people of color? Why do they keep the white male film director stereotype alive? Here’s an easy way to change things: open up that boys’ club and hire more women and people of color. It worked in medicine, business and law. It worked in the art world. Now it’s Hollywood’s turn. Rattle that cage, break those chains!

LET WOMEN DIRECT!”

[ Large pictures of the new billboard can be downloaded from www.guerrillagirls.com. For more info, visit: www.moviesbywomen.com - a grassroots collective that works toward increasing the awareness of women's contributions to film and television history. ]

Unpopular Culture: Diane Gamboa

The photographic works of longtime Los Angeles artist Diane Gamboa, are available for viewing on the official KCET website as part of their Unpopular Culture series. Gamboa’s photos focus on L.A.’s punk underground of the late 1970’s - specifically, the role young Chicanos played in the scene as band members and fans. It’s hardly ever mentioned or pointed out, but the Mexican American community of California had much to do with the founding of the state’s original punk scene - something Gamboa’s photos so beautifully illustrate. Bands like The Brat, Plugz, Bags, Stains, Nuns, Los Illegals, and the Zeros broke new ground - bringing fresh rhythms and sensibilities to a scene usually thought of as the turf of disaffected white youth. Back in the late 1970’s, after seeing the likes of the Plugz perform a twisted anarchistic cover version of La Bamba by Ritchie Valens, and witnessing the maniacal stage persona of Bags front woman Alice Bag (Alicia Armendariz) - my life was literally changed forever.

Ironically, after we must have crossed paths a million times as denizens of L.A.’s early apocalyptic punk scene, I only just met Gamboa in late 2005 when we both exhibited artworks at Both Sides of the Border - a major exhibit of Chicano and Latin American art held here in L.A. Along with Gamboa’s photos, the KCET Unpopular Culture webpage sports a solid list of links - including a link to my own Art For A Change website for its documentation of the punk portraits I created as a participant in the 1970’s L.A. punk scene. KCET also supplies links to the websites of Alice Bag, The Plugz and many others, downloadable music by The Brat and Thee Undertakers, and related useful resources.

Louise Gilbert: RIP

On May 6th, 2005, I wrote about artist Louise Gilbert, whose active career as a painter and printmaker had spanned many decades. At the time of my original article Ms. Gilbert was involved in Art and Courage, a retrospective of her work exhibited at City College of San Francisco, California. Fellow artist and friend of Ms. Gilbert, Jan Cook, wrote to inform me that Gilbert passed away on September 21st, 2005 - only a few days after her retrospective had closed. Her timing was impeccable, every true artist aspires to shuffle off this mortal coil with such grace and finesse. Fifty years ago Gilbert was a founding member of The Graphic Arts Workshop in San Francisco, who are now planning a memorial exhibit and ceremony for the late artist. While the dates and details for that exhibit are still pending, Ms. Cook sent me the following eulogy she wrote to honor Gilbert - “one of the last progressive artists of the generation whose political consciousness was formed by the political events of the 1930’s.”

Goodbye to Louise Gilbert, September 21, 2005.

Louise Gilbert, artist and activist, faded out of life on Wednesday, Sept 21 at 5:30 pm. She had been in the care of Onlok Senior Health in San Francisco for the last few years, where she spent many productive hours making art and talking with visitors about the same issues of peace, human rights, and art that had been her focus throughout her long life. Until the last two weeks of her life, Louise continued to make art on her computer, and even in the last week, was still planning a book of her drawings. Louise died without pain, retaining her dignity and privacy, as she wanted. Louise Gilbert and her sister Jane originally came to San Francisco from Portland as young women just before World War II. They had become radicalized during the labor struggles of the 1930’s and wished to spare their family the repercussions of their involvement with the Communist Party. Louise immediately became involved in the California Labor School and her sister began writing for the People’s World newspaper. Louise met the artist Refregier at the Labor School, and when he received a commission at the Rincon Annex Post Office, she assisted him on the mural.

The Fisherman - Print by Louise Gilbert
“The Fisherman” Woodblock print by Louise Gilbert

During WWII Louise took the unpopular stand of supporting pacifism, and after the war was fired from her drafting job for her union organizing activities and for refusal to sign the loyalty oath. Peace and human rights became the causes that inspired the rest of her life. She used her talents to create art for the causes she supported, including the anti-nuclear movement, anti-Vietnam War struggles, progressive labor, gay and lesbian rights, farm workers, and many more causes. As a worker and as an artist, she lived in the collective spirit that was the ideal of the Labor School and of the Graphic Studio Workshop, where she was a founding member. Although her income was always modest, her mailbox was always full of requests from organizations that knew she would donate her art and money to worthy causes.

In 1998 at the age of 85 she was still marching miles demonstrating with her original signs, protesting U.S. policies in the Middle East. Louse’s life was always full of projects; her life was a model of flexibility in aging. In her final year 2005, her art was exhibited in a retrospective at San Francisco City College. Louise was able to enjoy the opening and expressed her gratitude to all who attended. Louise Gilbert made the decisions that mattered; she lived a principled life and died under circumstances of her choice, with a sense of humor even in her last days. She asked for little from others in her long life, but she gave much to all who knew her. Louise Gilbert April 12, 1913 - Sept 21, 2005.”