By Dean Adams Curtis, copyright 2007
The labia are called "Abakan Red." The fabric art hanging was done back in 1969 by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowiz. It is made out of something called sisal, which I have never heard of.
As I walk around the fabric labia I remember my large macrame wall hanging that I knotted in the late 70s. It was six feet long, hanging flaccid from a piece of driftwood, and drawn together at the bottom. From the bottom middle hung down in a fluffy free spray of white cotton.
"It looks like a penis," said a visitor or two about my macrame wall hanging. That was enough. They were right, I finally decided. After years during which the macrame dominated my apartments in various West Los Angeles locations, I decided one day to carry it out to a dumpster and dispose of it. Since that day I have never thought about it. Now these big red labia hanging in front of my face at the WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution art exhibit in space being called the Temporary Contemporary, the temporary home of at Los Angeles Contemporary Art Museum in a former mounted police stable while a new Contemporary Art museum is being built for the city, brings back to mind my macrame penis.
I wonder if Magdalena had more intention about the direction her sisal creation took than I did while knotting my macrame. I guess that she must have. Her genitaliaesque work is proudly hung here, while mine is part of a landfill.
Next, I am drawn to two drawings by Margaret Harrison. One is a robotic-looking graphite and watercolor piece titled Captain America with Frankenstein-like overtones and a wide open vulva.
Suddenly, my mind is thinking back to the underground newspaper The Student Voice I edited in high school. At the time, 1970, I was a freshman. A talented young woman who was then in her senior year submitted a poem that I published. It included the words Touch me, I have a burning separation.
That line in my underground newspaper inflammed a conservative member of the suburban community of Ferndale, Michigan where I attended school. At a Board of Education meeting where I was proposing a Ferndale High student-ratified constitution for our United Student Assembly, she labeled it pornographic. Then she called out about me, "He's a Communist!"
On the walls of the WACK! exhibition another Margaret Harrison piece catches my eye. A woman clad in black lingerie rides on top of a banana that is twice as large as she is. It is titled "Banana Woman".
ALLENDE proclaims one of the twelve "books" in "Dairy of Objects of Resistance" created in 1973 by an English woman.
I search for the artist's name, but I don't see it in the display case that seems to be skimmed over and forgotten by other visitors. The reason I put the word "books" in quotation marks is because these are items that few would readily describe as books, but which the woman who created them designed to be easily hidden from the Chilean authorities and to be easily transported as the artist was always on the move.
The objects she created take us inside her experiences as a British socialist during the early days of the period when the military overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende in June of 1973. As many know, they did so with encouragement from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Chilean right wing.
Martha Rosler's "Hot House" aka "Harem" is a photo collage of Playboy playmates and women from magazine bra ads assembled into a nude harem.
"Intercourse with..." are the words I hear first on the audio when I put on an artist supplied pair of headsets while pondering a multicolumn list of names. The audio, compiled from the phone machine messages received by Hannah White, includes calls from everyone from Francis Ford-Coppola and Claus Oldenburg to a man who says he has dialed a wrong number that (my guess) calls back later as a "Heavy breather."
Hannah also appears in her own video monologue. She is seen from the waist up, talking while topless and perhaps bottomless as well.
Oh the things you can do with panty hose! I'm looking at an abstract corner installation made in 1977 by Senga Nengudis, titled "Nylon mesh and sand."
Senga's panty hose are filled in the hip, crotch and butt area with varying quantities of sand, with the legs stretched super long upward in large "V" shapes and nailed to walls. I see a series of female back sides from buttocks to shoulders in this work and envision these women with arms stretched up in a V vulva shape.
Next, in "Carving" by Eleanor Antin, the artist shows herself in four rows of forty black and white images each, standing nude, mug-shot-like, in front of a white door as she strives to carve weight from her body via a weight loss regime.
I come closest as an artist to the works I see before me by Joan Semmel. Her oil paintings feature her perspective of her body (larger than-life size) lying next to someone presumed by their proximity to be her lover.
Rounding a corner, the work of another collage artist appears. I particularly like this one. It is by Mary Beth Edelson in 1976. Her work is titled "Death of Patriarchy/Heresies." It depicts the faces of the artist and her A.I.R. girlfriends pasted over those of individuals in a painting of French revolutionaries that seems familiar, so I assume the original is famous and hanging somewhere in the Museum
The only men shown in this piece by Mary Beth are dying on the ground or already lying prone.
Next to the work referenced above, is Mary Beth's 'Bring Home the Evolution," featuring a similar scene to the one just described, except this one is familiar from somewhere in the American history recesses of my mind.
Perhaps the original work depicts Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys (or some such revolutionary expeditionary force) hiking toward us on a mountain road. Mary Beth's version has the faces of women who at the time she created it were working to achieve an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women.
I stand in front of this work, recalling how the ERA passed both houses of Congress and was ratified by many states, but after a long struggle failed to achieve ratification by the number of states required to amend it to the U.S. Constitution.
And I give a hip-hip hooray for Mary Beth's "Some Living American Women Artists," which portrays Georgia O'Keeffe sitting in Christ's seat in a recasting of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper surrounded by other women whose faces I don not recognize.
An overwhelming realization comes over me as I pause after viewing what I figure is one-third of the art works on display at WACK! Most of the works featured are from the sixties and seventies. Cataloging what I have seen in my mind I consider it probable that the collection reflects a curatorial constriction of the works shown.
I get the impression of a great fluorescence of feminist and/or female artistic expression and exploration during two liberating decades, but begin to wonder about what women in the arts have been up to since then.
Speaking of X-perimentation, there is exploration by the women whose art is displayed in the WACK! exhibition, of themes that in other venues might grab an X-rating, be labeled as porn, or perhaps banned due to community sensibility for X-plicit themes. One artist, Cosey Fanni Tutti, actually infiltrated the porn industry as a performer "to subvert the medium's power of subjugation."
If one had access to Tee Corinne's "Cunt Coloring Book" and colored in the images presumed to be inside, you could come up with a reasonable facsimile of a Georgia O'Keeffe flower image. Fortunately the coloring book is sealed inside a glass display case, so any impulse to color flower-like vaginal openings and labia remains interior within my mind.
Now I am sitting on stacked up mattresses inside a square structure formed from floor to ceiling (walls included) by mattresses attached to an aluminum pipe structure. The work was created by Marta Minujin and Richard Squires and is called Soft Gallery. Inside it, I am being bounced on the mattress by the steps of people who have come in after me to watch a video by a female artist on a TV. The television is the only other thing in the room besides people (mostly women) and mattresses.
I cannot see the TV for all the female bodies bouncing with me. I am the only man bouncing on these mattresses. The show in the room is compelling, but I move on.
On a wall outside the mattress room, artist Bonnie Ora Sherk really catches my attention. Back in the 70s she created a communal farm under an overpass in and her big mixed-media mural in front of me offers a layout of the farm with photos varnished on it and various notes written. I wish for many more of these places in the green world of our future. I make a mental note see what her place is like now the next time in Frisco. And I find myself wishing that I had been a part of its creation back in the 70s. Sherk's series of works ends in 1980. Wonder what she is up to now?
Back in the mattress room, now less crowded, I see that the video is of a protest "mourning the reality of violence against women." The protest seeks respect for the rights of women who have been raped and abused. I wonder if we have made progress since this protest was held, thinking first about how corporations are now offering training to prevent sexual harassment and firing employees who are found guilty of it. Then I think about how the police and the judiciary are now much tougher on rape and no longer blame the victim. However, my next thought is about how much more needs to be accomplished throughout the world to protect the rights of women.
Large black and white photos show Mierle Laderman Ukeles and her two male colleagues cleaning the display case of a female Egyptian mummy back in 1973. The work is titled "Transfer: The Maintenance of Art Objects." I have a lot of thoughts about Ancient Egypt in rapid succession, but decide they are too many and not relevant to the rest of the exhibit and so do not write them.
Last up in the exhibition is a display, near the exit and thus the entrance with its sisal labia, is a model of Hon by Niki De Saint Phalle.
She is laying on her back, legs bent, feet grounded, with steps leading up to her oval vaginal hole, the entrance to what was, as the wall size picture next to Hon reveals, a large-scale work. for a 1966 exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Sweden.
My first impression upon hearing about the installation and seeing the mockup is that Niki is referencing the ancient prehistoric structures that some archaeologists suggest may have been meant as exactly the same pregnant woman on her back. Was Niki's colorful work a reference to these amazing prehistoric structures?
As I stand gazing at the Hon mockup by Niki De Saint Phalle from a vantage point between her legs, an art educator who I previously noticed leading to a large tour group comes on a direct route to me.
"I have to ask you, what are you writing?"
I struggle for the words to describe the experiences I have had wandering WACK! With a lack of articulate phrasing that surprises me, especially given the intensity of the thoughts that have run through my mind, I briefly explain the goddesses.com web site and wonder if I could ask her a few questions about the exhibit.
Q: What it seems is that the exhibition is focused on works by female artists of the 60s and 70s. Why?
A: They had thought about including the 50s, but the 60s and 70s was when everything came together.
Q: What happened afterward in the 80s?
A: The 80s were a time of focus on diversity, inclusion. Hip hop artists and graffiti artists took center stage.
Q: In truth, aren't most of the artists represented here white women?
A: No. Look right here. This documents the performance art of black woman who wore this dress made of white gloves into all white establishments. She was focused on breaking down and challenging color barriers.
Q: The Hon work seems to reference some prehistoric tombs shaped like the pregnant bellies of Mother Earth that were entered through vulva-like openings, and vagina-like passages that led to womb-like tombs. I wonder whether Niki de Saint Phalle was inspired by them.
A: Niki de Saint Phalle was very well-educated and well-read on many subjects. She may well have been inspired by these places.
I begin to confess to her about how my adolescent awakening came about concurrent with fantasies I termed within my brain The Naked Ladies Club, and that it was drawing that group of fantasies out through my pastel artworks that led me to an interest in prehistoric archaeology. But then, several people who had been talking with the art educator previously, come along to engage with her again.
She catches my eyes a couple minutes later when I look up from my continued examination of the Hon display. I take the opportunity to ask her one last question.
Q: Is Los Angeles the only venue, or does the WACK! exhibition now go on tour?
A: WACK! goes to Washington D.C. next, then on to PS1 in New York City and to Vancouver after that.
ARTIST: Senga Nengudi