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Gender and Power: On Galleries, Genitalia, and the Guerilla Girls

When Girlfriends of the Guerrilla Girls, CoCA’s own “love affair with the Guerrilla Girls” opened August 1st, I bombarded my contact list with the same text message copied and pasted over and over between friends, family, neighbors, and former high school classmates: “please come to this show we worked super hard on it the art is so cool please please pleaseeeeee come!!!!!!” 

This is the second time I will be seeing a Guerrilla Girls-inspired show in the last year. The first, at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, was another group show of feminist artists–including works by Judy Chicago and Martha Rosler, among others. However, in my role as a Curatorial Intern at CoCA this summer, I have engaged with this exhibition, and the Guerrilla Girls, in ways that far extend beyond just as a viewer. I’d like to look at three pieces from the show, some of my personal favorites, along with a short inquiry into my own relationship with the Guerrilla Girls and questions of art and activism.

Ann Leda Shapiro, Woman Landing on Man in the Moon or One Needs a Cock to Get By

Ann Leda Shapiro,  Woman Landing on Man in the Moon  or  One Needs a Cock to Get By  (Archival inkjet print, 1971)

Ann Leda Shapiro, Woman Landing on Man in the Moon or One Needs a Cock to Get By (Archival inkjet print, 1971)

Shapiro’s body of work is full of unabashed explorations of gender and power dynamics, and while her use of genital imagery is certainly eye-catching, I largely find myself compelled to instead examine her use of medium and style. The original work, a watercolor painting, is characterized by its illustrative rendering. The image is in no way photo-realistic, nor is it necessarily abstract–instead, the style portrays a sense of naivety, of childlike illustration reminiscent of a classroom doodle. 

Her naive aesthetic, paired with the use of watercolor, a medium that hearkens back to the elementary classroom, Shapiro equates gender exploration with childhood curiosity. Even the subject matter, an astronaut floating through space, feels as if it was something a child would have drawn. Children, largely unaware of the meaning of gender and its social and political nuances, question the binary not as a means of resistance, but under the pretense of childlike wonder. Often too young to understand the power dynamics that exist in the socialization of genders, children instead question the binary through illustration–the combination of a penis and breasts, the interest in the seemingly forbidden genitals of the different sexes. In her work, Shapiro sheds the grown-up subtleties of power, gender, and binary, instead using her illustrative style and watercolor medium as a means to channel a childlike curiosity, one that poses questions of queer identity, body understanding, and the implications of gender.

Sheila Klein, On & On

Sheila Klein,  On & On  (Nylon grosgrain ribbon, 2008)

Sheila Klein, On & On (Nylon grosgrain ribbon, 2008)

When looking at Klein’s On & On, a set of ribbon circles I refer to in my head as “the giant yellow ellipses,” I find it difficult to engage with the work outside of the larger installation. While the sculpture is its own individual work, it is displayed as a trio alongside Klein’s Point and Doubly. As an installation, it appears almost anatomical–the spacing between each piece is measured and precise, the ribbon falls with a scientific precision. It feels less like a work of art, and more like a labored homage to the human form–my interpretation may be a bit misguided however, given that I hung the textile after spending upwards of two intimate hours nailing a nylon penis to the wall.

What drew me to On & On, as opposed to Klein’s two other works, is the sculpture’s apparent immunity to concrete interpretation. It is wholly unclear what the three dots are meant to represent, and even a gentle probing of this question is subject to change given the context of the installation as a whole. If we assume Point is meant to be a penis, and Doubly a pair of breasts, what form does On & On take? Is the installation meant to resemble a sexual act? If so, the work could literally be an ellipses, representing a space of sexual tension, a concrete symbol of the time in between undressing and sexual contact. On the other hand, if we continue with the anatomical analogy, the three dots could represent the three holes of vulvar anatomy: the urethra, the vagina, the anus. However, this meaning automatically shifts if the viewer instead chooses to see Point as a penus and Doubly as a pair of testicles. Do these body parts belong to the same person? How then, if at all, does On & On take on metaphorical meaning? Could it instead reference the perineal body? The distance from the testicles, where the sperm is produced, to the penis where it is expelled? Why am I Googling penile anatomy in a coffee shop?

What intrigues me most about Klein’s installation, and On & On specifically, is the ability of the work to willfully bend to the imagination of the viewer. The symbolically masculine display of the scientific and the anatomical is juxtaposed with the soft, feminine material, presenting a three-dimensional softness that one is almost drawn to touch, as if asking the viewer to be included in the sexual act themselves. On & On lends itself to a vast array of meaning, all dependent on the context of the gallery, and the viewer within the gallery. The installation swaps the often brash and heavy-handed artistic innuendo with a softness and gentility, an inquisition into the viewer’s own association with genitalia and the acts involving them. The installation is a decadent display of the often understated wiggle room between the serious and the humorous, walking a line between the playful and the sexual–a line which, perhaps, Klein questions existing at all.

Cecilia Concepción Alvarez, La Tierra Santa

Cecilia Concepción Alvarez,  La Tierra Santa (Oil on canvas, 1986)

Cecilia Concepción Alvarez, La Tierra Santa (Oil on canvas, 1986)

In person, Alvarez’s La Tierra Santa is overwhelming. The oil painting stands at just under five feet tall–hung on the wall, it appears almost monstrous, enveloping the viewer as they stand in front of it. Like all of Alvarez’s work in the show, I find it hard to step away from the painting, to retreat a few feet and look around the rest of the gallery. The painting, due to its size and rich color palette, hits you all at once–representations of womanhood, motherhood, environment,  materialized against canvas.

La Tierra Santa literally translates to “the holy land.” However, the painting never outright reveals to the viewer what this holy land is. Part of me sees this holy place as some sort of Heaven. The painting’s central figure–a woman holding a small child in one hand, the other outstretched flat in front of her as a group of children hide behind her dress–stands tall against the blue sky, a white moon surrounding her head like a halo. Dressed in white, her hair flayed behind her almost like a pair of wings, she is a woman of divine energy, a protector. Is she a guardian angel, sent down from Heaven to protect children from the evil before her? Who is she holding her hand out to, what or who is she shielding them from? Alternatively, the holy land may also represent Earth. Below the woman, a herd of animals–fish, birds, a leopard–collect at her feet. Many of these species are notably endangered, dwindling populations that have fallen victim to poaching, development, and climate change.

The woman–tall with a domineering stance and and a beautifully patterned dress and earrings–exudes power. She overwhelms the viewer, intimidates them. The woman not only bares children, raises them and protects them, she fends off their predators–the man, the hunter, the colonizer. Alvarez’s painting pays homage to the woman as the protector of the titular holy land, the force of life and preservation. Perhaps the woman herself is the holy land, a figure of angelic morality, a testament to the labor and power of the woman as birther, mother, caregiver. In her painting, Alvarez praises the mother figure as an illustrated force of spiritual, otherworldly power and protection and, in doing so, demands the viewer confront the aggressor on the other side of the canvas.

As I continue to work on this show, I make a point to consciously remind myself of the ways feminism interacts with race, class, ability, and other identities–particularly, the ways the museum space symbolizes spaces of both inclusion and exclusion for people of these intersecting identities. When confronting white- and male-dominated spaces, such as the arts, discussions of intersecting identities are not only necessary, they are urgent. As we look back at the history of the Guerrilla Girls and their influence through this show, reflection becomes key when looking towards the future.

When two of the Guerrilla Girls spoke at Sarah Lawrence College earlier this year, the auditorium was literally overflowing with students, myself included. As the speakers–two women dressed head to toe in black, donning gorilla masks with jaws that moved as they spoke–clicked through Powerpoint slides showing Guerilla Girls exhibitions around the world, the audience grew restless with questions: what does it mean to spend an entire career critiquing the space of the museum, only to show in those same institutions one, two, three decades later? What does this say about the ways capitalism commodifies activism, the ways the labor of the oppressed are fetishized under the pretense of the challenged artist? What did it mean for a white woman to use the moniker Frida Kahlo in 1985, and how has that meaning changed? What does it mean for an activist group to relentlessly protest an institution, only to turn around and engage within these same spaces? Is this a means to critique from within, or merely a regression of values?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, and I don’t believe I ever will. I constantly find myself in a state of conflict and confusion. As groups like the Guerrilla Girls, the Chinatown Art Brigade, and Decolonize this Place continue to dissect and protest the institution, how do we as art consumers and participants engage outside of the economically and academically inaccessible spaces of the museum?

This is why it is so important to me that CoCA, the oldest artist-run gallery space in the country, is showing “Girlfriends of the Guerrilla Girls.” While so much modern discourse hinges on the idea of social media as a tool of large-scale accessibility, it is important to acknowledge the gallery operating as a place of free admission. In Seattle, not everyone has the money to buy a ticket to the Seattle Art Museum, but they can enter the doors of CoCA and begin their own activist journey (between the hours of 11AM-6PM Thursday-Saturday, that is.) 

As we examine feminist art through the lens of gender, race, class, accessibility, and more, it is critical we look both within and without the space of the institution. In his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin scrutinized the relationship between the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics. Throughout the curation and installation of this show, I have borrowed from Benjamin’s theory as a way to describe my feelings regarding activist art in current day climate, as we find ourselves at an intersection between the aestheticization of feminism, and the feminist probing of traditional aesthetics. From the use of Girl Power as a presidential slogan to the resurgence of Riot Grrrl aesthetics as a branding tool for edgy clothing companies, it becomes hard to discern between political statement and capitalist exploitation.

We need groups like the Guerrilla Girls, the Chinatown Art Brigade, and Decolonize this Place to continue probing the questions of representation and equity, the same way we need free spaces like CoCA to exhibit these ideas. Now more than ever it is pertinent we must create space to actively and inclusively advance radical thought. With that, what better space than the gallery, and who better to do so than the feminist artist?

— Bella Rowland-Reid, Curatorial Committee

Earlier Event: July 3
Love, Lust and Glitter from Above