Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Art of !WAR

It is a provocative question: can you name three female artists with museum or high-end gallery credibility? How about Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keefe, and Berthe Morisot? They all happen to be safely canonical, as well. However, many of the New York hipsters filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson caught coming out of the Whitney could only name Frida Kahlo (thank you Salma Hayek). Perhaps the Blue State elitists are not as smart as they like to think, but Hershman Leeson is not interested in such questions, preferring to explore the gender politics of the fine art world in !Women Art Revolution (a.k.a. !WAR, trailer here), which opens tomorrow at the IFC Center.

Hershman Leeson had documented the highly politicized Feminist Art movement for decades, eventually editing and distilling her raw footage into a documentary covering the artists’ nearly uniform ideology just as much as their art. At least, the work of !WAR’s touchstone artists was about something, radically contrasting with the arid (and male dominated) minimalism then en vogue. Yet, in a way, both dissimilar movements relied on external theory or dogma to give it meaning. (Clearly, this would not be a happy period for formalists.)

Regardless whether viewers agree with the politics of the !WAR artists or are impressed with their technique (which frankly spans the gamut), they will find a number of interesting stories peeking out from heavy-handed didacticism. Unfortunately, Hershman Leeson lets some of the more promising avenues of inquiry die on the vine. Most conspicuously, she appears to deliberately protect the image of Feminist icon Judy Chicago by scrupulously avoiding obvious follow-up questions when fellow artists blame her sharp-elbowed leadership style for undermining their collective.

However, Hershman Leeson deserves credit for tackling the case of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta head-on. When Mendieta’s husband, prominent sculptor Carl Andre, was accused (and later acquitted) of dispatching her from their 34th floor balcony, the Feminist movement evidently largely joined the patriarchal establishment in closing ranks around the alleged wife murderer. One bold interview subject pointedly complains about the silence of The Guerilla Girls in particular, noting the monkey-suited merry pranksters who regularly embarrassed museums for not exhibiting enough women could not muster any outrage for the art world’s equivalent of the O.J. Simpson trial. It is no wonder the Guerillas maintain their anonymity, out of embarrassment.

Indeed, Mendieta’s life and the circumstances surrounding her death merit a documentary in their own right. At least !WAR will increase awareness of a distinctly troubling episode in recent art history. It also boasts one of the coolest posters of the year. How much enthusiasm the film generates for the work of the other artists it profiles will largely depend on individual viewers’ predispositions. Flawed but at times intriguing, !WAR opens this Wednesday (6/1) at the IFC Center.