Girls, Girls, Girls
Segregating artists by biological gender is oversimplifying a lot of things, to say the least. Still, the arrival of Elles: Women Artists from the Centre Pompidou, Paris and Elles: SAM at Seattle Art Museum has been much anticipated. And it lives up to the hype. Elles: Pompidou and Elles: SAM showcase an almost mind-numbing wealth of work that recontextualizes the placement of women in the modernist canon while illustrating a hundred-year evolution of motifs and concepts running through female art. Thankfully, it manages to do so without waxing didactic or beating any dead horses.
Certain characteristics of female work are pronounced: Playfulness. Indulged obsessiveness. Unflinching physical self-examination. Drag and gender-fucking. Sure, these traits are found in works by plenty of men as well, but Elles methodically massages such narratives of femaleness from its collective body of all-female work. Clever juxtapositions do a lot of this narrative-building, like placing one of Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures bursting with blobby, marmoreal prepuces next to Marie-Ange Guilleminot’s video, Mes Poupées, which shows a woman’s hands continually kneading amorphous shapes (“dolls”) out of dough-like blobs.
Here’s just a sampling of what you’ll find at Elles: Pompidou and Elles: SAM.
If you missed the Yayoi Kusama retrospective at The Whitney, you can catch some highlights in the The Modern & Contemporaries Galleries, which have been gutted and filled with Kusama’s bulbous forests of silver phalli sprouting from pans and hats and shoes and boats. Obsession reaches a high pitch of visual luxury in pusling patterns of repeating dots, tentacles and potato/finger/banana-shaped objects.
Around the corner from the Kusama room, a gallery filled with Haven’s stringent geometries and punk ephemera is a perfect contemporary Northwest complement to the rest of Elles: SAM. Haven’s iconic enlargement of a j-card from a cassette mixtape was painted directly on her studio wall—which was then excised and installed at SAM like a piece of oversize detritus. Elsewhere in the gallery, the mixtape’s TDK logo is isolated, reduced and repeated: a resonating typographical abstraction.
Over half a century of video art by female artists under one roof highlights a pattern of powerful self-representation by females in front of the camera. Videos are markedly vulnerable and visceral, not, perhaps, as ontologically ponderous as much video art by male counterparts (as a fellow critic at the press preview hinted). In Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy, nudes writhe amongst fish, sausages and live chickens. As a literal bride stripped bare, Hannah Wilke responds to Duchamp by performing a striptease in front of a large glass (Through the Large Glass). In I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much, a breasty, witchy-haired Pipilotti Rist dances and croons hysterically, while video distortion slashes across the screen with obliterating zig-zags. Her hands curl like claws and the image suddenly winds down and turns blood-red. Kusama, Marina Abramovic, Adrian Piper and Ana Mendieta are only a few of the other video artists scattered amongst lesser-known video works that date back to the Surrealists and look forward to contemporaries like Tracy and the Plastics (Wynne Greenwood) and Laurie Anderson.
NIKI DE SAINT PHALLE
In a gallery designated “Genital Panic,” Niki de Saint Phalle’s Crucifixion looms larger than life. The contorted, grotesque, supersize doll body is crusted in more dolls, fabric scraps and plastic flowers.
PAINTINGS: ROMAINE BROOKS, SUSANNE VALADON, TAMARA DE LEMPICKA
Brooks’ Au bord de la mer, Valadon’s La Chambre Bleu and Lempicka’s Jeune Fille en Vert are masterpieces, but seeing them peppered amongst Guerilla Girls manifestos and video work like Martha Rosler’s 1975 Semiotics of the Kitchen casts them in a slightly different, more transgressive light.
Cahun’s tender, gender-bent photographs are interlaced with surreal, dreamy landscapes like Le Coeur de Pic: a small, tinted gelatin silver print that shows a splayed sunflower supporting a bouquet of mannequin hands.
A dark, cocooned room houses Goldin’s slideshow installation Heartbeat, comprising 245 scenes of four couples making love, accompanied by a haunted soundtrack by Björk. The slides pulse with the breathless, sweet sadness of sexual vulnerability and capture the fleetingness of an embrace, each frame like a literal little death.
In one of the final galleries is Messager's Les Pensionnaires (The Boarders): three glass display cases filled with faux-taxidermied sparrows swaddled in little hand-stitched jackets (the lifelike birds are actually tromp l’oeil constructions made of feathers and twigs). For Messager, the birds reference a fascination with childhood cruelty and classroom punishment. It’s both beautiful and uncanny, like the obsessive work of a Victorian naturalist illustrating Beatrix Potter-esque cautionary tales with taxidermy dioramas.
Needless to say, there’s more work in these exhibits than can possibly be written about or even taken in during one visit. And though it will give pause and make you consider how much gender informs the female—or male—artist's work, Elles isn't just a show about being female.