22 July 2007
[I know what you're thinking -- what can I say? -- a lot happens in a single day, let alone a typical L.A. week-end.]
After a leisurely early afternoon lunch in the park the following day, I returned to the Geffen Contemporary (I wasn’t far away) for some WACK! reconnaissance, as I did the following Sunday. It’s a rare but not entirely absurd phenomenon for me to not have a chance to see a show – especially big museum shows (or really see it), until it’s only a few weeks, if not days, away from closing. All the more absurd when the show has obvious affinities with my own ideas, impulses, tastes and agendas, both aesthetically and ideologically (to say nothing of emotionally) – but there you are; it happens. Without even attempting to touch on its highlights (forget about plumbing its considerable depths), one of the most striking things about the show and the work in it, especially much of the filmed performance work and performance documentation, is the inescapable realization of the multiverse and truly groundbreaking ways in which this art advanced, even invented, the discourse and dialectic of the feminist second wave.
It almost doesn’t register until you’ve traversed several precincts of the cavernous Geffen space – well past the imposing and vividly red Abakanowicz fiber sculpture, a soft (it’s fabric after all) yet electrifying annunciation of the cumulative non-linear narrative that, seen in retrospect, has the impact of prophesy. As I passed it going out for a break on this particular afternoon, I had to laugh. “Rosebud” – and I thought now of that beautiful Stanley Cortez-shot sequence from Citizen Kane, the snowglobe falling through an apoplectic Charles Kane’s fingers, bouncing before him as he fell down a staircase to a demise fit for a printable legend. No, it’s not the death of obsession, power-lust or patriarchy, and certainly not the civilization bound up with so much patriarchal power-lust; but it’s definitely an up-ending of that snowbound world, a cataclysmic blizzard in that snowglobe. Who knew so much of the ice had melted, the (cultural) climate had already been permanently changed? (I can only hope it isn’t true to the same degree with the physical climate.) Who would even question, walking through any of the fairs over the last several months, the feminist aspect of so much of the work on view – not just artists like Louise Bourgeois (clearly in a class by herself to begin with) or Tracey Emins – but a great deal of personality- and narrative-driven work?
It’s as if our perspectives unconsciously changed while the world collectively recovered from a revolution it thought it had successfully undermined, suppressed, co-opted. But looking at some of the video and performance work – by Eleanor Antin, Valie Export, the truly visionary work by Carolee Schneeman (as well as artists like Faith Wilding, Lynda Benglis and, yes, Judy Chicago) – we see how these artists reworked that perspective, re-ground the lenses, changed the context, altered the way we viewed our world by changing the syntax and grammar (to say nothing of gender) in which we saw and spoke of it.
Today we can appreciate the work of Schneeman, Hershman, Antin and all the rest for all they are, separate and apart from their contemporary contexts. Some of their heirs are stars of the contemporary art world (I think of, just one example, Alexis Smith). But what has gone more or less unacknowledged is the degree to which the work of these artists changed the context to make this altered cultural context possible. Of course other artists and movements contributed to this shift or alteration in the cultural context. But the feminist strain – the visionary feminism – in all of this art was crucial to that very real evolution.
So much of the conventional, contemporaneous ‘mainstream’ criticism, the journalistic ‘take’, on the feminist second wave, focused on it as a kind of subcultural irritation among educated middle-class and upper-middle class women, a by-product of the political currents coursing through society and academia of the 1960s – racial and colonial liberation movements, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the exponential growth in post-Freudian psycho-therapeutics; and of course all of these strains fed into the thinking that framed the new feminist dialectic. But as culturally informed and cognizant of these factors as many journalists were, it’s amazing how many of them didn’t get it, missed the larger points, the signposts, missed the tectonic shifts in civilization’s bedrock. So much of the contemporary journalism (and not just bad or dismissable coverage) devolved into superficial dissections of political orthodoxies or seized upon the most tendentious assertions or talking points in various debates both to trivialize the movement as a whole and marginalize almost anyone who might attempt, even on an abstract level, to make the leap between the practical and the ideal. It’s hard to square, for example, the Joan Didion who falls into just such a pattern around 1972 (see The White Album) with the acute, politically clear-sighted Joan Didion of the mid- to late 1990s (see Political Fictions); but there you are. Didion’s political conservatism was a given – you knew as soon as the word, ‘Marxist,’ made its way to the page where Didion might vigorously interrogate the movement’s principals; even so her essay seemed less a cross-examination than a lament.
How to take a synoptic view, yet not give way to sweeping (and, for the most part, specious and derogatory) generalizations; how to move between the practical, the concrete and the abstract, the ideal – it was and remains an all-but-impossible task. It had to begin almost minutely: with the relationships between the body and self, self and society – that is to say, the domain of art. The implications of these fragmentary but focused images, performances, conceptual essays and demonstrations, are far-reaching – on psychology, literature, even politics. As early as the 1970s, it was possible to apprehend the possibilities – the world, in both micro- and macrocosm, opened up by so much fresh performance and conceptual art (by men as well as women, of course). And it occurs to me now that my first (well, second anyway) taste of visionary romantic poetry was by way of Germaine Greer, who sprinkled her book, The Female Eunuch, with generous excerpts from Blake’s Jerusalem. The book was both thesis and manifesto; and, in retrospect, the references to Blake seem, if anything, even more apt. The world is remade, large and small, as much by poetic vision as by political will; and there’s plenty of both in MOCA’s groundbreaking survey.
That evening, I accompanied my brother and his wife to a performance of Hamlet at the Hollywood Forever cemetery – a terrific location (we all thought) for such a production. It was and it wasn’t. The production (“Tall Blonde” Productions – which might, I thought, have described Hamlet himself – a physically prepossessing Dean Chekvala) made excellent use of a couple of the cemetery’s mausoleums; but the play began far later than it should have (well after 8:30 p.m.). As a result, the pacing was furiously fast, yet by the play’s end, our spirits (however fortified by champagne and spirits) were flagging. The Polonius (Sean Sellars) managed to negotiate this pace with some comical style; Gertrude (Katharine Brandt) had an admirably steely presence; but others were not so lucky – or amusing. You could only be glad to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern dispatched to their sad fate. Whether or not Hamlet requires the ‘fashion and ceremony’ of a four-plus hour production, it’s not exactly a poetry slam or the stuff of a speed read-through. The champagne flowed this particular evening; and even so we felt the dark blood beneath it all. Poetic vision and political will there may be in abundance; but what does it take these days to catch the conscience of kings?