Guerrilla Girls Review The Whitney
Museum purchase with funds provided
by the Estate of Walter and Elise Mosher
22” x 17″
Photo: courtesy Pomona College Museum of Art
The Guerrilla Girls have always been distinguished by a healthy mix of outrage, spiky humor and damning factual analysis, and all of those elements are on cheerful display in their current show at Pomona College Museum of Art. Titled “Guerrilla Girls: Art In Action” (January 10 – May 17, 2015), the exhibition features 25 of the roughly 85 posters, ads, and signs that comprise their portfolio. Modest in scale, the show is outsized in its impact, bringing welcome attention not just to the work of these feminist art world activists, but to the issues they championed, most notably the woeful underrepresentation of female artists in museums across the world, a glaring disparity than can be extended far beyond the clubby art world. For anyone who remembers the New York art scene from which they arose in 1985-thirty years ago-seeing the show is initially a blast from the past. Walking through it, you can’t help pondering how skewed the art world was at the time, how stark the inequity. But looking closer, one learns that works continue through 2012-and that it’s an open portfolio. Indeed the Guerrilla Girls are still as active as ever, if not more so. And while that’s good news for all those who appreciate their gutsy, satirical penchant for telling truth-to-power, it’s also unsettling. The fact is, there is still a need for the Guerrilla Girls-and for the other feminist activists who have come after them. Thirty years on, the problem of gender inequity in the art world isn’t solved. If anything, it only seems further entrenched.
Kathe Kollwitz, one of the Girls’ main spokeswomen-besides wearing gorilla suits to preserve anonymity, all Guerrilla Girls also take the name of an historic female artist as a nom de guerre -recalls how the group got started. “In 1984, the Museum of Modern Art opened a survey exhibition of contemporary art that included only 13 women out of 169 artists. The Women’s Caucus For Art held a demonstration outside the museum. A couple of future Guerrilla Girls joined the picket line and realized that it was having absolutely no effect. Not one person going into the museum cared about the lack of women and artists of color inside. That was the ‘AHA! Moment’. We realized there had to be a better way-a more contemporary, creative way-to break through people’s belief that museums knew best, and there was no discrimination in art.” In spring of 1985, some friends called a meeting and passed the hat around to pay for printing up some posters. And the Guerrilla Girls were born.
The posters themselves blend a bold graphic punch with rueful wit. In one from 1987, an artist-model poses in a gorilla mask on a stool, unpeeling a banana. Others wryly spell out “The Top Ten Signs That You’re An Art World Token,” or “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist.” Among the pointed reasons: “Working without the pressure of success,” and “Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position.” Among the most damning works are ones that cite statistics, as in the page from 1995 that states “Traditional Values Return to the Whitey Museum.” A bar chart below shows the percentage of women artists, and artists of color, in the 1991 Whitney Biennial, with White Males making up 60.3%, then the spike in women and artists of color in 1993 (the still-debated “PC Biennial”), and then the return to white male dominance once more in 1995.
Today, the Guerrilla Girls not only do agitprop campaigns but also lecture widely, bringing their message to both longtime fans and new generations. From their initial role of subversive outliers, they’ve finally been invited inside the institution’s walls: a step forward, albeit an ironic one. “In recent years we’ve been faced with a dilemma,” notes Kollwitz. “What do you do when the art world you’ve spent your whole life attacking suddenly embraces you? Well, you take your critique right inside the institutions.” Invitations to create installations at venues as venerable as the Venice Biennale, in 2005, or the Tate Modern in London, attest to the increasing acceptance of their message, although, Kollwitz notes, visitors often express surprise at their facts. A recent retrospective in Madrid of over 200 works has drawn thousands of viewers.
So what’s the problem? As Kollwitz observes, the demographics of the art world itself, being controlled from the top by extremely wealthy white males, continues to skew the demographics of who succeed. “Things are a bit better for women and artists of color at the entry level, but there is still a long way to go. The world of artists is great, but the art world sucks,” she says. “It’s more and more controlled by billionaire collectors who sit on the boards of museums and auction houses, exerting undue influence, and skewing what is being preserved for the future. We’re doing a sticker campaign about that in New York in May 2015… If things continue like this, a hundred years from now museums will be showing only the super-expensive white male version of the art of our time, with a few tokens thrown in. We need to make sure that museums cast a wider net and collect the real story of our culture.” Asked if she sees a difference between the old money art world of New York, and the younger culture of LA, she replies dryly: “New York has lots of billionaires who control the art world. LA only has a few.”
Director of the Pomona College Museum of Art, Kathleen Howe arranged the purchase of the Guerrilla Girls’ portfolio in 2013, in part because of the Art & Activism course taught by one of her professors. Howe believes the Guerrilla Girls’ message is one that resonates with students of this current generation, and that they are desirous to hear it, even if they don’t fully appreciate its implications. “I think that the Guerrilla Girls’ continuing presence reminds us that this is not a historical issue that has been resolved,” Howe says. She notes that their DIY style of activism “has a nice fit with the contemporary zine culture, the whole social practice movement now.” At the same time, she says, “Younger artists think that by calling yourself a feminist artist, you’re identifying yourself with identity politics.” Thus she sees younger students “not wanting to own that term; feminism-that seems like the dark ages to them.” Like Kollwitz, Howe sees the Girls’ message as echoing beyond the art world, reflecting social and economic realities that are far more difficult to address. “The museum world reenacts the corporate world in many ways, in the power positions… It’s really representing a broader segment of society. Pockets of misogyny and resistance are still there,” she reflects, citing in particular the challenge of getting some male collectors to buy work by women artists. “I think some of our students are fooling themselves.”
Cell: Interlocking Construction, 2010, Rachel Lachowicz
Pigment-Cosmetic Compound, Plexiglas, 144″ x 125″ x 53″
Permanent collection LACMA, Photo: Gene Ogami
Courtesy Shoshana Wayne Galley and the artist
Rachel Lachowicz earned her reputation as a quote-unquote feminist artist in LA in the 1990s, creating works out of ostensibly “feminine” materials like lipstick
and eye shadow, that slyly critique iconic historical genres of artworks made by male artists. Now associate professor of sculpture at Claremont Graduate University, in 1994, she was part of curator Lynn Zelevansky’s influential exhibition at MOMA in New York that gathered seven notable postminimal female sculptors; even at the time, the show earned MOMA raised eyebrows for relegating the women artists to a basement gallery. Despite Lachowicz’s relative success-last year, two of her sculptures were provocatively included in LACMA’s exhibition “Variations: Conversations In and Around Abstract Painting”-she finds many of the social conditions that motivated her original feminist critique haven’t changed.
“There is still a gender gap and a privileging of masculinity,” Lachowicz says. “There is still too much veiled sexism. It plays out in subtle ways… Recently, I was on a mission to create an incredible library of the female artists that I admire. What surprised me was how few books there were on the shelves, and everyone had the same ones. The great monographs are mostly of men,” she observes. “What we have to consider is that some groups are clearly more profitable for galleries than others. It is not just an art world problem; it is a societal one. I think it stems in part from unconscious gender biases…” Though she still embraces the feminist badge, she finds that other artists and students are not always eager to identify as feminists. “Identity politics are tricky. It is a conversation that for some is considered to be over, and for others, alive and well…” On the other hand, she offers hopefully, “I find the LGB and Transgender infusion over the past 30 years has had an invigorating effect on feminism.” The important thing, she says, is “to keep the dialogue going. To not shy away from the topic. In the 1990s, for some, the Guerrilla Girls seemed like crazy wacky feminists. When I go back and read Lucy Lippard from the 1970s, she was also seen as a radical. Neither was asking for much, and it is surprising that fairness and inclusivity had to be brought to the table. And we need to continue to bring it to the table.” The emergence of transgender culture has been especially impressive in the past few years, with even sites like shemale hd sex showing the increased representation of people in the LGBT community across a wide variety of fields and industries.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the gender gap is the relative disparity of women artists shown by commercial galleries. It’s an issue that LA artist Micol Hebron has engaged head-on. An assistant professor at Chapman University in Orange, CA, whose artwork often involves using her own body-“I’m really trying to figure out what it means to be a female artist: now, here,” she says-Hebron began examining Artforum magazines to assess the ratio of male to female artists in the ads. “I started getting obsessed with that. Who is it that they’re promoting?” She “started making chicken-scratchy postings” on the ads, and found that “they were pretty consistently 80-90% male.” She soon expanded her inquiry to the gender ratio of artists who are repped by galleries, and in fall 2013, Gallery Tally entered the lexicon. Currently boasting over 1700 Facebook members, of whom Hebron estimates roughly 450 are actively involved, Gallery Tally essentially puts pictures to the numbers, adding punchy graphics to the cold hard facts. Members of the collective are invited to create posters visualizing the male-to-female ratios of artists repped by contemporary art galleries; posted on the group’s Tumblr and Facebook sites, the images are also displayed in exhibitions at university galleries and alternate spaces.The posters are as witty as they are diverse. The one for Saatchi Gallery, in London, wryly shows two teas bags framed by orange stains next to one that stains scarlet, to illustrate the gallery’s two thirds male roster. Two designs for New York’s Mary Boone overlay Barbara Kruger-style strips of text atop irate female faces to spell out that gallery’s 84% to 16% male-to-female ratio. A poster for LA’s eminent Blum and Poe, shows a pencil drawing of Robin Thicke standing over a prone Miley Cyrus to depict that gallery’s 89% male contingent. “The Guerrilla Girls [offer] a unified aesthetic, they come at it basically as one author, whereas Gallery Tally is a collaboration of individuals, each with their own aesthetic,” Hebron notes. “The data is just the data. But how the data is visualized is contingent on the individual. I think one of the reasons the project has been so popular, is that it’s so accessible. It gives a relatable way to engage in activism…”
Enhancing the dramatic disparity is that fact that, Hebron estimates, roughly 65% of art school students are female. “When you look at who gets successful, who, when, or why, you also look at the commodification of the art market,” she observes. Unlike some, Hebron sees her students as eager to embrace the feminist label. Even so, she observes that students as a whole don’t quite understand what’s ahead of them. “They’re bright-eyed and eager. Art schools are predominantly female, and they haven’t yet made it out into the real world, seen the market.” Hebron sees the lack of gender parity as deeply engrained by historical conditioning. “I don’t think I’ll see it in my lifetime,” she sighs. “But nothing’s going to happen if we don’t talk about it.” Her newest project is tallying the artists featured on the covers of Artforum: to date, she tabulates just 18% are female.
One of the few leading galleries to rate a 50/50 ratio is Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. “It’s not by accident,” Vielmetter says, firmly. “It’s extremely important to me that I have… gender equality in terms of the numbers in my program. It goes to the very core of my program.” One of LA’s most successful and respected dealers, Vielmetter started her gallery 15 years ago. “I haven’t always had 50%, it’s not always economically viable,” she recalls. “But it was always a very important part of my goal… In the beginning, when I wanted to open the gallery, I was so young and naïve, I saw it as a way to show what wasn’t being shown anywhere else.” Beyond the gender divide, she notes pointedly, a similar dynamic “could also apply to the race divide.” From the start, she has seen her gallery as “a stage for the widest possible, diverse chorus of voices.” But, she adds, “Diversity cannot be diversity if you don’t have gender equality.”
“It’s not as if collectors come in and say ‘no’,” she explains. “If you look at the numbers, the statistics, female artists are selling at lower price points… It’s a reality. Also, female artists are not represented as well in museums, so they don’t have the same demand. If a male and female artist start at the same time, the male artist’s price will go up faster,” she states frankly. “The larger a gallery gets, the more expensive to run, the lower the percentage of female artists.”“I’m not saying that male collectors are engaging in this conspiracy, or anything,” she notes. “But your first inclination is that you relate to something that comes from the same context, it’s easier to relate to.” As a result, she thinks the inequality of assigned value is largely unconscious. “It’s as unconscious as the fact that women don’t earn the same amount as men, it has everything to do with the market,” she says. “There’s a vague, subconscious impression that the work is not as valuable: economically, art historically, on every level.” As a result, Vielmetter states, “If you want to tap into the most underrepresented segment of contemporary art, it’s female artists. They’r
e extremely relevant, extremely smart, and extremely undervalued.”
Assessing the roots of that disparity, she says it all goes back to a basic fact: “that 90-95% of all collectors are men… Historically, there are very few female collectors who made their own money, and therefore had unlimited power on how to spend it.” She adds, “The tragedy is, that’s the art that will end up in museums… I don’t mind what’s shown in galleries; that’s a private venue. But when it gets to museums, it’s defining us. The culture that is known.” She continues, reflectively, “I don’t think that there are any evil-doers out there. It’s human nature… I have conversations with collectors about this all the time… It’s really more of a reflection of the economic system, in every aspect of public American life. And I don’t see that changing any time soon. I don’t think that will change until there are more female collectors.”
Certainly, there has been visible progress in recent decades. In Los Angeles alone, there are prominent women curators in leadership roles at LACMA, MOCA, and the new Broad Museum; the Hammer is a rare example of a museum that’s almost entirely run by women (coincidence or not, it’s also consistently among the smartest). There are, as always, numerous female gallerists. But the challenges facing female artists in the commercial art market, whose works are not as highly valued by the moneyed elite, presents a more intractable problem. After all, the issue of gender inequity extends far beyond the crisp white walls of the art world, from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to Hollywood, and beyond. No matter how diverse they are, critics and curators are not the ones who actually buy the works. Neither are that wiry chick and scruffy dude nursing their Tecates next to you, at that opening. The 1990s saw a new brand of female art stars such as Rachel Whiteread, Kiki Smith, and Janine Antoni, make their mark; how are their works being valued? Are they being prominently featured in museums’ permanent collections? The stakes are not just whether female artists have an equal chance to make a living, but ultimately, whose visions and voices our cultural institutions will champion as the aesthetic legacy of our era.
The notion of examining narratives and viewpoints that usually aren’t told goes to the root of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s practice. In 2012, having just received her MFA from CalArts, Hinkle was the youngest participant in the Hammer’s “Made in LA 2012” survey. As both a female and an African-American artist, Hinkle navigates several social labels: “as Dubois said, this double-consciousness, triple-consciousness… I’m used to my body being coded,” she says. In her series The Uninvited, she focuses on “these black female bodies, how they’re mythicized, eroticized: how the same body can look different to different eyes… When I was in Spain in 2008, I was mistaken for a West African prostitute,” she recalls. “At same time, I found these ethnographic postcards…” She started using them in collages, mixing in painting and drawing, examining the idea of “disease as a metaphor for colonialism, the body as host, with mutated cells… It’s beautiful, but it’s also kind of grotesque, you see these women’s eyes looking back at you.”
Although she shows with Jenkins Johnson in San Francisco and New York (who took her work to this year’s Volta fair in March), she doesn’t yet have an LA gallery. “My definite motivation for staying here after CalArts is that I felt there wasn’t enough representation of black female artists in the LA art world. So I felt this would be a great space for me to share my voices about race and representation from a black female perspective.” She adds, “I love LA! I love working here… I feel I have the freedom to be myself, with my crazy conceptual ideas. There’s a lot of my ‘sheroes’ who are here: Betye and Alison Saar, Brenna Youngblood, she’s on fire. Michelle Papillion, a young woman of color with her own gallery.”
Fittingly, when Papillion recently moved to a site in Leimert Park, Hinkle took over her old storefront space on the edge of downtown. She intends to use it both as a studio, and as a space to stage her own events as part of her ongoing work, called The Kentifrica Project. As the Kentifrican Museum of Culture, the space will become a pseudo-natural history museum, with “exhibitions and events, artifacts, a reading room…” Like other artists working on the periphery of LA’s commercial art market, Hinkle is essentially creating her own artistic space, both physical and conceptual. In addition to pursuing her artwork, she notes, she also does “workshops, panels: an alternate economy.”
“I’m not saying that I want to be in a space where what I do is normalized, because that’s problematic too,” she observes. Even so, her question, “Who gets the opportunities to get their stories told?” remains a vital one. The fact is, Hinkle’s exploration of faces and voices that fall outside the standard white male narrative is the very thing that makes them so distinct. So Hinkle is betting that the opportunity will be there to share her vision: that the art world, and art market, will be open to embracing artists of diverse identities, whose perspectives, be they about gender or race, are expressive of ‘the other’. In a multi-cultural society, that’s not asking for much. Because, in the end, ‘the other’ is really all of us.
Mary Boone Gallery,
2”4 x 36”
Photo: Courtesy Gallery Tally