NOVEMBER 20, 2017
Featured Image: Radical Women, Installation view, Sin Titulo (Untitled), 1970, by Gloria Gómez-Sánchez
Banner Image: Installation view, Radical Women at the Hammer Museum, foreground, Popsicles by Gloria Camiruaga; background, works by Sonia Gutiérrez
THE FIRST THING you see when you enter the space of the exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 at the Hammer Museum is a lightweight structure adorned with row upon row of tiny sheets of pink paper clipped to taut string with wooden clothes pins. Each paper contains a written question in Spanish or in English, including, “What was your most recent experience of sexual harassment?” and, “What have you done to fight sexual harassment in Los Angeles?” An individual viewer’s personal response completes each question, breathing life into — and providing an emotional context for — the sea of rectangles and words. This project is a recreation of El tendedero (The clothesline), Los Angeles, 1979, by Mónica Mayer, a feminist artist and activist from Mexico who also studied and worked in California. It’s part of the Hammer Museum’s powerful contribution to the Getty’s tour de force Pacific Standard Time LA/LA, a series of more than 70 exhibitions focused on the relationship between Latin America and Los Angeles. PST LA/LA opened in September to popular and critical acclaim. Radical Women is a bold highlight, both for its array of work, much of it little known to American viewers, and for its prescient point of view on art, women, politics, and public space.
The day after Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985 opened, the actress Amber Tamblyn published an op-ed in The New York Times. The two events share little beyond a topic and timing; Radical Women is a survey exhibition of art by women from Latin America, by birth or by heritage, that provides that rare occasion when the word “awesome” seems wholly appropriate; the editorial was penned by an individual woman, a white American celebrity, in an internationally recognized paper of record. But both speak to truths that pervade the worlds of contemporary art, Hollywood, academia, business, tech, and so many other realms of influence: patriarchy has a stranglehold on culture, the powerful get more airtime (or wall space), and the burden of proof lies on the side of the oppressed.
Tamblyn’s piece tackles the controversy sparked by her tweet about the actor James Woods trying to pick her up when she was 16. After the tweet, Tamblyn was publicly rebuked and called a liar. She wrote an open letter to Woods that was published by Teen Vogue (which has become an influential venue for feminist voices of late) prior to the op-ed. In the Times, she writes:
For women in America who come forward with stories of harassment, abuse and sexual assault, there are not two sides to every story, however noble that principle might seem. Women do not get to have a side. They get to have an interrogation. Too often, they are questioned mercilessly about whether their side is legitimate.
The letter included this choice phrase, “I see your gaslight and raise you a scorched earth.”
Radical Women features work by women who not only use their voice, but who also actively interrogate the system that would rob them of it. In the museum’s press materials, the exhibition is said to address “an art historical vacuum” with a powerful genealogy of feminist and radical art practices in and from Latin America. This is an apt description, and though it’s downright exhausting to think that we still need a show dedicated solely to the contributions of women artists from Latin America in order to fill a vacuum, the sad facts demonstrate that such an exhibition is perhaps more vital than ever. Certainly the organizers — guest curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta, with Hammer curatorial fellow Marcela Guerrero — could not have foreseen the deep vein of misogyny and xenophobia that our 45th president would unearth, but these realities lend a sense of urgency to the exhibition.
Leyendo las Noticias (Reading the News), a 1965 work by Marta Minujín of Argentina who also lived and worked in New York, is made up of black-and-white photographs documenting a happening in which she clothed herself in newspapers and floated on a raft in the waters of the Río de la Plata near Buenos Aires, reading more newspapers until her makeshift paper clothing was soaked and ragged. This poetic representation of the necessity of staying informed despite all odds and for the embattled state of journalism predates, and rebuts, the advent of “fake news” by several decades. Another stunning piece also has surprising political resonance for our current moment. The 1975 video work Marca Registrada (Trademark), by artist and scientist Letícia Parente, shows her sewing the crudely written words “Made in Brasil” on the sole of her bare foot. At a time when our president talks of building a wall between the United States and Mexico while corporations continue to exploit the labor on the other side of that proposed wall, the piece is especially poignant.
Radical Women is a much needed rectification of an institutionalized silencing based on gender and geography. When I walked into the space, I paused for a beat, then sighed with relief, as if I were in a room among friends. The 260 works by more than 100 artists from 15 countries are organized by categories like “Mapping the Body,” “Social Places,” “The Power of Words,” and “Feminisms,” that, I imagine, were the subject of much discussion and debate. The words I jotted down most often in my notes during my visit to the Hammer denoted integration and the blurring of boundaries: “immersive,” “amorphous,” “integrated.” Later, when I went through the catalog, armed with a stack of colored post-it notes, I found that few of the works fell easily into only one of even those broader categories I had created.
There is a presumptive divide throughout much of art history between conceptual rigor and formal processes. I see this as a direct result of the patriarchal lineage that foregrounds a Cartesian split between mind and body. It is refreshing to see this distinction obliterated over and over throughout the photographs, videos, sculptures, paintings, texts, and performances in Radical Women. The artists lived in multiple places, were mothers, daughters, wives, lovers, and, whether by interest or necessity, often studied and practiced disciplines in addition to art. The artist, poet, and editor Lenora de Barros from Brazil, who later moved to Italy, is emblematic of so many artists included in Radical Women. Her 1979 work Poema (Poem), included here, is made up of five black-and-white photographs, placed vertically on a page, that depict her open mouth and tongue tapping at and being pinched and entangled by the keys of a typewriter. This piece could be called embodied conceptualism and is as much a piece of writing as it is of photography and performance; it is also mesmerizingly direct and open, as is much of the work in the show. But while de Barros’s Poema is direct, it is not didactic; hers is a poem without words, whose silence speaks volumes.
The strongest example of the essential badass-ness of Radical Women is found in a series of small black-and-white photographs by Anna Maria Maiolino, from her 1974 series Fotomacao (Photo Poem Action). I literally gasped when I saw the image of Maiolino’s face, gazing placidly at the camera, as her hands grip a pair of open scissors that frame her nose, the two sharp blades grazing the edge of each nostril. Maiolino was born in Italy, emigrated to Venezuala in 1954, and then to Brazil in 1960. Another photo piece, Nacer y Morir de una Rosa (Birth and Death of a Rose), from 1982, by Rosa Navarro of Colombia, is equally direct but more nuanced in feeling and tone. It depicts the artist’s tightly framed face, her eyes completely concealed by two large roses. In a series of seven images, the roses begin as small buds, grow into almost comically large blossoms, and die. Several powerful works by arguably the most well-known artist in the exhibition, Ana Mendieta, who was born in Cuba but was exiled to New York in 1961, also embody this fusion of directness and mystery in their exploration of gender norms and violence against women.
Any subtitle for Radical Women would necessarily include the word “body,” the fact and meaning of which transcends categories and runs through this exhibition like a bolt of lightning. Here the body is not an object apart from the mind, to be dissected or revered, but a powerful vehicle of being. It is not only a means by which we live, breathe, and navigate the world but also the way in which the world impedes, defines, and interacts with us. We are in and of the world, and the boundaries of our bodies are necessarily porous. The self-portraits of Liliana Porter, who was born in Argentina, studied in Mexico, and lived in New York, imaginatively test the boundaries of the body. Using black lines and photographic imagery, Porter traces the connective space in and around us. One image depicts three hands overlapping to form a circle with a black lines drafting a rectangle between them. In another, a rectangle encloses a section of white space to the side of the artist as well as one eye and part of her nose.
One of the most complex and vital sections of the exhibition is titled “Resistance and Fear.” It includes works by artists who addressed the social and political landscapes of their home countries, often invoking the violence perpetrated by oppressive regimes. Most striking about this section is the degree to which bodies become patterns. In the stunning painting America no invoco tu nombre en vano (America I don’t invoke your name in vain), 1970, by Gracia Barrios of Chile, dark silhouettes loom large on a white background veering into abstraction. In the 1970 series Las torturados (The Tortured), by Olga Blinder of Paraguay, rows of finely rendered bodies are packed together like pawns or object lessons in a game played by those in power.
The following could be said of nearly every work in this exhibition, but it is surprising that the paintings and prints of Sonia Gutiérrez are not more widely known. Combining the seemingly incongruous realms of pop art and political violence, Gutiérrez depicts bodies hung and tortured by rope using a pop art aesthetic. Gutiérrez has no equal in her stark ferocity and sheer visual courage; the closest comparison would be Andy Warhol’s car crash paintings, but even these pale alongside Gutiérrez’s depictions of bound and tortured bodies.
A similar aura surrounds the video Popsicles, 1982–’84, by the artist and documentarian Gloria Camiruaga, one of the most intriguing and powerful works I have seen in years. It shows a series of young girls eating colorful popsicles that, when licked down to the nub, reveal plastic soldiers at their cores. I am still mulling over the visual beauty, layered implications, and dark revelations of this compelling piece. I wondered why I hadn’t seen it until this year, why I hadn’t come across Camiruaga in one of the many art history classes I’d taken or the thousands of museum and gallery exhibitions I’d seen in my lifetime. Is it because she is from Chile? Because she is a woman? Because her work sheds light on abuses of power? Violence against women? Is it gender, topical, geographical, temporal, or some other bias that has kept her work, and the works of so many of these artists, from me and from so many viewers and readers and students?
The need for a series of exhibitions like this one is apparent if depressing. Not long ago — though it was pre-election, so it feels like another time — one of my female students asked if I had seen a student exhibition down the hall. She was visibly shaken. I remember the moment well, because she is tough and smart and does not ruffle easily. I went to see it and found paintings reminiscent of imagery repeated on a seemingly endless loop on television, from snippets of the nightly news to promos for crime dramas, scenes of beautiful young women lying limp or dead. Whether intentionally or not, these mostly male student artists appeared to reify and reiterate the casual misogyny of this now familiar type of image. I thought about the way the omnipresence of such images can numb us to the facts behind them. Not long afterward, I created a short performance about these issues and offered it in my socially engaged art class. I wore all red and changed the position of my body from low to high as I spoke a text I had written that explored the many ways in which women are continually silenced. I called the piece So Tired, but when filing the project away, I remembered it as So Angry. What stood out to me most was the response of my students; at the conclusion, I asked if anyone had had the experience of not being respected or heard. The young women in the class looked at the floor and shuffled their feet. Afterward, a few of them came up to thank me and share personal stories that sadly exemplified ingrained sexism. This was two years ago, and we were still in the dark. Would those girls speak up now? Would you?