Looking Forward Looking Back
IT seems paradoxical that in a world as purportedly radical and forward-thinking as that of contemporary art, women continue to be underrepresented. Flip through industrystandard magazines like Artforum and ARTnews, and you’ll be far more likely to encounter advertisements and editorial content about male artists than female. For artists like Micol Hebron, this imbalance is hugely problematic. A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles-based Hebron started crunching numbers to determine the breakdown of female and male gallery-represented artists. Thus began the Gallery Tally project, which has come to include input from hundreds of artists worldwide, who transform often-disproportionate artist gender ratios into politically charged, visually compelling printed pictures. In Kiki Seror’s poster, pale pink letters superimposed against a black background ask WHAT DOES 32% LOOK LIKE? The words “Marianne Boesky Gallery” appear below, but they’re cut off a bit more than halfway from the top, a reference to the fact that Boesky’s artist stable is only onethird female. A dozen or so posters from this clever ongoing series occupy a corner of the New Mexico
Paying tribute to pioneering women artists while simultaneously providing a platform for new ones, Looking Forward Looking Back is both emotionally and visually dense, offering poignant insight into the past and future of female art.
Museum of Art’s Looking Forward Looking Back ,an aptly titled examination of historic and contemporary artworks by women. Viewers may be familiar with some of the names, like Ana Mendieta and Louise Bourgeois, but others, like Ligia Bouton and Angela Ellsworth, might be new. Merry Scully, the show’s curator and the museum’s head of curatorial affairs, sees work by artists like Hebron as both an extension and renewed interpretation of staid artmaking modalities. The Gallery Tally project, for example, builds on practices of “creating alternative systems for making, distributing, and exhibiting work,” Scully said. An all-female show is one Scully acknowledged she approached with reticence. “I had reservations about putting together an exhibition that was gendered, because it seems like a binary way of thinking. But the reality is that although women are a large percentage of art makers, collectors, and viewers, they don’t have the same visibility as men.”
Around half of the works on display were either gifted or lent to the museum by prominent critic and curator Lucy Lippard, a longtime New Mexico resident who has championed female contemporary artists for decades. Lippard has remarked, “I do write about men now and then, but I mostly write about women because that’s the work I like best. When I became a feminist, I realized that somebody had to write about women’s art that was out there ignored, and it was going to be me.” It’s a special treat to see Eleanor Antin’s well-known 100 Boots postcards (which Lippard donated to the museum in 1999) on display here. In the early 1970s, Antin roved around Southern California and, to a lesser extent, New York, with 50 pairs of big black boots, which she arranged into lines or circles or anthropomorphized clusters, creating
alternately whimsical and foreboding vignettes. These were photographed and turned into postcards, which the artist mailed to recipients around the world. In 100 Boots on the Road, Leucadia, California, Antin covered a parked car with the clunky footwear: Fixed on the roof, the hood, and the trunk, with several pairs waiting their turn on the pavement below, the boots are transformed into massive, marching ants, or a swarm of wayward seagulls.
“The general idea of bringing the new and older work together was to tease out different themes and modes of working that are consistent between them,” Scully said. “The older works are like pieces of information that inform and supply a history and context for contemporary projects.” Neatly fitting into the contemporary category is Angela Ellsworth, an Arizona-based artist whose great-great-grandfather was Mormon prophet Lorenzo Snow. As a prophet, Snow was considered a “seer,” a member of the church who was accorded special audience with God. Snow also had nine wives, represented by nine life-sized bonnets displayed in the center of the exhibition space. Embroidered all over with glimmering pearls, the pristine white bonnets are also covered with thousands of sharp pins, gleaming like little daggers on the brims and trailing ribbons of each headpiece. Swirling, circular designs on each bonnet approximate the wearer’s ability to take on powers of the seer, which historically were not granted to female members of the Mormon Church.
From a distance, beloved Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta’s 1975 photograph Silueta de Cenizas: Silueta Series or “Silhouette of Ashes,” with its leaf-strewn, rocky ground, appears placidly organic. Up close, however, it looks disturbingly like a crime scene. What we previously took to be an innocuous patch of dirt in the composition’s center is in fact a human-shaped cavity in the earth — a literal and figurative imprint of the artist that we don’t just see but viscerally feel. The fact that Mendieta died in a mysterious falling death a decade after this photograph was taken imbues it with further intensity. Faith Ringgold’s White Lady is one of the only humorous works on view. The titular lady is a folk-artsy cloth doll draped in bright peach and yellow fabric, with a matching wide-brimmed hat. She’s accessorized rather hilariously with a glitzy golden handbag, a gaudy pearl necklace, and an ample bosom. The effect is equal parts bizarre and charming.
One of the exhibition’s most compelling works is also one of its least assuming: a small, lumpy wax sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, called Femme Pieu ,or “Stake Woman” (1970). Roughly the shape and size of a halved avocado, the gummy brown sculpture features two breast-like bumps at its center, a slightly protruding, head-like nubbin on one end, and a slit at the other that’s jauntily, rather disconcertingly, punctured with pins. It seems ancient and talismanic, and, in true Bourgeois fashion, a bit creepy. Hung nearby, Eva Hesse’s untitled ink wash-on-cardboard piece from 1967 is remarkably forceful, given its diminutive proportions. Framed in black, it’s a nine-by-six inch grid of 36 target-like dots in varying shades of somber grey.
Best known for her ceramics, early 20th-century artist Beatrice Wood was friends with Marcel Duchamp and other members of the avant garde, an association readily visible in a suite of seven marvelously surreal works on paper. In Untitled (Self
Portrait), Wood places a willowy feminine figure on the right side of the composition, who calmly, even smilingly, observes the ghoulish outline of a grimacing masculine figure, arms raised and hands outstretched like claws before him.
Paying tribute to pioneering women artists while simultaneously providing a platform for new ones,
Looking Forward Looking Back is both emotionally and visually dense, offering poignant insight into the past and future of female art.
The reality is that although women are a large percentage of art makers, collectors, and viewers, they don’t have the same visibility as men. — curator Merry Scully
Ligia Bouton: Understudy for Animal Farm (installation detail), 2012-2014, mixed media; left, Angela Ellsworth: Seer Bonnets (detail), 2008-present, pearl corsage pins, fabric, steel, and oak; opposite page, Looking Forward Looking Back installation view, left to right, Eleanor Antin:
100 Boots Marching, 1971-1973; Micol Hebron: Gallery Tally, 2013-ongoing; all images courtesy the New Mexico Museum of Art
Beatrice Wood: Untitled (Self Portrait), color pencil, graphite, and watercolor on paper; left, Ligia Bouton: Understudy for Animal Farm (installation detail), 2012-2014, mixed media