Critics’ Picks

Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to Be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?, 1989.


“Public Works: Artists’ Interventions 1970s–Now”

Mills College Art Museum
5000 MacArthur Boulevard
September 16–December 13, 2015

In 1970, Bonnie Ora Sherk sat placidly in various locations around San Francisco. Her resultant “Sitting Still” series, 1970, small-scale performances that were at once personal and subtly political, is exemplary of this exhibition’s focus on simple acts in public spaces. Here, work by more than twenty female artists ranges from iconic posters by figures such as the Guerrilla Girls and Jenny Holzer to recent projects by local artists such as Amy Balkin and Favianna Rodriguez. Among several new commissions is an arresting graphic mural by Susan O’Malley on the exterior of the museum that declares “You are exactly where you need to be.”

Politics takes many forms within the exhibition. Stephanie Syjuco derides gentrification in Bedazzle a Tech Bus (I Mock Up Your Ideas), 2013–14, for which she crowd-sourced proposals for art to wrap around the infamous tech bus, now bedazzled with the likes of a portrait of Edward Snowden and Craigslist ads for overpriced apartments. Less mordant and more optimistic, Candy Chang’s removable stickers that read “I wish this was . . .” invite New Orleans residents to share their hopes for vacant buildings. Environmental concerns loom large throughout the show and are perhaps best represented in documentation of Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation, 1982, her famed two-acre golden wheat field planted in lower Manhattan. Meditations in civic squares by artists such as Coco Fusco and Sharon Hayes are also particularly pertinent in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

The curators’ decision to underemphasize an exclusively female roster is political in its own right. Avoiding the temptation to ascribe certain qualities to work by women, the exhibition deflects focus from gender to the potentiality of art outside a traditional context.