PRINT May 1994

Beep Beep

IN THE RUSH to herald a paradigmatic shift in feminist practice, a number of curators seem to be championing work that turns away from a prior body of mediatized feminist art (the work of Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine) and lays claim to an expanded esthetic arena. In many instances this purported shift seems to be founded on a relatively naive raiding of conventional esthetic forms—naive because the appropriation of painting and sculpture can no longer claim legitimacy simply as a “colonization” of “phallocentric” forms of Modernism.

The certainty with which curators have embraced this unsatisfying strategy actually serves to reestablish the unfortunate duality of form versus content: either the works seem to engage merely formal issues or the form becomes nothing more than a vehicle of propaganda. On the one hand, one is faced with the question of whether each new assault on Modernist protocols can ignore the values that continue to inhere in them, even though they have been written over by earlier feminisms. On the other, questions of effectiveness generate misplaced worries about whether a painting, poster, slide show, or Cibachrome is the appropriate medium for the message.

In some respects, the curators of “Bad Girls” (jointly sponsored by the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow) can be credited with having vividly brought to our attention the moment when the transgression or subversion of form becomes its renewal. But do we really have grounds to treat this work as a release from the perceived Puritanism of feminist ideology, or as a riotous celebration of a newly configured sexual body? (This seems especially pale when compared to the wide-ranging program of debate, film, and performance that was also part of the exhibition.) Most of the so-called postfeminist art exhibited here does not engage nor is it informed by recent artistic practice centered around questions of ontology and epistemology. It’s as if those sorts of concerns were viewed as inescapably tied to a masculinized theory of art, which these artists would rather ignore. The renewed investment in forms viewed as off-limits by a previous generation of feminists could present us with the possibility of a new feminist art, but only if it were—as much of this work is not—self-conscious with respect to its romp through the art-supply store.

Nonetheless, work produced under the rubric “postfeminist” has already begun to assert itself in criticism through a search for female precursors of a specific type. Louise Bourgeois is the latest icon, in keeping with the present need to reconstruct a feminist art history that supports a practice driven by a fascination with what the curators called “the power and seduction of images and materials.” As hip as this may sound, it is an inadequate foundation for an exhibition, which, as a whole, is inconsistent and uncritical: “Bad Girls” ends up suggesting that postfeminist transgression in and of itself obviates the need to address the politics of form.

Sue Williams and Nicole Eisenman seem to be key players here. Williams’ paintings draw their strength from their relentless narrative of female victimization. The simplicity of the rendering is supposed to contrast starkly with the dark message, but this spontaneity of style does not so much carve out an independent cultural space for the cathartic representation of female victimization as announce itself as ultimately part of a socially acceptable “transgressive.” Her use of artless, cartoony vignettes is full of guile and sophistication, recalling the work of other angry young artists, such as the late Jean-Michel Basquiat. Eisenman’s mural The Minotaur Hunt, 1992, suggests something else entirely: what Picasso’s just desserts would have been had Paloma had the gumption to be a bête noire rather than a fille célèbre. It’s mildly amusing, but in the end it does little more than change the color scheme of the Guernica, 1937.

What Williams’ and Eisenman’s forays into painting do provide is a foil for the other works in the exhibition. Though the works of Helen Chadwick, Rachel Evans, and Dorothy Cross form a cohesive unit, here formal experimentation leads to (weak) paraphrase. While their engagement with materials and processes is palpable, it feels beholden to an earlier model of artmaking, one that had more faith in the stability of signs and in the possibility of “decoding” them than in the experiential engagement with supposedly politically suspect media and techniques; the latter’s historically overdetermined structures of meaning ought to make them ill suited for didactic ends, though Williams and Eisenman often seem blissfully unaware of this fact.

The emphasis on the representation of the female body does link all of the works shown here, but in itself does not fully explain why they differ so radically from earlier feminist art. Different indeed is the kind of audience called into being in their presence, but perhaps unfortunately, difference cuts both ways. While the competencies required of the spectator by Chadwick’s Glossolalia, 1993, are not entirely distinct from those necessitated by an encounter with Eisenman’s The Minotaur Hunt, the factitiousness and “spontaneity” of painting, as opposed to the constructivism of sculptural hybrids, presents a more convincing totalization of attitude. And it is this sense of easy versus forced harmony that is at the heart of our perception—in this grouping—of Chadwick as “old hat” and Eisenman as “new.”

In the end, however, neither burlesques of masculinized forms nor hyperintellectual pastiches seem to me to be very convincing options with which to forge a new direction for feminist art. The subtlety of interpretation and approach required has somehow evaded these artists. We are left with the eternal return of some historically evacuated esthetic, with little sense of the importance of a “dialectics of seeing”—of looking at things and simultaneously seeing their opposite, even if the requisite cultural cues for such a reading elude us.

Michael Corris is a frequent contributor to Artforum.