New York

View of “Andrea Bowers,” 2011. Collaged posters: The New Woman’s Survival Guide, 2011. Framed, from left: Wanted By the Law, 2011; Angela Davis—You Are Welcome in This House (In Honor of Julian Madyun), 2011.

View of “Andrea Bowers,” 2011. Collaged posters: The New Woman’s Survival Guide, 2011. Framed, from left: Wanted By the Law, 2011; Angela Davis—You Are Welcome in This House (In Honor of Julian Madyun), 2011.

Andrea Bowers

Andrew Kreps Gallery

View of “Andrea Bowers,” 2011. Collaged posters: The New Woman’s Survival Guide, 2011. Framed, from left: Wanted By the Law, 2011; Angela Davis—You Are Welcome in This House (In Honor of Julian Madyun), 2011.

Published in Berkeley in 1973 and edited by Kirsten Grimstad and Susan Rennie, The New Woman’s Survival Catalog is a gazetteer of second-wave feminism, a directory of the era’s woman-run bookstores, law firms, credit unions, health clinics, and more. Andrea Bowers, whose documentary practice consistently considers grassroots activism, takes the Catalog as the context for “The New Woman’s Survival Guide,” her latest project. Or is it the project’s pretext? Or simply its text? That is, does gallery-based art borrowing content from an almost-forty-year-old activist sourcebook produce an independent work in dialogue with that activism? Or does the show become an exercise in radical chic and nostalgia? Or is the exhibition simply a way to bring a vision such as that found in the Catalog back into public space?

Such questions, of course, have to do with tensions regarding spectacle, commodity, and the power of aesthetically savvy political commitment. These fascinating problems are the substrate of Bowers’s art, as seen in works about the AIDS Quilt (The Weight of Relevance, 2007), tree-sitting (Vieja Gloria, 2004), and the racially coded media coverage of the deaths of two aid workers, Faiz Ali Salim and Marla Ruzicka, in Iraq in 2005 (Eulogies to One and Another, 2006). In these and related pieces, Bowers has evolved a visual vocabulary of posters, banners, books, and videos, along with a drawing practice centered on handmade, exquisitely accurate copies of documents and photographs. Video was absent in the recent show, but posters, drawings, and an artist’s book kept the questions front and center.

The gallery was gridded on three sides with pages from the Catalog, enlarged to poster size and alternating with placards from now and naral marches, anarchist actions, and many other organizations and protests, up to and including Occupy Wall Street. Herstory heroines from Ida Tarbell to Angela Davis to Wonder Woman—who is brandishing a glowing speculum—appeared. Michelle Obama popped up as Rosie the Riveter. A bumper sticker admonished, WHEN YOU FINALLY REALIZE CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL, TRY NOT TO BLAME FEMINISTS AND GAYS. Interspersed with the archival materials were colorful wallpaper-like panels created by Bowers herself—flowers and butterflies, cheery geometrics, sparkly gold.

Eight larger framed images, rendered by Bowers in silvery graphite, hung atop the poster installation, foregrounding wittily militant graphics and slogans; The Discovery of the Clitoris, 2011, for instance, gives us a group of Matisse-y dancers helping one another perform the act at hand. There were also six pencil drawings in which Bowers has pain­stakingly copied letters from a Planned Parenthood campaign called “Make My Story Count” (“I am in the military and they do not always provide family planning services . . .”). On the wall not taken up by the posters hung four more pencil drawings (two of which compose a diptych) depicting figures floating in negative space. These are portraits of demonstrators photographed by Bowers at last year’s May Day march in Los Angeles, where she lives.

The room had a festive feel, and the swirl of verbal information attracted rather than overwhelmed the eye. Bowers, like her anonymous collaborators, knows how to make you want to read. She also deftly handles the issue of wallpaper. These relics of street protest and community self-help, denatured by the white cube, flatten easily into decoration. Yet it is their job, as agitprop, to demonstrate mass: lots of voices expressing anger, vitality, solutions. It makes sense, therefore, to paper the walls with them. More problematic was the artist’s book. A pendent to the wallpaper work, it presents the suite of 446 posters bound between orange linen covers. The massive tome was set out on a table, inviting viewers to look through. The shift between wall and book, crazy-quilt array and pages to be contemplated one by one, also fit the project: Mass demonstrations require many individual commitments. But on two recent visits, gallery staff hastened to intervene, explaining that the object is unique and too fragile to be handled without supervision. In an instant, the scrappy celebration collapsed into fetishistic luxury. Bowers typically donates 5 to 10 percent of her sales to the causes she investigates, and Planned Parenthood LA benefits this time. It would be compelling both conceptually and ethically for the artist to integrate that aspect of her endeavor more fully into the fabric of the work. In the meantime, let’s hope the precious thing, unsullied by the hoi polloi, sells high.

Frances Richard