Canvassing a 40-year struggle
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, June 3, 2011
Early in the documentary “!Women Art Revolution” an interviewee argues that feminist art, which revelled in its own messiness, emerged as the antithesis to minimalism. This snippet is invaluable to appreciating a film that, up to that point, feels stubbornly disjointed — a string of topic- and decade-spanning interviews that shoot in divergent vectors from the subject at hand.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, an artist in her own right and part of that movement, directs and intermittently narrates this fractured set of conversations that she conducted over the course of 40 years and that recount the struggles of female artists in a male-dominated world. Her subjects include the brassy Judy Chicago, whose “Dinner Party” piece created quite the uproar thanks to its numerous depictions of female anatomy; Marcia Tucker, who responded to being fired from the Whitney Museum by founding Manhattan’s New Museum; Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta, whose husband, minimalist sculptor Carl Andre, stood trial for her murder (he was later acquitted); and the Guerrilla Girls, who objected to art museums’ insistence on showing only work by white men, with clever hijinx while wearing gorilla masks.
These were heady times. But while some of the interviews convey fascinating tales, others don’t shed much light on what must have been an epic battle. Part of the problem may be that the director knows her subjects and their histories too well. But we weren’t all there watching the struggle take place, and a more clearly stated thesis or a simple delineation of cause and effect could have gone a long way.
Still, the film does pique a certain curiosity. Leeson’s artistic alter-ego, the fabricated character Roberta Breitmore, seems like she could have been the focus of her own documentary, and several of the artists interviewed have intriguing pasts that are only superficially glimpsed in the film.
Of course, those heading to this movie may already have an appreciation for, if not a full understanding of, the feminist art movement. But the film has an obligation to educate a demographic that includes some of the people on the street who are interviewed as the documentary begins. When asked to name three female artists, most can name just one: Frida Kahlo. Clearly, there’s still work to be done.
Contains nudity and lewd language.