She. Her. Hers. Essay:
by Véronique Chagnon-Burke, Ph.D.
In 1969, Judy Chicago started the Feminist Art Program at the California State University, Fresno. The program was tailored to give young women artists the tools they needed to use their own life-experience to make art. Unlike in traditional art programs, where materials and techniques were conditioned by gender, the students were encouraged to experiment with a wide range of materials. By 1972, Chicago was working with another feminist artist, Miriam Shapiro, at the recently founded experimental art school, the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). Chicago brought her Feminist Art Program to Cal Arts and in 1972, as the school building was still not ready to move in, they rented a house which became a total work of art, known as Womanhouse. Artists, teachers, and students took over rooms and created installations such as the Bridal Staircase, the Linen Closet or the Menstruation Room, which have since become part of the canon of twentieth-century art. Commenting on the legacy of Womanhouse in an 2017 interview with Susan Fischer Sterling, the Alice West Director of the National Museums of Women in the Arts, Chicago remembers how enthusiastic she was at the public success of the work, realizing that there was, back then, an enormous interest for feminist art.
Some fifty years later, Judy Chicago is having a major retrospective, Herstory, at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, and earlier this year, her experimental videos from the 1960s and 70s, the Atmospheres Series were shown at the Pinault Collection at the Bourse du Commerce in Paris, signaling that women artists and more specifically feminist art are no longer at the margins. Many milestones have been achieved; the work of women artists has become more visible, better known, and better studied in museums and academia, despite the many global forces which do not share Judy Chicago’s enthusiasm. The art works displayed in She.Her.Hers hope to generate a similar type of enthusiasm. Our goal is to contribute to the current conversation about women artists and the female experience by making the works of local women artists more visible to the community.
She. Her. Hers. presents the works of ten contemporary women artists who, a couple of generations later, tackle some of the similar themes addressed by Womanhouse in 1972. The tensions between self-fulfillment and the restraints of society forced on women, the multiple roles women are expected to assume, the weights of historical stereotypes, and the ambivalent feelings about the domestic are still some of the issues at the heart of the works of women artists displayed in the show. But there is also an agency, a sense of empowerment, that may have been less present in the works of the earlier generations of women artists.
The diversity of their practices is also an homage to Chicago’s legacy. From natural fibers and wood, to ceramics, mylar, appropriated images, threads, beds sheets, sewing needles, discarded domestic objects, and sequins, the diversity of the materials used by the artists to transform their vision into art provides many anchor points to activate our own memories. Some of the works speak about family and community; bodies are celebrated through traces, hanging pieces; natural materials are anthropomorphized. The works of Lisa MacNamara, Sarah Huang, and Heather Couch, each on its own terms and using different artistic practices, talk about memory and connecting the self with others but also the fragile equilibrium that keeps all our lives together. Some of the artists, like Amy Broderick, use irony tinted with nostalgia, bringing us back to the idealized worlds of TV shows and magazine ads, images we can all remember. In the works of Nazaré Feliciano and Olivia Austin, there is whimsy and satire, and a certain violence in the détournement of domestic objects. Between deadpan humor and criticality, the artists embrace the domestic to better subvert it as Autumn Kioti Horne does in her performance, or Laura Tanner in her large mixed-media collages. Through their choices of material and techniques, the scale they use, from Quimetta Perle’s powerful images of women to Lisa Zukowski’s poetic abstract evocation of the body through painting and ceramics, all the works in the exhibition celebrate the singularity of ten individual artistic visions.
These artists stand on the shoulders of previous generations of women artists, artists such as Hannah Hoch, Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Laurie Simmons, and Marta Rosler. The ten artists of She.Her.Hers continue to build a multifaceted artistic narrative to make more visible the diversity of women’s experiences. They make art that is empowering and celebrate a long tradition of female agency. Their singular vision is carried by the formal qualities of their works. Led by strong, engaging aesthetic qualities, their art can contribute to the difficult conversations we need to have if we are to move toward a more inclusive society.