The Many Feminisms of Contemporary Art

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BERKELEY, Calif. — Like so many major exhibitions slated for 2020, New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) spent many painful months in limbo before opening at last in late August 2021, a year after intended. Originally planned to coincide with the 2020 presidential election, and initially inspired by 2016’s disastrous election results, New Time premiering right now might have seemed out of step with current events. Those intervening months have seen a global pandemic, a new Democratic administration that includes the first female, Black, and Asian VP, along with terrifying evidence of the reality of climate change. It’s a messy mixed bag that no art or exhibition could have predicted.

But New Time feels very much of our time. It is curated by Apsara DiQuinzio (now at the Nevada Museum of Art), who also spearheaded the creation of the Feminist Art Coalition (FAC) of more than 100 museums and arts organizations currently producing programs engaging feminist art and thought. New Time was one of the first exhibitions created under the auspices of FAC.

What does “feminist” mean in this context? Both New Time and FAC hold expansive takes on the term. According to FAC’s website: “Feminism is no longer a singular concept, but embraces and encompasses many different forms of thought and approaches to cultural change.” Similarly, a New Time wall label explains, “feminist art in the 21st century is multi-faceted, encompassing myriad complex issues and perspectives, and therefore cannot be reduced to a single subject, style, or agenda.” So, the plurality of “feminisms” in New Time’s subtitle is essential.

Michele Pred’s “Vote Feminist” (2020) and Luchita Hurtado’s “I Live Here” (2020–21) (image courtesy Impart Photography)

Aiming “to present a kaleidoscopic view of feminist artistic experiences since 2000, New Time includes some instructive history on the 19th-century pseudoscience of hysteria alongside 140 works by 76 contemporary artists and collectives. Yet more than looking back, New Time reveals an understanding of feminisms as a multitool for dismantling injustices, from misogyny to racism, economic inequalities to ecologic devastation, religious persecution to gender absolutism.

The first two artworks visitors see as they enter the museum are Michele Pred’s neon wall piece “Vote Feminist” (2020) and a landscape mural by Luchita Hurtado, “I Live Here” (2020–21). While “Vote Feminist” might have seemed a better fit for 2020 when it would have premiered before the Presidential election, given recent anti-abortion legislation in Texas and the California recall election aiming to replace a pro-choice Democratic governor with a front-runner Republican who opposes all abortion, voting feminist is not just always on the agenda, but feels more essential than ever.

Farah Al Qasimi, “It’s Not Easy Being Seen 3” (2016), archival inkjet print; 47 1/4 × 37 13/16 inches (image courtesy the artist, the Third Line,
Dubai, and Helena Anrather)

Likewise, Hurtado’s only mural, a striated landscape inscribed with words like SKY, WATER, EARTH, and CORPSE, speaks to Hurtado’s long engagement with ecofeminism in a moment when the earth’s ecology and climate are clearly imperiled. Hurtado passed away at the age of 99 in August 2020. Earlier that year, her retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was open just a month when the global pandemic forced it to close, a bitter capstone for an artist who was only recognized near the end of her life.

Hurtado’s life and career underlines the grim truth of one of the more famous Guerrilla Girls posters peppering the wall at the entry and exit of the galleries proper: “The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist” (1988). Number four is: “Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty.” A sad fact more than three decades later, rather than parody.

The first of the show’s eight sections is “Prelude: Arch of Hysteria,” a name at least in part inspired by a Louise Bourgeois piece inside, “Arched Figure” (1993), where a headless androgynous figure arches its torso off a striped mattress. Bourgeois’s figure echoes nearby 19th-century photographs, prints, and other images of female patients of Jean-Martin Charcot, director of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where he documented a malady he helped create of “hysterical” women. Like Hurtado, Bourgeois found acclaim as an artist late in life, and was likely one of the artists the Guerrilla Girls originally had in mind. Similarly, though well known since the 1970s, Judy Chicago, who has two pieces in the New Time section “Too Nice for Too Long,” is only now at age 82 the subject of a career retrospective at the de Young Museum across the Bay. 

Laura Aguilar, “Grounded #111” (2006), inkjet print, 14 1/2 × 15 inches (collection Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016)

There is more work in New Time than can possibly be explored in a single review, one of the pleasures and problems of such vast group shows. It can be difficult to focus and to linger when so much diverse work stands shoulder to shoulder. Though the frame of feminisms demands multiple viewpoints, including so many artists can feel like sacrificing depth for breadth. I sometimes felt the all-too familiar overwhelm of images, like scrolling Instagram when even if something interests you, you’re strangely compelled to move on.

Lava Thomas, “Jimmie L. Lowe, from Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott” (2018), graphite and Conté pencil on paper; 48 1/4 × 34 1/2 inches (BAMPFA, purchase made possible through a gift of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, by exchange, © Lava Thomas, courtesy Rena Bransten Gallery) 

That said, the pleasures of New Time are many. Laura Aguilar’s Nature Self-Portraits photographs, for example, where the artist’s queer nude torso is as eternal as any stone or any eroticized nude of Western art history. And Mickalene Thomas’s monumental “Raquel: I See You,” which also upends traditional art history by replacing male artist and reclining nude with queer Black artist and her beautifully attired Black partner. While Thomas centers Black women’s sexuality, Simone Leigh’s “Hortense” celebrates Black feminist intellectual Hortense Spillers, crowning her terra cotta bust with bright flowers, and Lava Thomas’s life-sized profile drawings, from her series Mugshot Portraits: Women of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, honor the Black women activists who have too often been overlooked.

So much of the art in New Time is savvy in assessing the past while pointing a way forward. I’d say New Time is urgent — a much overused word — but urgent doesn’t begin to express how much we need what it offers in our time of catastrophic emergencies. The wall leading out of the main galleries is lined by a series of large rose quartz discs, a collaboration by five artists — ANOHNI, Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, Bianca Casady, and Sierra Casady — from their series 13 Tenets of Future Feminism. The first disc is inscribed: “The subjugation of women and the earth is one and the same.”

ANOHNI, Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, Bianca Casady, and Sierra Casady, “I—The subjugation of women and the earth is one and the same, from the series 13 Tenets of Future Feminism” (2013), rose onyx; 50 inches diameter (collection of ANOHNI, photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)

New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century continues at BAMPFA (2155 Center St, Berkeley, Calif.) through January 30, 2022. The exhibition is curated by Apsara DiQuinzio with assistant curator Claire Frost.

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