Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution premieres this weekend, November 18-20, at the Walker Art Center. (An installation based on material collected for the film is also on display at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery until December 3.) Over the next week, three area female artists, all members of the local arts organization mnartists.org, will be contributing responses to the film on the Walker Film & Video blog; after the film’s premiere screenings, mnartists.org will also publish a roundtable discussion regarding the film. This post is artist Camille Gage’s response to the film.
A Film of Her Own
Written by Camille Gage
Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary !Women Art Revolution opens, Jay Leno-style, with Hershman stopping passersby on the street in New York City to ask if they can name three woman artists. Blank stares, skyward glances and much hemming and hawing ensue. No one can do it. It’s both humorous and disappointing to watch, a chortle wrapped in a shrug. Someone finally blurts out, “Georgia O’Keefe! That’s all I can do!,” as if naming women artists is an insidious form of intellectual torture to which no one should be subjected.
Ms. Hershman Leeson is certainly doing her part to change that. !Women Art Revolution (!W.A.R.) is a 20-year labor of love. The film is broad in its reach and intimate in delivery. Utilizing both historical performance/interview footage and more recent interviews shot by the artist specifically for the film, !W.A.R. laces together both public and personal moments to capture the bold soul of the feminist and women’s art movement of late 1960s through the early ‘80’s.
I was excited to see the documentary. My mom returned to art school in the early 1970s, post-divorce, chucking her housewife frockery for bell bottoms, giant aviator glasses, and a new attitude. The film brought me back to the art, fashion, and mood of the time, which was at once both searching and fierce—a lot like my mom, come to think of it.
!Women Art Revolution is a highly entertaining picture, and always edifying. There are solemn moments, especially surrounding the controversial death of artist Ana Mendieta at the tender age of 36, but plenty of laughter, too, as the Guerilla Girls prod, provoke and amuse. There are also moments of shrill intensity as artists argue, cajole, and grapple over the boundary lines of feminism and its impact on creative practice. And there is, of course, lots of nudity, as artists reclaim the female form, animating it in diverse performances that run the gamut of humorous, outrageous and downright scary.
But the film is not without disappointment—its exclusive focus on New York and California artists, in particular. For a film of this scope, it is a major oversight to omit mid-country artists and collectives such as the Twin Cities’ own Women’s Art Registry of Minnesota (WARM), which began in 1973 and continues as a vibrant collective to this day. This coastal myopia is doubly ironic as it perpetuates yet another form of cultural exclusion—that of dismissing as barely relevant the careers of the many artists who live outside NYC/LA. I wish that Hershman Leeson had had the funding this project deserved, and the ability to create a more comprehensive and balanced work.
As I left a special preview screening of !Women Art Revolution recently, I couldn’t help but think about Virginia Woolf. I’d read A Room of One’s Own while in art school and was deeply moved by the novel. In the 1929 book Woolf muses on the capacity of women to produce great work—as good as the best of men. She also addresses women’s lack of economic resources and its inevitable impact on their ability to create the time and space necessary to excel in their own work.
But that was then and this is now, right?
In !W.A.R. Hershman Leeson mentions, not without irony, her own futile attempts to sell her art work. It has only been very recently in her long and productive career that she has begun to command the attention of collectors.
Which brings me back to the story of my mom: After her divorce, we moved from a nice house in what would soon become the suburbs to a small, rented place. My mom raised four kids on an office worker’s salary, with a bit of help from her family and none from my dad, who was wrestling his own demons at the time. Before long, under those circumstances, she dropped out of art school a second time and soon stopped making art altogether. She was probably 39 when she threw in the creative towel, her potential buried under the heavy responsibilities of single parenting.
In my dining room, I have a lovely intaglio print of a melancholy Virginia Woolf. I purchased the print at the Women’s Art Institute art sale. It was a fundraiser, of course, to try to keep the program going. In the print, by Minneapolis artist Debra Bruers, the novelist gazes directly at the viewer with eyes both sad and hopeful. As a visionary artist, Woolf likely had a good idea what the future held for creative women, and the prospects were dim.
New York Magazine’s art critic Jerry Saltz, who has taken the issue of gender equity in the arts as something of a personal mission, places the Museum of Modern Art‘s collection at 94% male artists and 6% female. Further, according to the latest census statistics, women still earn only 77 cents of every dollar earned by their male counterparts in the work force. In fact, women’s wages have increased just a half a penny on the dollar over the past four decades—the period covered by !Women Art Revolution.
All told, Hershman Leeson’s documentary is an invaluable contribution to the art historical record and a powerful reminder of just how far women artists have come—and how terribly far there is yet to go.
Camille J. Gage began her creative journey in her teens, writing music and touring with a variety of bands, including the all-female alt-rock band Tetes Noires. She later segued into public art and mixed media performance, often with a topical edge, and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Gage’s work has been shown at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), The Weisman Museum, and the Katherine Nash Gallery, among others. She has performed at the Walker Art Center, the MIA, and First Avenue in Minneapolis, as well as many venues in New York City including The Bottom Line, The Knitting Factory, and Folk City. Her work is in numerous individual and institutional collections, including the Walker Art Center, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Boston Scientific, The Family Housing Fund, The Minnesota Historical Society and Carleton College. Gage is also one of the founding members of Form + Content Gallery, an artist’s cooperative in Minneapolis. Her website: http://www.gageart.net/