The Art of the Second Wave

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Author: Margaret Gallager

Pacific Standard Time is an ambitious collaboration that chronicles and celebrates Los Angeles’ transformation into a center of artistic innovation. More than 60  institutions across Southern California are showcasing art made in L.A. from 1945-1980 over the next six months.

“Doin’ It in Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building” is a superwoman effort to illustrate the 18-year history of the Woman’s Building and give insight into the incredible force and directness of the feminist movement in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s.  The feminist motto “the personal is political” resonates with a shout throughout the photos, artwork, documentation and design showcased at the Ben Maltz Gallery of Otis College of Art and Design.

The Woman’s Building was a non-profit arts and education center that offered a nurturing and empowering space  for women who were finding their voices, and a platform from which to launch powerful and evocative artwork and political initiatives.  It was founded in 1973 by a trio of passionate women including Judy Chicago, famous for founding the Feminist Art Programs at Fresno State and CalARTS. A video at the beginning of the exhibition takes a look inside the Feminist Art Program, showing Chicago’s students practicing her “Cock and Cunt Play,” a tongue-in-cheek production in which two women don oversized male and female genitalia and the “woman” is beaten to death by the “man’s” cock for requesting help with the dishes.

The exhibition narrates the history of the Woman’s Building with ephemera such as a list of classes offered to the public, including “Assertiveness” and “Photographing Your Own Work,”  that helped women artists develop both personal and professional skills.  The center hosted conferences and workshops that brought together feminist thinkers and artists, and considered the issues facing women. A flyer announces a presentation by Ntozake Shange, the author of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf,” an experimental play turned into a feature film in 2010.

The highlights of the show are the work of several feminist performance collectives whose work stems from the Feminist Studio Workshop, the feminist education program run by Chicago and her collaborators before moving into the Woman’s Building.  A five-foot-tall photograph of two warlike women dressed as Viking-warrior-waitresses arrests the eye. One brandishes a sword and a shield that is an enlarged dime, while the other scouts terrain with a pair of binoculars. They are the Waitresses, a group of women with 14 combined years of waitressing experience who humorously entertained audiences while bringing attention to the working conditions, such as sexual harassment and low wages,  of women in service jobs.

Another photo shows two women from Ariadne: A Social Network, a different women artist collective with roots in the Woman’s Building. They stand on a street corner of L.A. next to a stark, crime-scene-style outline of a woman’s body on the pavement.  To bring attention to the shocking prevalence of rape, they drew body outlines around the city in locations where rapes occurred.

The exhibition features photos, videos and information on many other outspoken groups that were associated with the building, including the Lesbian Art Project, the Incest Awareness Project, Feminist Art Workers, and Sisters of Survival, a group that donned neon-colored habits to protest nuclear armament, in addition to many more.

The Woman’s Building also had its own print shop, the Women’s Graphic Center. As well as offering classes in printing, it housed a professional typesetting shop. Included in the show is a legacy of countless hand-printed publications, posters and prints. Particularly interesting is “The Postcard Project: Celebrating our Heroines.” Produced over three years, more than 300 participants printed a postcard about a female role model. These range from Gertrude Stein to Gaia to an artist’s grandmother and are beautiful, personal insights into the passions and aspirations of these artists.

A poster by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, a graphic designer who was one of the founders of the Woman’s Building, uses the language of art to engage her viewers by referencing a broadside, a large sheet of paper printed on only one side. She asks, “If this were your broadside, what would you say?” It is an eloquent expression of the show’s underlying theme: the Building was a physical location that allowed countless women to find their voices and channel their creative energy.

The exhibit sadly documents the struggle for funding that culminated in the closing of the three-story red-brick on North Spring where it was housed. Protests and passionate appeals couldn’t prevent it, and the old brick building now sits quietly across from a desolate seafood packing plant just outside of Chinatown. While its current residents and the youthful partygoers and homeless people that wander near its walls may not be aware of its history, its legacy has not been forgotten.

“Doin’ It in Public” is a cheeky reminder of the power and passion that moved so many of the women of our mothers’ generation. The show is representative of the intense political and creative focus that these women artists brought to bear in their collaborative work and their very lives. Just as the founding women of the Woman’s Building did not quietly come or go, this exhibition does not invite peaceful retrospective contemplation. Instead, it shouts. It demands to know, “What would you say?”

“Doin’ It in Public” runs until Jan. 28 at the Ben Maltz Gallery of Otis College of Art and Design. Admission is free.

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