LA Women: Doin It In Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building

Doin It In Public: Feminism and Art at the Woman’s Building is not a typical art exhibition which limits itself to presenting rarified and canonized art objects for public contemplation. No, this show transforms the gallery into a museum, packed to the brim with hundreds of archival documents, video footage, photographs, and other historical ephemera generated from one of the most important, yet conspicuously least-talked-about institutions in Los Angeles art history: The Woman’s Building (WB).

 

Displayed in dozens of plexi-glass-covered vitrines, these archival documents chart the history of the Woman’s Building from it’s precedents in the 1893 Columbian exhibition in Chicago, to its founding in downtown LA in 1973, to eventual closure in 1991. In the midst of this survey, the exhibition highlights the importance of the WB founders: artist Judy Chicago, designer Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, and art historian Arlene Raven, and highlights educational, activist, and exhibition programs undertaken by the hundreds of women who worked together under the WB program.  Additionally, about one-third of the cavernous gallery is devoted to installations created by artist collectives who came out of the WB, like the Sisters of Survival and The Feminist Art Workers. The Waitresses, a group formed to address the exploitation of working women, presents an installation consisting of a short-order diner table with a juke box playing narratives from women about what it’s like to work in the food service business. Visitors are invited to listen to these audio tracks while enjoying placemats emblazoned with games about famous women throughout history.

 

I had the pleasure of touring this epic exhibition with its curators, Meg Linton and Sue Maberry, who have spent the better part of the last four years, in conjunction with a selection of distinguished scholars, working to make all this temporary museological undertaking a reality. While walking through the exhibition I remark that, while many Pacific Standard Time exhibitions no doubt highlight the contributions of certain individual artists or curators, this show, while certainly positioning certain stand-outs (the founders of the WB and Suzanne Lacy are reoccurring figures throughout), is much more concerned with presenting the WB as a collective endeavor. “The woman’s building had art stars and famous artists involved, but it was a movement, a center where different people could flow in and out,” Maberry points out. Looking around at all the work unattributable to a singular creator, from documentary photographs to clandestine flyers alerting people to an unannounced protest, it becomes evident that the exhibition is more about the collective over the individual. “One of our challenges was how to present an entire building, all the activities, and the sense of an era,” Linton points out.

 

When I ask the curators to show me some of the surprises they encountered during their extensive research, Maberry, herself a veteran of the Woman’s Building, mentions that one of their most significant experiences was going through letters written to the WB from women who passed through its program, people like Adrian Rich and Margaret Atwood. “We poured through all the letters at the Smithsonian, and they are all signed ‘In Sisterhood … In Sisterhood … In Sisterhood,” Maberry recollects. The impact of this reoccurring salutation articulates a kind of emphatic solidarity, a positioning of one’s struggle as intrinsically linked to another’s.

We walk to a display case near the exhibition entrance holding a bronze workboot atop a small wooden stand with a plaque reading, “ Through the Soles: My Struggles as a Woman Artist” With love, Ten years later, Faith and Suzanne, October 16, 1980.” While discussing this odd readymade object, something straddling the line between art and the everyday, Maberry informs me that when Chicago taught the Feminist Art Program at Fresno State, she looked around the room at her students, all women dressed in sandals, and assigned them go out and buy work boots. The message was, clear: if women were going to make a space for themselves in the patriarchal art world, they would have to actually build it themselves – by hand, together. Like a gilded children’s bootie saved by nostalgic parents, this bronze clodhopper is omething that resonates as a preserved reminder of a body in a developmental stage, a memento of potentiality. At the same time, as a working-class accoutrement providing both strength and protection to its user, the heavy boot stands as an apt metaphorical entry point to the exhibition, a silent testament to a story of women building a physical, social, and psychological space of force and support.

 

As we move through the show one grouping of documents highlights the Women’s Graphic Center (WGC), which housed the WB printing and design facilities. Headed by de Bretteville, the WGC gave women the tools to design their messages and get them out to the public at a time when the means to do so were limited and expensive. “Shelia designed a lot of the work for the WB. A lot if this was her aesthetic,” Maberry points out. Looking at de Bretteville’s iconic WB poster from   depicting her signature bolt and I-screw female icons receding infinitely into the distance on a gridded plane, one can see just how prescient and enduring her design practice was, and is.

 

Poster for Women in Design, conference, designed by Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, 1975.

Linton notes that while the show is filled with printed ephemera like posters and postcards, these documents are artworks in themselves. In support, she references the Private Conversations Public Announcements project, a workshop taught by de Bretteville that inspired women to create printed material about topics they were exploring during consciousness-raising sessions at the WB.  “They are posters, developed out of their consciousness raising, but then they are put into public places where they wanted their message to be seen,” Linton says, pointing out how all this printed matter pushes the boundaries of what exactly defines “art.” One work on display from this project is The Chinese Woman by Helene Ly from 1981, a diazo print of white text on a red background, with the “W” and “A” in the word “WOMAN” replaced with the Chinese character for woman. The artist glued this print in public places around Chinatown in LA, rewriting the urban landscape while commenting on nationality and hidden female identity, for example, changing a sign reading “Grand Opening” into “Grand Woman.”

 

Another section holds documents from GALAS, the Great American Lesbian Art Show, one of the first exhibitions to showcase work by lesbian artists and highlight lesbian identity as a subject appropriate for contemporary art. Maberry points out the collective spirit underpinning this show: “They actually put a packet together letting people know how to put on the exhibition, so instead of doing just one exhibition at the WB, they wanted shows to happen all over the country, so that lesbian art shows happened all over the country at the same time… There hadn’t been anything like that before.” This kind of empowerment permeates the entire exhibition; the whole point being that if a space doesn’t exist for a certain kind of artwork – or artist – the only thing to do is to pick up the tools you’ve got and get to work constructing it.

 

“I think it’s cycling back around and I think more and more people are wanting these kind of experiences,” Linton states as we discuss the legacy of the WB, how there really aren’t many similar spaces like it left in America.  In light of the recent Occupy Wall Street protests, which once again have people working together to build solutions from the rubble of failed policy, against a backdrop of rampant inequality, this show about the community generated by the WB seems quite timely. In this way the exhibition is not simply nostalgic, but instructional, providing the opportunity to engage distant or lost methodologies for demanding and creating change, a blueprint for how to carve out a space for divergent opinions and ways of working through problems the dominant culture ignores or simply refuses to really address.

 

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