The Perfect Man Show
White Columns January 9 – February 10, 2007
For an artist born with such enviable pedigree, Kiki Smith earned her reputation through downtown nouveau. Playing a seminal role in activist/artist collectives in the 1980s, Smith should be considered the venerable godmother of the downtown art scene, currently resurging in the Lower East Side. Yet her just-closed retrospective at the Whitney Museum went grossly amiss, shutting the door on a past era rather than igniting a dialogue with the new one. In Smith’s “Untitled III (Upside Down Body with Beads)” (1993), a bronze female figure stood ass prone, feet planted in her own excrement, rendered in a beautiful pool of beaded glass. The work ostensibly addressed disease and the body at war, yet such a glamorized representation seemed disconnected and almost disingenuous.
Cue Lizzi Bougatsos’s own back-facing statue, recently on view at White Columns. In Bougatsos’s rendition, the figure’s feet were cemented into orange caution cones, steak knives jutting out through its plastic ass. Topped with a cured, cow-tongue cock, “Resisting Gluttony” stood in direct response to Smith’s opulence—and as the model gatekeeper to The Perfect Man Show. This group exhibition, curated by Rita Ackerman, featured mostly female artists, but no sign of the perfect man. The exhibition was more interested in the opposite of perfection, aggressively carving itself away from a palatable and prescribed ideal.
In the center of the gallery stood Agathe Snow’s “Gender Reality Fitness Engine,” an exercise machine for making art with blood from a sex-change operation. Scrapped together with wood, an electric fan, sponges and household items, its obvious dysfunction succeeded only in making it more back-alley and barbaric. The tongue-in-cheek instructions for operating the machine were full of non-sequiturs in the biological debate, from “understand the opposite sex” to “ambition makes the man.” The machine’s product—hysterical, bloody body prints—were purposefully, and thankfully, not realized.
The Show seemed to affirm a significant moment in feminist art’s self-actualization. Snow’s mock machine teased the lame body print, while simultaneously setting forth its own gendered agenda. Artists making feminist art today are self-possessed enough to lay ownership to its legacy, use its multiple strategies, and to critique its history. While humor and satire have long been a strategy of feminist art—Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen is a prime example—humor was used to challenge the establishment, not itself. Feminist art’s renewed power and viability may come down to its well-earned confidence not to take itself so seriously.
This could explain the kind of unhinged theatrics that defined much of The Show, with a focus on masking and disguise. Outsider Artist Aurie Ramirez’s painting of a clown removing a ceramic mask to reveal a face identical to the mask was so kitsch that it transcended kitsch. The mask asserted itself in images of fetish gear, in photocopy collages, and in divine aliases like Shoplifter and P-Orridge. Destructive bad-boys in Hanna and Klara Linden’s video, Techno Battle, assaulted each other wearing skeleton masks—though suspiciously feminine hair flowed out from under their hoods.
Guerrilla tactics abound, though Ackerman and her crew have gained critical attention that is arguably more insider than Outsider. Still, The Perfect Man Show was a smart and solid effort, and decidedly a taste of things to come. With Wack! Art of the Feminist Revolution opening next month at MOCA in Los Angeles and traveling to PS 1, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art opening at the Brooklyn Museum, and “The Feminist Future” conference kicking off a commitment to feminist scholarship at The Museum of Modern Art, the history and practice of feminist art will be at the forefront of institutional discourse. And as contemporary art, driven by the market, increasingly reflects rather than resists apathy and conservatism, it’s not a moment too soon. Last month at MoMA—Lucy Lippard heralded this confluence of exhibitions, and the political provocation of feminist art—to be the one thing that might “shake us out of our stupors.” Let’s hope.