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Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection

Brooklyn Museum of Art, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art  October 31, 2008–April 5, 2009

Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection is a subtle chapter in the story of the Brooklyn Museum’s commitment to collecting and displaying feminist art. Burning Down the House shares a lot of artists, ideas, and assumptions with Global Feminisms: New Directions in Feminist Art, one of the largest, most ambitious, and well-publicized exhibitions devoted to feminist art in 2007. But perhaps because expectations for the current exhibition were not so high, and the curators didn’t feel compelled to provide overarching definitions of feminist art, Burning Down the House is more rebellious and complicated.

Carrie Mae Weems,
Carrie Mae Weems, "Untitled (Man Smoking/Malcolm X)," from the Kitchen Table series, 1990. Gelatin silver print. Sheet: 31 1/4 x 30 7/8 in. Image: 27 x 27 in. Edition: 5/5. Caroline A.L. Pratt Fund. Photo: Courtesy of Artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Burning Down the House makes race central to its exploration of feminism’s presence in visual art. Women of color do not easily telegraph “freedom” in American cultural perception, and so the show’s focus on race works against the assumption that bodily and sexual expression is feminist art’s central preoccupation. Early on, viewers encounter Carrie Mae Weems’ “Untitled (Man Smoking/Malcolm X)” (1990) from her Kitchen Table Series. In this gorgeously printed black-and-white photograph, an African-American woman sits across the kitchen table from an African-American man. They play cards and look at each other intensely. The man smokes; the woman’s hand curls over her mouth and she makes a sexually alive expression in her eyes. On the wall is a photograph of Malcolm X; his upraised arm makes the signature fist of the black power movement, and brings a political dimension to this subtle representation of a black woman’s sexuality. 

The work in Burning Down the House is thoughtfully arranged so that the pieces reverberate with and complicate each other. Just to the right of the video monitor playing Tracey Moffatt’s “Lip” is Edwina Sandy’s dramatic sculpture “Marriage Bed” (2001), a bed split into two triangles: one composed with thick silver nails, and the other with red roses. Clearly marriage, sex, romance, and dreams are Sandy’s primary targets, but since “Marriage Bed” is proximate to “Lip,” a video montage highlighting the subservient positions of women of color in Hollywood films, “Marriage Bed” becomes about the unhappy “marriage” between feminism’s long-standing association with whiteness and the struggles women of color undertake to make anti-racism part of feminism’s mission of equality. Right in the sightlines of “Marriage Bed” is a reminder of sex’s thorough commodification: Tracy Emin’s “Blinding” (2000), a neon sculpture of a stripper’s acrobatic silhouette. With no head, a prominently outlined vulva, and legs pulled apart to balance high up in the air, the female body in “Blinding” is so contorted it verges on abstraction, and so sexually explicit neither roses nor nails can defend against its solicitation of viewers’ full attention. 

One of the best things about Burning Down the House is that it highlights feminist artists’ resistance to entrenched ways of seeing. Hannah Wilke’s 16mm film Through the Large Glass (1976), in which she strips behind Marcel Duchamp’s “Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Large Glass)” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, makes the “stripping” in Duchamp’s title literal and suggests that perceptions about femininity are implicit within modernist abstraction. Adrian Piper’s photo and video installation “What It’s Like, What It Is, #1” (1990) recreates what it means to see from inside a black body. In a central square column are four video monitors that look out from inside a shop window on an urban street. African-American people walk by, stop and stare with expressions of disappointment and disgust. The piece is composed so viewers see themselves as the objects of scrutiny. They hear a recording in which a woman discusses the difficulty of securing any form of economic stability. On the walls behind the video, Piper has placed enlarged photographs of middle-class African-Americans in large window frames. With trees, suburban homes, and new cars in the background, these are images many people would recognize as part of their own family albums. However, placed in relation to the video, these photographs represent the work African-American people have performed creating their place in America’s image of success. Simultaneously poignant and incisive with regard to racism’s lived consequences, work such as “What It’s Like, What It Is, #1” shows that feminist art can help burn down a lot more than gender inequity if it has the space and time to articulate the depth of its arguments.

Burning Down the House reveals that the Brooklyn Museum is devoted to feminist art for the long haul. The exhibition underscores the museum’s commitment to making feminism central to conversations about contemporary art. This is a difficult and admirable goal, as exhibitions of feminist art often provoke knee-jerk contestation and complaint, particularly in a time like the present when nuanced images that signify feminism are not readily available.


Kimberly Lamm


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2009

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