Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art attempts to counter the emboldened pussy-grabbing culture with its Riot Grrrls installation.
Male artists are disproportionately presented and compensated so the MCA borrowed from the early 1990s Olympia, Washington, feminist punk movement – ‘zines and bands like Bikini Kill – that espoused “mastery, innovation and chutzpah that requires no outside [or male] validation.”
MCA’s collection is sparse – a small 4th floor corner – which is a commentary itself (and located next to a glass wall rather than under a glass ceiling). The ten large, abstract canvasses ponder “the buoyant and gutsy, tender and sinister, messy and meticulous.”
Jackie Saccaccio’s 2013 Portrait (Stubborn) is an explosion of colors and drips, which she achieves by shaking the surface after painting.
The same year, Judy Ledgerwood put large silver zigzags from textile design, “women’s work,” on her Sailors See Green, superimposed over an Indian subcontinent-inspired palette of pink, orange and sea green.
Also in 2013, Amy Feldman’s Heavy Vector utilizes drippy paint, which she characterizes as “punch lines,” but her colors are black and white in a thick vaginal “V” supporting her self-explained style as “big and bad, bleak and tragic and beautiful.”
Mary Heilmann’s 1999 Metropolitan takes B&W chess squares and weaves red honeycomb lines on top – perhaps attempting to crack the male-dominated NYC art scene in the 1960s when she began to work in minimalism.
Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, who grew up in Riot Grrrl central, was inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, also the name of this 2011 piece, both about “the rich inner life of a neurotic young woman.” The canvas looks most punk with thumbtacks and graffiti spray paint.
German (the other artists are American) Charline von Heyl (who works in Texas) produced the vibrant Alastor (a Greek myth character who exacts revenge on wrongs committed by men) in 2008, a riot of shapes, handprints and gears in blood red and saturated yellow, earning the artist’s note that her paintings “impose themselves and insist on being seen.”
Modern mythology manifests in Silver Batman II, Joyce Pensato’s 2012 loose, also drippy, interpretation of the male mask.
Love Letter to a Violet provides the only full face in the collection, Ellen Berkenblit’s 2015 oil and charcoal depicts a full-lashed, barrette-clipped lady opening her mouth to the purple flowers and the yellow sky.
Second wave feminist Ree Morton said that her transformation from housewife to artist at age 29 was “a classic, out of the kitchen and into the studio.” One of the Beaux Paintings (#4) (1975) is a 2D red and yellow bow on a starry field, framed/confined by 3D sea green and blue strips.
The Riot Grrrls exhibition is memorable but too small. To increase your ever-timely estrogen infusion, visit the other parts of the MCA as well. The photography exhibition Witness, which runs through February 12, features images from the 1960s-2000s by femme phot-ales including Sophie Calle, Sharon Lockhart, Cindy Sherman and Carrie Mae Weems’ images of African-American themes.
Yet the most powerful female is the building is nameless; she is a Sudanese child. At the end of Witness is the video installation The Sound of Silence by Alfredo Jaar (2006). The minimal, meticulously crafted, powerful and poignant narrative in a box recounts the story of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter and how his photo of a starving girl, crawling toward a food station, garnered him a Pulitzer and profoundly affected his life.
Riot Grrrls might have inspired Russia’s dissident Pussy Riot band’s name, and the brief movement passed the torch from late 20th century feminism to this brave new world. But does the use of Girls, even spelled with a growl, reduce women to juvenile status, just as the rise of concurrent “Pantsuit Nation” social media movements might have empowered women only if one wears a traditionally male clothing uniform?
Women still fight for a place at the table, literally and figuratively, and will have to fight harder in days to come. This week I’m heading to the Women and Children First bookstore to pick up a handmade hat (women’s work) to wear to the Women’s Riot, I mean, March on Washington. It’s a pink pussy.
Riot Grrrls runs through June 2 at The Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, 312-280.2660; $12 single admission; $7 for seniors and students; free for kids 12 and under, for military members, and for Illinois residents on Tuesdays.