Providence, RI, Feb. 2014: We are seeing the re-emergence of a decidedly generational narrative of feminism. In a recent article-turned-book for The Guardian, Kira Cochrane outlines what she calls the “fourth wave” of feminism. “What’s happening now," writes Cochrane, “feels like something new again. It's defined by technology: tools that are allowing women to build a strong, popular, reactive movement online.” The idea that contemporary engagements with feminism mark a distinctively “new” brand of feminism should give us pause. Such an argument asserts the progressiveness of history. It is difficult to see how an artist like Faith Wilding fits into such a narrative. At the age of seventy, Wilding is still making work and is enjoying her first retrospective, Fearful Symmetries, at threewalls in Chicago (read Alicia Chester's review here). Wilding’s practice is testament to the idea that such an emphasis on the “now” obscures the ways in which the “then” is still ongoing.
Wilding participated in the feminist art movement that rose up in California in the early 1970s and was instrumental in starting the first feminist art programs in the country at Fresno State College and CalArts. Though she is most well-known for her work on the collaborative project Womanhouse, where she debuted her performance piece Waiting (1972) and her Crocheted Environment (Womb Room) (1972), Wilding has been consistently producing her solo art practice of watercolors, drawings and paper sculptures for over thirty-five years. Alongside this practice, Wilding continued to foster collaborative projects and co-founded the collective SubRosa in 1998, who investigate transformations of the “human” due to the emergence of bioengineering technologies. Many of Wilding’s more personal works resonate with this collective practice. Her on-going series Embryoworlds, for example, examines the strange forms of human life – beautifully rendered in watercolor and ink on vellum – created by assisted reproductive technologies. Wilding’s threewalls retrospective is the first time that the public has been given access to her broader practice.
I caught up with Wilding at her home in Providence, Rhode Island to talk about the institutionalization of feminist art, how her personal practice has fed into her collaborative projects, and Fearful Symmetries.
Beth Capper: Can you talk about the process of putting together Fearful Symmetries?
Faith Wilding: It’s a really difficult and long process. It was a long conversation and I had to think about the limitations of the space, because I have a huge amount of work. It gave me a chance to think for a while about how one does something like this. It’s like making an archive. But I didn’t want it to be dead. I wanted, if possible, to have selections from what I was doing right at the point when the show opened.
I have so many different bodies of work, though there are certain coherences, like the body keeps appearing in all these images, the same colors recur, the medium is often watercolor, graphite, paper, ink drawing and some collage. What was really amazing to me was finding a lot of things I had forgotten I even had. I started seeing my work with really different eyes. It was a great experience, too, to have these two young women [exhibition curators Abby Satinsky and Shannon Stratton] who were really excited about the work.
A lot of it has never been shown and this subject came up surrounding this sorta “secret” work, this solo work that I do at the same time as I am often doing a public performance with SubRosa. I think since there is an archive room and there is this presence of my history in feminist organizing, the feminist art program, Womanhouse, and SubRosa, it interestingly connects to the images and drawings that make up my more personal art practice. Irina [Aristarkhova] visited me too and she also was going through my drawers and saying things like, “Faith, I’ve known you for fifteen years and I never knew you did this kind of stuff!” So that alerted me to the fact that I could surprise people.
BC: Why do you think this work was such a private practice for you when you have been so active in putting other things out there that are all in some sense about engagement with a public?
FW: Well, bits and pieces of it have been shown over the years. The first works that are in the show were part of my graduate show at CalArts! I laugh because when I put up that graduate show, they said, “We’re not graduating you, we can’t give you an MFA based on this work,” and then they were persuaded that I should be given an MFA. Miriam [Shapiro] and Judy [Chicago] said, “C’mon, Faith did Womanhouse and the Waiting piece and the Crocheted piece and now they are becoming iconic pieces,” which they have since then. That was student work basically.
That’s actually another reason why a lot of this work hasn’t been shown so much, because those became the iconic works and if I was represented in a show they always wanted those pieces. So, that’s what I became known for. Some of this work has been shown before but often the connections aren’t made. Most people don’t know that I’m in SubRosa or they only know me from SubRosa or my work with Critical Art Ensemble or Womanhouse, so they don’t associate me at all with having a private practice. I don’t want to make too much of the privacy of it but it does appear that way when you go to the show and see all these 2D works. So many people said to me at the opening, “Where is the Crocheted Environment? Where’s the Womb Room? That’s what I came to see.”
The topics between this work and my other work are very close in a way. I have always been very interested in gender, sexuality, the female body, depictions of the female body, nature and natural forms. Since my childhood I have been doing that. This private work is more – I don’t want to say spiritual but it is spiritual in a way – satisfying to my own thinking, to thinking through form and what form means to me. The kind of abstraction I use is so pleasurable, and I always say that I use beauty as a terrorist tactic, beauty as a sneak attack on someone so that they’ll look on it before they realize what it actually is. Like, a really twisted embryo that looks beautiful as I’m approaching it but then it’s dealing with assisted reproductive technologies and stuff like that. It’s like the surrealist idea that beauty must become convulsive or it must not be at all.
BC: There’s a way in which the works you are remembered for, or the work that people tend to want to show, are more event-based and spectacular works that can be more easily institutionalized into existing conceptions of what constitutes “art.” There’s a tension between your other work and this work in terms of thinking through how feminist art has been institutionalized and what kinds of practices still seem illegible to the dominant art world.
FW: Yes, that’s interesting. In the feminist art program at Fresno, we were hidden away in a studio, nobody could come in there unless we invited them, we were off campus, away from the eyes of everybody else – including men – and we just went for it. We were just doing outrageous things. We did environments. I did this really bloody, stinky environment with a disemboweled life-size image of myself lying on an altar, with bleeding Kotex’s on the walls – we were using all these different kinds of materials. Judy was watching us making cunt paintings and drawings, and she was making a cunt alphabet out of colored paper, and – she says it in one of her books – it kinda freaked her out. We were all a little bit freaked out. We used a lot of blood; we kept going to the slaughterhouse! I remember hanging from a rope from the ceiling and somebody pouring buckets of blood over me as part of one performance. I thought I would never get that dried blood out of my hair. There’s no footage of any of that. It’s just things we were trying out, and so it was very visceral. We were really trying to go from feeling to form in a sense. How could this sensation be made into a form? We were very interested in probing the sensations of female sexuality, experiences of arousal and orgasm. We talked a lot about what that feels like and how it could be represented.
We didn’t censor ourselves and that was a great thing, and it’s another reason why some of this work hasn’t seen the light of day for a long time because, once we were out in the world, we got a lot of shit. I particularly got quite a bit of shit. Mira Schor and I talk about this, because we were dubbed the “essentialist” 1970s feminists who were into cunt paintings and painting vulvas all the time, and doing Goddess imagery and all that stuff. Those accusations came from feminists too, particularly post-structuralist feminists. We were punished for that in so many ways.
So I decided I was going to do what I wanted to do in my studio and not show it to anybody. Every once in a while someone would come in and go like, “Oooh, what are you doing?” In a certain way that freed me up, just to do whatever I wanted to do, not even with any thought of showing it really. Just the fact that I had been told by the head of the art school at CalArts that what I was doing was not art, and he couldn’t responsibly give me a degree for it, that was pretty intimidating. I figured that, “OK, I’m not really an artist.”
Another story from that time is: no-one at CalArts was painting except for this one guy, I think his name was John, who was oil painting, mostly naked children, in his underground studio. I went to him and I said, “John, I want to start painting the figure—what should I do?” And he said, “Oh, you just go buy yourself a whole bunch of Playboy magazines and then you paint from those.” So I’m like, “Hmmm, I’d rather look at Goddess figurines and draw them!”
BC: So out of that experimentation, where it was very much a woman-only space, it seems like what emerged in terms of the kind of work that would become institutionalised was work that could fit into existing frameworks of what constituted good or interesting art according to the definitions of major museum culture. Would you say that’s true?
FW: Well, it hasn’t yet happened for me and it may never really happen for me, to become part of major museum culture. With some works, like Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, it was a work that was also seen as essentialist and that didn’t perhaps fit either, but then time passes and it becomes historicized. It’s what’s happening to me now; it’s what happened to feminist art in the WACK! show [WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution was an exhibition of feminist art at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Los Angeles, 2007]. It seems like once forty years have passed, people can see the work differently. Quite a few of the women artists of my generation, like Martha Wilson, Harmony Hammond – after that show – they began to get more visibility. I mean, they aren’t getting retrospectives in the Whitney yet, or in MoMA, but they are getting good shows in good private galleries, and in state museums and regional museums. There is now a sense that this is really important work in that there isn’t going to be much more of it. We’re getting old, we are old, we might be dead any moment now! So, it’s of sudden interest again. There is a certain historicizing that’s working in our favor now.
BC: I wonder if that historicization of your work and the work of other 1970s feminists worries you in the sense that by historicizing it, there is a sense that the questions embedded in those practices are no longer relevant questions. It becomes positioned in the past.
FW: From what I have heard from younger people who came to my show in Chicago, they were seeing it completely freshly. To them it wasn’t history at all. It was like, “Oh this is cool! This is radical!”—that’s how they approach it. The same thing with the Waiting piece, even though I was hoping no-one would think about that piece again, but it’s constantly being re-done. It doesn’t surprise because I actually think we are dealing with a lot of the same issues. They are still on the table: abortion, violence against women, gender issues. These are not new topics in human experience. People who have seen the work are also talking about it differently because they’re not so embedded in the context in which it was made. In looking back at some of my own images, they are not even solely about femaleness, but about certain energies and feelings, how the colors and forms are working and moving, but it’s very hard for people to talk about that, to look at the work and not come to it with all these preconceptions and prejudices. I think that’s what I am experiencing from all these younger people who don’t have that history—that they don’t have these prejudices.
ArtSlant would like to thank Faith Wilding for her assistance in making this interview possible.
(All images: Faith Wilding, installation shots of Wilding's retrospective at ThreeWalls; Photo by Clare Britt)