To paraphrase a dead white guy completely out of context, it’s the best of times and worst of times for American women today. Taking inspiration from the Occupy Movement, the Guerrilla Girls are Not Ready to Make Nice, and remind us that although the Mad Men era of discrimination might be gone, men still primarily hold the bulk of the world’s privilege, power and money. Riding on the social and institutional critique they started in the 1980s, the group of masked art-world players aren’t changing their formula much, but have found a current relevancy with recent media noise about the battle for reproductive rights, a conservative-led new misogyny and the predicted end of the wage gap.
The exhibition at Columbia College focuses on the Guerrilla Girls’ work from the last decade with much of the work being shown in the United States for the first time. Archival materials are spread through two geographically separated spaces, the A + D Gallery and the Glass Curtain Gallery, and the program also includes workshops and student exhibitions as part of a yearlong fellowship from the Ellen Stone Belic Institute for the Study of Women and Gender in the Arts and Media. Divided into the examination of sexism in the art world and beyond, the posters and banners carry the same thread from the Girls’ work in the '80s and '90s, relying heavily on pithy observations, tongue-in-cheek advice and striking statistics in bold fonts.
Guerilla Girls, The Birth of Feminism Movie Poster, 2001- 2012; Courtesy of the artists.
The Guerrilla Girls have always been better at the message than putting it in attractive packaging, with the exception of the iconic appropriation of Ingres’ famous Grande Odalisque, crowned with a Gorilla head set against a yellow backdrop under the titular question, "Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?" Also on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art is This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s, where a Girls’ flier, though historically vital to the section on gender examinations in political art, feels dull amidst the poetics of Jenny Holzer and the strong advertising aesthetic of Barbara Kruger.
Obnoxious font choices and crude graphic design is partially purposeful, but it gets distracting in works like Disturbing the Peace/Troubler le Repos (2009-2012) where quotes from Confucius to Eminem are scattered around a “brick” wall in a faux-street art style. Nevertheless, I’m immediately conflicted with my feelings about Picasso--the creator of Guernica, a timeless protest image of the violence of war, and the man that said, “There are only two types of women—goddesses and doormats.” More content that stuck with me included the acknowledgement of society’s increasingly comfortable use of language like “bitch,” “pussy,” and “cunt,” juxtaposed with the fact that many intelligent people that advocate for women's rights will not self-identify with the term “feminist.”
Guerrilla Girls, Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum? 1989 - 2011; Courtesy of the artists.
In 2011, the Guerrilla Girls reprised the question "Do Women Have to be Naked to Get into the Met. Museum?" The short answer is still yes, as statistics have changed little over twenty years later. In another recent work, created specifically for the show, they ask the question more locally. Chicago Museums: Time for Gender Reassignment cites that the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern galleries are 90% male, and, not surprisingly, the names of artists inscribed on the building’s façade--Donatello, Memling, Botticelli--exclude females. The most staggering numbers state that 82% of artworks in the contemporary galleries of Art Institute are by men and only 20% of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s solo shows the last two years have featured women artists.
There's no question that women have more opportunities to curate, study and make art than they ever have before, and I comfort myself with the fact that I can name a female artist with a solo show at each of these Chicago museums (and a major all-women surrealist show at LACMA) on view now and in upcoming months. The Guerrilla Girls think that's not enough, and they are absolutely correct. Making work about discrimination and misogyny will always be important, but right now is also an opportune time to challenge feminism's alleged progress.
(Image on top right: Guerrilla Girls, Where are all the women artists of Venice?, 2005-2010; Courtesy of the artists and A+D Gallery)