Envisioning Feminism 

A personal invitation

"If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution."

Emma Goldman, feminist activist, iconoclast and writer of the early 20th century, supposedly made this rebuke to a young man who told her with all gravity that "it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. I told him to mind his own business. . . . [that] I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." (from Living My Life, 1931)

Feminist self-expression via the contemporary arts of painting, sculpting, architecture, performance and film is the theme of "The State of Feminism in Visual Culture," a panel discussion to be held in Colorado Springs this Saturday. Sponsored by the College Advisory Committee of the Denver Art Museum and a collective of Front Range colleges and universities, it is presented under the auspices of UCCS and the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, which is celebrating its founding by three women 65 years ago with a year long tribute to "Art and the Politics of Gender" that concludes March 2002.

Don't let the academic name of this free event scare you. "We especially invite men and women who may not have firm or positive preconceptions of feminism to participate," says Melinda Murphy, public programs manager at the museum. UCCS professor Kathy Andrus adds, "This is a forum, not an agenda to indoctrinate people to one way of thinking. It's an examination of where we've been and how we can continue to move toward equality and respect."

While the centerpiece of the day is a "high level, intellectual dialogue" between the audience and internationally known art historians, the symposium also presents a stimulating variety of arts experiences from a broad range of ages and races. Local Kennedy Center Poet Laureate Stacy Dyson will perform "Black Diamonds," a reading and a cappella performance that features "music and insight into a world that will lead the audience to cry a little and think a lot about the life and times of a black woman's loves, history, revolution and self-image."

The mask art of Senga Nengudi, an instructor at the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at UCCS, will be on display and Katy Rogers, alumna of UCCS' 2001 class, will report findings from her survey of young women re-defining feminism today.

Local figure Elizabeth Wright Ingraham will present "Notes from the Journal of a Woman Architect," while Dr. Judith Wilson of the University of California's African-American Studies and Art History Department will explore "Down to the Crossroads: Race, Gender and Visual Theory." The controversial decision by feminist Karen Finley to pose in Playboy will be raised for discussion by California State University's Dr. Amelia Jones in "Morality in Feminist Art."

"there is no goddess here

no china shepherdess in long skirts and fragile smile

only a woman (with all that is implied)..."

-- Stacy Dyson, 2001

Visual culture, from religious icons to adult film images, has offered the concept of Woman as Object -- someone who can be handily possessed or dismissed. Feminist art is one means of reclaiming visual culture to depict truth as it is experienced by diverse women.

Like women themselves, feminist art presents complexity . . . even paradox. As the symposium organizer Dr. Joanna Roche, Ph.D. of Contemporary Art History at California State University at Fullerton, says, "Art comes from the individual yet helps us to understand our experience of an historical moment." Without contradiction, it is both intimate and universal.

Roche believes it's even relevant to the recent terrorist attacks. "This art has the possibility of giving us ways to not only understand tragedy, but to also discover new perspectives for healing it globally. Feminist art may have begun in the '70s as intense self-examination for women, but it has increasingly become politically charged, joining all genders, classes and races to ask the question: How do we live in good conscience in such a privileged culture?" Or, to paraphrase feminist matriarch Germaine Greer, "I have no truck with . . . feminism that is concerned only with self-recognition and self-realization ... [and that doesn't] care that the dress you're wearing was made by a 12-year-old in a Bangkok sweatshop or in a Toronto sweatshop."

Roche continues, "I don't see feminist art as putting up walls between men and women. I think it opens up the possibility of all people exploring 21st-century global politics in fresh new ways."

The Front Range Symposium will be held in the Music Room and theater of the Fine Arts Center. The event includes a free continental breakfast and afternoon reception of wine and hors d'oeuvres.

"Beautiful, radiant things" included, naturally.

Depending on who you ask, Judy Chicago is either inconsequential, contributing only briefly to the landscape of visual art over the last 30 years, or one of the most influential artists of the last 30 years, leaving an indelible mark on the medium and forever solidifying what came to be known as feminist art. Either way, there is no denying she's worth talking about -- and her work is worth seeing.

Many were first introduced to her work through her 1971 groundbreaking collaboration with Miriam Shapiro, known as Womanhouse, where every room of an old condemned house was turned into an installation depicting mental, emotional, physical and cultural aspects of womanhood. Chicago's own installation in particular, called "Menstruation Bathroom," drew huge attention. Incorporating several months' worth of (used) tampons and pads, she forced the acknowledgment of menstruation and all the hidden waste that accompanies it.

Chicago's other defining piece is "The Dinner Party," an enormous triangle-shaped table with full and ornate place settings. It is a tribute and memorial, representing women's contributions throughout Western history.

There is no doubt that Chicago was one of the first to incorporate the feminist perspective into visual art, opening doors for other female artists to fully express themselves as women, while at the same time stimulating thought about a taboo subject matter. Whether you consider that consequential is up to you.

A retrospective of her work opens to the public this Friday at the Fine Arts Center and runs through Nov. 25. Included are 83 pieces, sampling the major projects of her career. Chicago will be there in person to open the show, talk about her works and sign her new book.

-- Suzanne Becker


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