London Student

Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s at The Photographer’s Gallery

Huddled in a box on the fourth floor of 16-18 Ramillies Street is a naked woman. Hunched over, hugging her folded limbs, the female figure stares into the corner of her cramped confinement. Questions abound at the sight of her impressive contortion. How did she come to be here? Is she trapped in the cardboard container? Is this a failed attempt at self-concealment? Should I help her out or discretely replace the paper flaps?

Kirsten Justesen’s ‘Sculpture #2’ (1968) © Kirsten Justesen / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna.

This photographic optical illusion, a now iconic work in the repertoire of Danish artist Kirsten Justesen, is one of many culturally and conceptually challenging pieces to feature in the latest show at The Photographers’ Gallery. Like most of the 150 works that make up the Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970s, Justesen’s body-art-installation, ‘Sculpture #2’, playfully prises open the box woman often finds herself consigned to. Literalising the metaphor, ‘Sculpture #2’ is a powerful attempt to lift the lid on the oppressive social constraints placed on women in the late 60s and 70s.

Framed by the parameters of her box, Justesen’s model is at once an object for voyeurs and a bodily site for political and creative potential. ‘Sculpture #2’ encapsulates what many of the exhibition’s 47 other artists aim to do: to re-evaluate and interrogate the boxed-in space allotted to women through the medium and power of their own bodies. Whether it be in the radically aggressive photographic work of VALIE EXPORT or the now-famous personas of Cindy Sherman, the female body is a locus of ideological contention, a means for artistic reinvention and a tool for political agency. To engage with the naked female body in this exhibition is to reassess the representation and social construction of woman itself; to undo the straitjacket of stereotypes, to mock traditional codes of gender and reveal, sometimes subtly, at others violently, the intimate truths of lived feminine experience.

In Ana Mendieta’s 1972 work, ‘Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints)’, the female body, supposedly free of its box, is distorted and pressed against another restrictive surface, that of a plexiglas pane. Squashed and swollen, Mendieta’s facial features become a parody of beauty-ad ideals and cosmeticised conceptions. In this circus of deliberate distortion, where eyes and lips are freakishly distended, Mendieta powerfully subverts normative depictions of female beauty. It is the grotesque, obscured and uncanny body in Mendieta’s work that according to critic Kelly Baum is used as a ‘weapon’. That is, deformity, ugliness and disconcerting dehumanisation are, in Mendieta’s body-art, an exposure and confrontational debunking of racial and gendered assumptions poured onto the female form. By forcefully imprinting the plexiglas onto her face, Mendieta humorously reminds us that ‘ceilings’ are yet to be broken when it comes to an inclusive, healthy and liberating visual representation of woman.

Ana Mendieta’s ‘Untitled (Glass on Body Imprints)’ (1972/1997) © The Estate Ana Mendieta, courtesy of Galerie Lelong, New York / The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna

If Mendieta harnessed her distorted body as a weapon, a place from which to critique the limited social attitudes wrapped around the female figure, artists such as Hannah Wilke and Ulrike Rosenbach cite their bodily and creative power through the inclusion of an actual gun. In ‘Art is a Criminal Action, No.4’ (1969-1972), Rosenbach duplicates herself alongside Andy Warhol’s pop-art piece, ‘Double Elvis’ (1963). Almost identical in pose, dress and manner, Rosenbach’s photomontage disrupts gender binaries and overturns the notion of the passive, docile, victimised female. Her potent, gun-wielding woman, legs astride and threateningly autonomous, gives Elvis, and Warhol for that matter, a run for their money. Written in felt-tip pen across the service of the print, ‘Art is a criminal action’, Rosenbach naughtily highlights the anarchism involved in both the feminist and artistic cause. Her iconoclastic insertion of herself into Warhol’s print seeks to redress the exclusion of women artists from the canon and to underscore their commercial invisibility in comparison to their male contemporaries. Unboxed and with a steady aim, Rosenbach’s duplicate, like all of the artists who make up this show, isn’t afraid to pull the trigger for the feminist cause.

The exhibition is free before 12.00 and runs until 29 January.

Featured image: Ulrike Rosenbach’s ‘Art is a criminal action No. 4,’ (1969) © Ulrike Rosenbach / DACS, London, 2016/ The SAMMLUNG VERBUND Collection, Vienna.