Galleries

Angry Art Letters on the Lower East Side

by Rachel Wetzler on February 3, 2011

Eileen Myles, "Dear Ridykulous" (2011) (all photos by the author) (click to enlarge)

Ridykeulous, founded by artists Nicole Eisenman and A.L. Steiner in 2005, describes itself as an effort to “subvert, sabotage, and overturn the language commonly used to define feminist and lesbian art,” primarily through exhibitions, performances, and zines. Attacking the marginalization of queer and feminist art as “alternative” cultures, they insist upon participating in mainstream dialogues about art and culture; in adopting the role of curators and organizing exhibitions, Steiner and Eisenman forcefully insert themselves and their collaborators into the spaces, both literally and figuratively, of the art establishment. Inhabiting a commercial gallery, albeit one known for its adventurous programming, rather than an alternative space allows the artists and curators to critique the art world and its practices from the inside, drawing directly upon the symbolic associations of the gallery space and the implicit dynamic of power it represents. Though not all of the artists in Readykeulous are female, nor do they all identify as queer, they share an interest in disrupting the status quo.

Tracy Emin's “Your Name Try CUNT INTERNATIONAL” (2004) and K8 Hardy's "Dear Reena Spaulings Fine Art" (No date given) (click to enlarge)

Though the show is positioned within the traditional context of the commercial gallery, the display and format of the exhibition is decidedly unconventional: works are pinned haphazardly to the walls and clustered together in vitrines, covering virtually every available part of the gallery. In one corner, an old television monitor stacked on a pile of books displays Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s video “Eva Adolf Braun Hitler” (2002) with a manila folder containing a selection of samples from Ridykeulous’s “Man Art” archive on top; lining the doorway between Invisible-Exports’ two rooms is Catherine Lord’s “Global Feminism” (2011), depicting the covers of various international editions of Valerie Solanas’s S.C.U.M Manifesto. Steiner and Eisenman make no distinction between discrete works of art and letters or texts by artists; a piece like Tracy Emin’s “Your Name Try CUNT INTERNATIONAL(2004), a wall-mounted sign in lurid pink neon, is placed alongside an undated letter from K8 Hardy to her gallery, Reena Spaulings Fine Art, in which she lambasts their attempts to interfere in an exhibition of her work and what she describes as the “patriarchal view of success” that equates sales with cultural relevance.

Catherine Lord’s “Global Feminism” (2011) (at top)

The exhibition check-list similarly provides titles, dimensions, and media for each item, regardless of whether it is an email printout or a painting. Each artist’s contribution is treated equally, rejecting the hierarchal division of different modes of artistic production and the privileging of that which can be easily sold. The lack of wall labels distinguishing between works adds to the sense of a collective project; this isn’t the sterile white cube of reified objects and quiet contemplation, but a space in which various voices demand to be heard.

Louise Fishman, "Letter to my mother about painting" (1972-3) (click to enlarge)

As the curators point out in the press-release, “we have chosen at this point in time to highlight our letter-writing skill-set,” and the majority of the show is dedicated to what participating artist William Powhida described as “angry letters.” The display encompasses archival correspondence, works of art incorporating text and other fragments, including a sticker placed below Louise Fishman’s six-panel painting “Letter to my mother about painting(1972-73) reading “How’s My Painting? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT,” as well as ephemera related to past Ridykeulous activities. The confrontational tone of the exhibition is immediately apparent: the first work on view is a dry-erase board with a message by poet Eileen Myles reading “Dear Ridykulous, Today I’m just pissed I have to think about your fucking show. –Eileen.”

Ridykeulous's archive on display at “Readykeulous”

Recognizing the subversive potential of humor, Steiner and Eisenman provide a long list of things they deem to be wrong with the world, ranging from Russian nesting dolls to “the military-industrial-pharmaceutical-artworld complex,” and “the lack of Sleep/Christmas/Corn Syrup Chain of Signifiers/Absence of Leisure Time to Make Art and Write, etc./Our Educational Cultural Indoctrination System Which Turns Lumpen Dull-Witted Three-Year-Olds into Massive Raving Homo-Bashing Tumors Stewing in Hot Tubs on their Own TV Shows/Axis of Evil,” suggesting that the exhibition might serve as a tool for the re-education of a misguided public.

Many of the works offer a similarly satirical take, lampooning various aspects of the art world. Kathe Burkhart’s massive painting “Suck My Dick” (2004), from her Liz Taylor series, depicts the actress unzipping her pants to reveal a massive black dildo attached to the canvas with the words “SUCK MY DICK” emblazoned over her body in turquoise paint. Lined with singed rejection letters received by the artist from museums, galleries and publishers, the painting is a bold message of contempt for her detractors. Gary Gissler’s painting “Fucking Asshole” (1998) appears, at first glance, to be a minimalist grid, but upon closer inspection, its gray lines are revealed to be the phrase “fucking asshole” scrawled repeatedly in tiny letters; William Powhida’s drawing “Rant” (2010) contains a profanity-laced diatribe against Bravo’s reality television show “Work of Art,” painstakingly rendered by hand in various typefaces.

Carol Schneeman's 1978 letter to Cee Brown (click to enlarge)

However, other pieces in the show, particularly those drawn from actual correspondence, allow the content to speak for itself, revealing the structures of power artists must navigate in order to participate in the art world. Harmony Hammond’s Small Erasure series is made from altered copies of letters she received while compiling her book Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History, the first in-depth survey of its kind, including legal documents served by an unnamed artist who wanted her work removed from the manuscript. Hammond covers the documents in latex, partially obscuring the text, a comment upon the erasure of lesbian artists from art history. Likewise, a letter sent by Carolee Schneeman to Cee Brown in 1978 describes her frustration and anger at the precariousness of her financial state and the unwillingness of institutions to compensate her for her work: “I am in no position to support the efforts of institutions… and they ask constantly that I be not only a raw, free, creative resource but that my time and effort for their/our concerns be made available with no recompense.”

Many of the artists in the show are involved in W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy), an activist organization co-founded by Steiner dedicated to advocating for fair compensation of artists by institutions, indicating that Schneeman’s concerns are still valid today, over thirty years later. As the artists in Readykeulous argue, alternatives are possible if artists insist upon being heard. The exhibition offers a scathing critique of the art world, but also a celebration of those who have taken a stand.

Readykeulous: The Hurtful Healer: The Correspondence Issue at Invisible-Exports continues until February 15 2011. It is organized by Ridykeulous (Nicole Eisenman and A.L. Steiner).

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