Art

An Attempt to Redefine Feminist Art Has Some Surprises

With over 125 pieces on view, Half the Picture could have been refined, showing fewer works without compromising its curatorial punch.

Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke (Crow), born Billings, Montana, 1981. “Alaxchiiaahush / Many War Achievements / Plenty Coups” (2014), from the series 1880 Crow Peace Delegation. Pigment print on paper, from digitally reproduced and artist-manipulated photograph by C.M. (Charles Milton) Bell, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, 25 × 17 in. Brooklyn Museum; Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., TL2018.8.5a–b. © Wendy Red Star. (Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

The Brooklyn Museum’s Half the Picture: A Feminist Look at the Collection pushes beyond circumscribed notions of feminist art. The introductory wall text explains that “artists included here … represent a plurality of voices advocating for their communities, their beliefs, and their hopes for equality across and between race, class, disability, and gender.” The exhibition, therefore, looks not to the artist’s gender identification but to the content of the artwork. This interpretation of feminist art makes space for artists as varied as Barbara Kruger, Dread Scott, Andy Warhol, and Vito Acconci. However, with over 125 pieces on view, the exhibition could have been refined, showing fewer works without compromising its curatorial punch.

Half the Picture is organized into themed sections: Resistance and Protest; Make America; The Personal is Political; Rewriting Art History; and No Surprise. Many works could fit into every category; one problem with such broad themes, within a large exhibition, is that interesting works are potentially lost in the crowd. For example, works by Nona Faustine, Graciela Iturbide, and Wendy Red Star deserve the focus offered by monographic exhibitions. Yet here they are presented alongside distractingly glitzy videos by Marilyn Minter (“Smash,” 2014) and Dara Birnbaum (“Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman,” 1978-9).

Nona Faustine (born New York City, New York, 1977). “Isabelle, Lefferts House, Brooklyn” (2016). Chromogenic photograph, 28 × 42 in. Brooklyn Museum; Winthrop Miles Fund, 2017.41.2. © Nona Faustine. (Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

Faustine often uses photography to explore how the body informs history and place. Half the Picture includes three photos from her White Shoes series, self-portraits in which the artist stands nude or partially nude in New York City locations that have a history of slavery. White Shoes is a powerful group of photos, one that the Museum should collect in full; images including “Like a Pregnant Corpse the Ship Expelled Her into the Patriarchy” (2012), in which Faustine lies naked and prostate along the rocks of the Atlantic coast in Brooklyn, profoundly combine titles and visuals; these works are missed here.

In “Not Gone with the Wind” (2016) and “Isabelle” (2016), both in the exhibition, Faustine confronts the camera topless, with four white baby shoes hanging from a string around her waist and a frying pan in her hand, against the backdrop of the Lefferts House in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The Lefferts were a wealthy, slave-owning Dutch family who occupied the house from 1783 to the mid-19th-century. Faustine inserts her body into the historical record of this place. 

Lisa Reihana (born Aotearoa, New Zealand, 1964). “Mahuika” from the Digital Marae series (2001). Digital photograph, 79 x 46 in. Brooklyn Museum; Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Gift of the artist, 2007.27. © Lisa Reihana
Guerrilla Girls (established New York City, New York, 1985). “You’re Seeing Less than Half the Picture” (1989). Offset lithograph, 17 × 22 in. Brooklyn Museum; Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, Gift of Guerrilla Girls BroadBand, Inc., 2017.26.22. © Guerrilla Girls. (Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

Twelve works by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide are in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection; three are included in Half the Picture. Iturbide’s lens finds unexpected forms and religious iconography, or combinations of the two, in the everyday. In “Vendedora de Zacate (Sponge Vendor), Oaxaca” (1974), a standing woman wears all white, her sponges carried on her back and forming a halo around her torso — the sacred in the mundane. The image is part of the series Juchitán of the Women (1979–86) in which Iturbide documented the indigenous, matriarchal culture of Juchitán, in southern Mexico. In “Madonna” (1981) a young mother sits with her baby near her covered breast, a crown of thorns atop her head. Here Madonna, not Jesus, wears the crown, reimagining Christian symbolism. Iturbide’s work forces the viewer to confront our own surprise at seeing women’s everyday lives conflated with sacred imagery.

Sue Coe (born Tamworth, Staffordshire, United Kingdom, 1951). “Untitled (Anita Hill Trial)” (1992). Etching on paper, 20 x 13 ¼ in. Brooklyn Museum; Gift of Marco Nocella, 2012.90. © Sue Coe. Courtesy Galerie St. Etienne, New York. (Photo: Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

Artist Wendy Red Star also engages with photography. In the series 1880 Crow Peace Delegation, Red Star comments on a group of photographs by Charles Milton Bell taken during a meeting of Crow leadership and the US government in Washington, DC. On “Alaxchiiaahush / Many War Achievements / Plenty Coups” — the sitter’s name and the title given by Red Star — the artist writes of the subject’s life: “My log home was inspired from a visit to Mount Vernon. I donated 195 acres of my land to Big Horn county to create a state park. Wendy Red Star managed my park for one year.” These notes add depth to the life of Plenty Coups, the famous Crow leader. She quotes him: “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education, you are the white man’s equal; without education, you are his victim, and so shall remain all your lives.” Red Star’s interventions enrich a group of photos that have often been perceived through lenses of ignorance and racial stereotypes.

With so much strong work by these and other artists, Half the Picture‘s curators did not need to prove a point about intersectional feminism by including works by Vito Acconci and Andy Warhol, much as they may explore gender, race, or power. Nor is the inclusion of 12 works by the Guerrilla Girls necessary; these pieces are impressive but overexposed. The exhibition is at its strongest when it advances works by under-recognized artists — for example, Judith Scott, who had Down Syndrome, was deaf, did not speak, and began making art at age 46. Her work “Untitled” (1994) is an assemblage of fiber and found objects meticulously bundled to create a wonderfully textured detritus sculpture. Complicated, eye-opening work like this, not often shown in major museums, make Half the Picture worth seeing.

Carrie Mae Weems (born Portland, Oregon, 1953). “Untitled (Man Smoking/Malcolm X)” from the Kitchen Table series (1990). Gelatin silver photograph, 31 ¼ x 30 ⅞ in. Brooklyn Museum; Caroline A.L. Pratt Fund, 1991.168. © Carrie Mae Weems. (Photo: Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum)

Half the Picture: A Feminist Look at the Collection continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn) through March 31.

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