SAN FRANCISCO — Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here, currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is a much-deserved retrospective for a prolific, pioneering artist whose socially engaged work has never been more timely. Even across two venues, the exhibition can barely contain nearly five decades of effusive productivity that includes photographs, video, installation, texts, maps, recordings, sculpture, performances, and more — mostly done in collaboration with others. Some viewers may find this range overwhelming, but despite the abundance, Lacy’s art is always recognizable as hers. From her earliest social practice pieces in the 1970s, her work has confronted issues of gender, violence, race, aging, and capitalism, among other pressing sociopolitical concerns, through a striking visual language that is at once alarming, witty, moving, eye-opening, and, often, beautiful.
Lacy’s themes are spelled out before you even get to the seventh floor at SFMOMA. The stairs from the ground floor to the exhibition spaces bear messages in black letters on yellow: Who’s winning the war on women? Is VIOLENCE gender neutral? Whose LABOR is invisible? Lacy similarly lined the front steps of the Brooklyn Museum in 2013.
Other pieces in the retrospective have been “reactivated” (Lacy’s term) at SFMOMA, which looks at the artist’s entire career, and at YBCA, which focuses more on her collaborations with Bay Area youth. It’s a somewhat depressing commentary on social progress that her work has proven perennially relevant. Violence against women, for example: In 1977’s Three Weeks in May, Lacy stenciled RAPE in red on a map of reported rapes in Los Angeles — heavy red print for those officially reported and fainter red stamps for the estimated nine other rapes statistics say go unreported for every one that is. By the end of three weeks Lacy’s golden map was covered in a red web of RAPE. In January 2012, she created a new version. Both are profoundly disturbing, but aesthetically appealing. “I care about the look of these things more than anybody would realize; I believe in that level of attention to detail,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “It’s not a strategy — more recognizing that people are moved by visually powerful phenomena.”
Lacy’s Alterations, originally done in 1994–95 and reactivated now at SFMOMA, likewise reflects multiple social issues — women’s work, immigration, patriotism, capitalism — while nodding to conventional depictions of women in art. In Lacy’s piece, women hand-stitch fabric from towering piles of red, white, and blue cloth that are replenished every evening, creating an endless stream of work that calls attention to San Francisco’s own garment district, where mostly female immigrant labor sews to feed America’s consumer maw, and to feed their families. Sewing is a double bind for women in art, signifying both virtuous women’s work and sex (the old in and out).
The Circle and the Square (2015–17), an event and installation in an unused textile mill in Pendle, England, similarly engages with the textile industry, immigration, global capitalism, and community. Part of a two-year collaboration with In-Situ, a local nonprofit, along with an interfaith initiative called Building Bridges Pendle, a film documenting one of the events broadcasts sacred music through the gallery, while side-by-side screens contrast mostly white participants on the left and mostly Sufi on the right, singing and chanting together.
What struck me most in moving through the arc of Lacy’s career is what varied and thoughtful work she’s produced decade after decade. Some of this sustained energy is no doubt, at least in part, the result of her preference for collaboration. The show’s thorough, excellent catalogue lists two full pages of collaborators, from all walks of life and experience.
Maybe it’s coincidence, but the further into the exhibition I went — passing pieces on animal cruelty, aging, plastic surgery, rape, and other forms of violence against women — the fewer people were with me. By the time I reached the back wall, only two other women were still looking. One said, “Let’s change, Joyce. This is dealing with some very heavy subjects,” and they went back the way we came.
It’s too bad, because the history up ahead was not to be missed — for example, maps, photos, and telegrams from International Dinner Party, an homage to her former teacher; to mark the 1979 opening of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party at SFMOMA Lacy organized more than 200 women to host dinners worldwide. It was a pre-internet feat that included such significant artists as Mary Beth Edelson, Ana Mendieta, and Louise Bourgeois.
Lacy’s passion for bringing people together is a hallmark of her work. In Dinner at Jane’s from 1993 she invited an international roster of feminists to Hull-House in Chicago for dinner and discussion. Watching the documentary of legendary activists like Dolores Huerta, Devaki Jain, Wilma Mankiller, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Gloria Steinem talk, listen, and eat with gusto is profoundly cheering. At one point in the film someone asks Susan Faludi to speak up, saying she’s too quiet. Faludi responds, quietly, “I write very loudly.”
I somehow doubt that anyone has needed to ask Suzanne Lacy to speak up, but who knows? Her art, though, is unapologetically loud, discomfiting, demanding. I’m here for it.
Suzanne Lacy: We Are Here continues at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 Third Street, San Francisco, California) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (701 Mission Street, San Francisco, California) through August 4.