A feminist art show might strike some as a stale proposition at this late date. Then again, with chauvinist-chic TV shows (Mad Men, Pan Am, The Bachelor) all the rage, maybe it's perfect timing for Body Gesture: A Group Exhibition of Feminist Art. This final salvo in Elizabeth Leach's yearlong series of 30th anniversary programming is a museum-quality show, thoughtful and provocative as it explores feminist themes such as body image, gender polarization and a woman's right to choose. Many among the 17 artists in the show hail from the movement's heyday in the 1960s and '70s, but several younger artists rode in on feminism's second and third waves.
One of these is Gen X'er Nicole Eisenman, whose mixed-media print, Brillo, depicts a box of the eponymous wire pads collaged with a nude female figure. Eisenman has covered the figure's underarms and nether regions with willy-nilly scrawls that look like hair, confronting the viewer with cultural expectations about beauty, naturality and the multimillion-dollar business of feminine depilation.
Another confrontational piece, Sophie Calle's Histoire vraies, L'amnesie, fills a large-format, black-and-white photograph with a man's body: his head cropped out, arms thrown seductively back, his penis tucked out of sight between his thighs, in what is colloquially known as a "mangina." Even in 2012, it's still a little shocking to see a man subjected to the same brand of objectification that women have endured for millennia. Take, for example, the cropped-out head. Women's heads and faces have never been all that relevant in art, from the faceless Venus of Willendorf (24,000 B.C.) to the paintings of Pop artist Tom Wesselmann, who gave his famous female nudes big, succulent lips but no eyes and no noses. Apparently, what is important in Western art is not a woman who can see or breathe, but one who can suck dick. Calle reverses the standard patriarchal tactics, though, disarming us by depersonalizing and emasculating her male subject. Elsewhere in the show, Jenny Holzer's scrolling horizontal sculpture uses text to critique gender expectations, while Rachel Lachowicz employs makeup to parody the male-dominated minimalist art movement. Then there's Alexis Smith, who recasts Robert Indiana's famous LOVE composition as LUST, reclaiming the arena of sexual desire for women, a not entirely uncontroversial endeavor, even in the 21st century.
In fact, work across the gamut of Body Gesture implies that during the half-century since Gloria Steinem-brand feminism kicked in, some aspects of being a woman have improved, but others have gotten worse. Today, with entire generations having grown up after feminism's flowering, many women are ignorant of the battles waged by elder activist sisters. All too willing to take the movement's hard-won achievements for granted, many young American women have become complicit, even gleeful, participants in their own objectification. Maybe we haven't come such a long way after all, baby.
SEE IT: Body Gesture: A Group Exhibition of Feminist Art is at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. 10:30 am-5:30 pm Tuesday-Saturday. Closes Jan. 28.